Theorists of Nonviolence: Ballou, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Sharp

posted by Michael True on June 18th, 2008

Adin Ballou is a truly revolutionary figure, deserving of serious public and scholarly attