Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.
— The Dalai Lama
Peace Through Peaceful Means
by Betsy Crites
I dimly remember that day in late August, 1963, when my
parents and I walked across Memorial Bridge to join the March on
Washington for Jobs and Freedom. We had just moved to the
Northern Virginia suburbs the year before. I was 12 and still
homesick for the farm in Colorado where I’d grown up, so more
than anything I remember the crowds — I’d never seen so many
people together. I later learned, neither had anyone else.
Now in my 60s, I look back and marvel at how Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr., and the civil rights movement set the direction for
my life. Not only did they bring together 250,000 people — the
largest peaceful gathering the country had seen up to that time
— but more importantly, their nonviolent methods and example
allowed all of us working for a more just and peaceful society
to expand what we thought possible. We know now that large-scale
social progress can be accomplished through peaceful means. In
fact, it is the only way to achieve such progress.
As I plumb the depths of nonviolence, I’ve also learned that its
power goes beyond effective strategy for social movements. It
can also effect profound changes at the individual level. The
discoveries of Dr. King, Mohandas Gandhi, and many others going
back to the Buddha and Jesus have shaped my journey as a peace
activist and guided my aspirations to be a person of peace.
The seeds of my activism planted that day on the Washington Mall
grew in the direction of U.S. international relations, peace,
and nonviolence. I was a student in Peru in 1970 and later
joined the Peace Corps in Honduras. A few years later my husband
and I returned to Guatemala where I worked as a health educator.
These were particularly volatile times in Central America.
Witnessing the impact of U.S. economic and military intervention
became the frame for my understanding of the violence that
consumed the region for the next decade and beyond.
We returned to the U.S. in 1981 so that I could pursue my
Master’s in public health. As soon as I finished my degree,
however, my attention turned back to Central America.
The rising tide of violence during the 1980s that swept the very
countries where we’d lived tore at my heart. President Reagan
thought he saw the specter of communism spreading from Central
America all the way to Texas. His response was to direct the CIA
to arm and train the Nicaraguan contras and to send military aid
to the brutal military regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala.
There was some truth in the CIA’s intelligence. Many of the
revolutionaries in Central America were influenced by Marx; some
believed in a collective economy, some were armed, and some went
to Cuba for training. But most people fighting in Central
America, with or without guns, were responding to the extreme
disparities in wealth, the oppression of poverty, and worst of
all, the violent repression of military dictatorships. For the
vast majority, the poles of communism and capitalism were
Unfortunately, the President greatly oversimplified the problems
and exaggerated the threat to the U.S. Consequently, U.S.
military and economic policies caused immense unnecessary
suffering and death.
As with most public discourse in America, this conflict in
Central America became polarized. I know that I avoided ever
mentioning the presence of Marxist revolutionaries, so as not to
trigger the fears and distortions that were endemic to the Cold
War period. Some discourse was just too emotionally charged to
In hindsight, I know I might have approached this challenge with
a spirit of truth seeking, spoken out of my own experience, and
acknowledged dispassionately whatever piece of the truth emerged
from the opposition. This is no easy task; our media thrives on
controversy, and the system is set up as a competition between
adversaries. As a society we value winning above truth and
perception above reality. Our painful divisions leave us
immersed in a battle of wills and all too often, in the
international arena, in a battle of militaries.
One of the most difficult things seems to be to hold one’s point
of view lightly, remain open to new information and to all
points of view, and be rigorous in the search for truth. My
contribution in the 80s would have been much more valuable had I
fully appreciated this aspect of nonviolence.
When possible, nonviolent movements employ traditional methods
with patience and persuasion. For most successful movements,
however, there eventually comes a moment, a tide when “taken at
the flood” leads to a major shift in collective perception. It
may be that historical conditions create the moment or the
nonviolent actors may stimulate the conditions or a combination
of both. Ideally, those actors will recognize the moment and
step up their game.
In a highly charged and sometimes dangerous situation,
nonviolent activists have an opportunity to draw upon their
inner resources to call up voluntary sacrifices in hopes of
pulling the parties into another level of “conversation.” Gandhi
described it this way: “Things of fundamental importance to the
people are not secured by reason alone but have to be purchased
with their suffering… if you want something really important to
be done you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move
the heart also.”
The risk comes because there is usually no way to predict the
full range of the consequences. It is the willingness to expose
oneself to harm — rather than inflict harm — that can change
hearts. Many remember videoed scenes of police attacking Civil
Rights activists with fire hoses and dogs. People were beaten
and jailed, and the sight of this abuse shook the national
A young demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in
Birmingham, AL, in May 1963. Scenes like these helped
usher in the nation’s landmark civil rights law,
the 1965 Voting Rights Act. © Bill Hudson/AP
The effort which I became deeply involved in — Witness for Peace
— was an experiment in this same tradition; personal risk and
sacrifice were a way to awaken the awareness of wrongdoing.
In 1983, three dozen people of faith from North Carolina
traveled to the Honduran/Nicaraguan border to witness personally
the impact of U.S. policy. Within weeks of their return they
organized a second, larger group of 150 people from 32 states,
to return to that border and continue providing a peaceful
presence as a deterrent to violence. A few months later, Witness
for Peace (WFP) was launched as a continuous presence that stood
in defiance of the violence funded by our government.
For the next decade, I dedicated myself to that effort,
coordinating the delegation program from the States, leading
many delegations to Nicaragua and (after 1987) to Guatemala, and
later serving as director of the national organization.
Over the next few years, thousands of U.S. citizens traveled to
war-torn countries with all the dangers that entailed. The
possibility of encountering violence or being subject to
kidnapping was added to the challenges of the unfamiliar
language, food, and culture. They returned with personal stories
of the Nicaraguans and Guatemalans they had met and the
destruction they saw being wrought with our tax dollars. They
provided a powerful “witness” to their communities and to their
Congressional representatives back home.
Was there a change in policy? Though the Reagan Administration
lobbied intensely against our efforts, the pressure from
returning WFP delegates and others prompted Congress in 1988 to
prohibit future contra aid. By this point, however, the
situation had become so polarized that the Administration went
outside the law to continue funding the contras. Nevertheless,
this is one of the rare occasions when the Congress did not give
a President what he wanted in a time of foreign conflict. The
strategy to provide a nonviolent presence and to convey the
stories and testimonies of those people on the other end of U.S.
policies won a significant advance.
Why did so many people volunteer to travel to a poverty-stricken
region that had been ignored by the U.S. government and travel
agents alike? Why I was doing it was clear. I had lived in
Central America, had friends in danger, had a better than
average understanding of the history and culture of the region,
and had very deep sympathy for the people who were suffering
extreme violence as a result of U.S. military and CIA
interventions. I spoke Spanish and knew my way around these
countries. Going into war zones added some risk, and I did have
to face my fears about the uncertainties; but I knew I had
competencies for managing potential problems.
For most people, however, the 2-week “delegation” required
genuine courage. The trips to Nicaragua and Guatemala meant
entering an unknown hostile environment at considerable expense
and risk. WFP made clear in its two-day orientation that this
would not be a vacation. We were going into zones of military
conflict. In spite of that, people choose to “stand with” the
Nicaraguan people suffering the effects of U.S. intervention. It
somehow captured the imagination. Many people were outraged by
the rhetoric they heard from the White House and inspired by the
idealistic goals that the new government of Nicaragua seemed
committed to. With this outrage came energy; we provided a
constructive channel for that energy — a way for many people to
act on their conscience.
In order to create a shift, the nonviolent activists may
voluntarily endure hardships, injury, and even death to reopen a
path to positive change. The Civil Rights movement, Witness for
Peace, and many other organized efforts in nonviolence have
broken unjust laws or otherwise exposed themselves to the fury
of the opponent. They do this as a way to awaken the conscience
of the adversary and interrupt the cycle of violence and/or
awaken the public’s awareness of problems.
Nonviolence does not promise quick and easy results; but it
usually involves less injury, destruction, and loss of life, and
it generally preserves space for constructive solutions.
A commitment to truth, a willingness to sacrifice, and many
other insights and strategies have emerged from the history of
nonviolent social change. Activists and scholars have learned
some core principles which may overlap and interlock but are
worth examining separately for the wisdom each brings forth. As
more and more we integrate the principles of nonviolence into
our thinking and our lives, the more we can open to the creative
possibilities beyond force, and the more successful we activists
will become in effecting long-term change.
The student of nonviolence could begin with these:
We all have a piece of the truth, but no one has all the
truth. As clear cut as things appear from our perspective,
our opponents also believe they are right. Genuinely seeking
the truth in the opponents’ perspective helps us find some
common ground and understand their worldview. This
understanding can help us appeal to their higher nature or
at least their particular interests.
Respect everyone. The principle here is to avoid ever
humiliating anyone or accepting humiliation from others.
People sometimes change their minds, especially when given
the space to do so. When harassed or disrespected, people
defend and justify themselves to save face. Gandhi
maintained friendly communications with the British Raj
throughout his campaign to free India.
An annual vigil protesting the continued operation of the
School for the Americas at Fort Benning, GA, where training
is provided mainly to Latin American military officers,
has occurred every November since 1990.
Never be against persons, be against problems. This is
related to the above principle and opens a way to respect
the humanity of everyone without endorsing their behavior.
We can oppose ideas, policies, and actions. We can deal at
the level of problem solving, not name-calling. “The real
success in nonviolence, which violence can never achieve, is
to heal relationships. Even in a case of extreme violence,
Gandhi felt it was possible to ‘hate the sin, not the
Set constructive strategic goals, but do not cling to the
outcomes. The vast web of cause and effect is constantly in
flux, and it’s impossible to know the full range of outcomes
from any action. Dr. King wrote, “The beauty of nonviolence
is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break
the chain reaction of evil.” Through nonviolence we are
better able to achieve some positive ends though it may not
be what we originally envisioned. Our task is to stay
grounded in our principles and flexible on nonessential
Recognize that means are ends in the making. Showing
respect, standing firm with the truth as we see it, and at
times accepting adverse consequences or abuse without
retaliation will stop and even reverse the cycle of
violence. The purity of our motives and the skill of our
actions are critical and will have unforeseen positive
spin-offs. The focus for any encounter is as much on the
means as the ends.
Be prepared to sacrifice, but never intend to inflict harm.
When the adversary is unmoved and an unjust or violent
situation persists, the activists need to, as Gandhi said,
“not only speak to the head but move the heart also.” The
specter of civil rights protesters being attacked with fire
hoses and dogs shook the conscience of the nation and, I
believe, the attackers themselves.
As my understanding of these principles of nonviolence has
grown, they have provided a measure I’ve used to gauge the
efforts I want to support. A recent example is the current
Forward Together (Moral Mondays) movement in North Carolina.
Moral Mondays emerged in the summer of 2013 in response to
extreme measures taken by the N.C. state legislature, which
had passed laws refusing federal funding for Medicaid and
unemployment insurance; cut public school funding while at
the same time expanding private schools; and increased
obstacles to voting by the young, elderly, poor, and African
American. These and many other policies seemed designed to
favor wealthy, white constituents and reduce government by
and for the people.
The Moral Mondays protests in Raleigh brought together
broad coalition of faith groups, civil rights groups, women’s
rights groups, immigration rights groups, and others.
The leadership of the state’s NAACP seized this moment to
lead a nonviolent response. Like many of my cohort who came
of age in the sixties, I felt compelled to join this effort
despite some personal risk and expense. I attended numerous
rallies on the grassy mall outside the legislative building
where gray heads peppered the crowd, and ultimately I joined
those who risked arrest in order to make their voices heard.
As I’ve watched and participated in the Moral Monday
process, I’ve been impressed with the leaders’ faithfulness
to the principles of nonviolence. They have carefully
avoided personal attacks on the governor or legislators,
keeping their focus on the harshness of the policies and the
hardships they create. They emphasize respect for the police
who arrested us. They set constructive goals such as
For many who are taking part, whether it’s through civil
disobedience or volunteering in other ways, it is an act and
leap of faith. We cannot know the outcomes of our efforts.
Our faith is in the nonviolent means, which are developed
and supported in a community of fellow activists.
In the strong tradition of the Civil Rights movement and
Witness for Peace, Rev. William Barber and the other leaders
of the Forward Together include prayer, reflection, and
singing as a regular part of their gatherings. These are
intentionally ecumenical. Though to some they might appear
merely religious, they are deep practices that sew optimism
Time for reflection also tends to draw people back to the
wisdom traditions that can inspire our highest motivations
and purest intentions. The cultivation of peaceful attitudes
such as gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion build the
foundation for what Dr. King called the “beloved community,”
which can model the very ends it seeks to bring into being.
Compassion and love are not mere luxuries.
As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental
to the continued survival of our species.
— The Dalai Lama
Invitation to Practice
Nonviolence as a means of societal transformation can be far more effective when the practitioners have also undertaken a discipline of personal transformation. By attending to our own mental and emotional states, such as anger, hatred, and aggression, and by working to create peaceful realms in our immediate circles, we simultaneously contribute to a world that supports nonviolence.
Nonviolence scholar, Michael Nagler notes that “Nonviolence
begins in inner struggle — specifically, the struggle to keep anger,
fear, and greed from having sway over us.” And Dr. King reminds us: “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
To follow this maxim requires cultivating a spiritual discipline, which ideally includes regular time for reflection and meditation. Reflection on the wisdom of great spiritual leaders who aligned their actions with their high ideals expands our sense of what is possible. Meditation and prayer take us to that place of refuge where we can deepen our insight and strengthen our resolve.
A personal discipline of self-reflection can help us overcome the conditioning that keeps us thinking inside the box and acting reflexively. We are all subject to strong biases from within our culture and modern society. We are taught to think in terms of “we” against “them,” and put our faith in zero-sum contests where the winner takes all. This model permeates our political, economic, and criminal justice systems.
Since we are shown violence at every turn — on TV and in movies, books, or other media — we tend to accept it as the norm. This is a misperception Gandhi frequently addressed:
The fact that there are so many men still alive in the world
shows that it is based not on force of arms but on the force of
truth or love… Little quarrels of millions of families in their
daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force.
Hundreds of nations live in peace. History does not and cannot
take note of this fact. History is really a record of the
interruption of the even working of the force of love.
Gandhi was trained as a lawyer. Through his painful experiences of discrimination in South Africa and his profound introspection and reflection, he managed to decondition himself from the elements of this training that picks winners against losers. He wrote about his “experiments in truth,” which were in essence a long process of retraining himself and discovering the principles of nonviolence. It was not about learning the wisdom of others or acquiring intellectual understanding, though he certainly did that as well. What really shifted him and empowered him was the wisdom that arose out of his experience. S.N. Goenka, a Buddhist teacher from India, describes this as “the wisdom that one lives, real wisdom that will bring about a change in one’s life by changing the very nature of the mind.”
When we peek outside the box of our competitive, violence-prone society, we might discover what Gandhi called, “the most powerful force the world has known,” nonviolence.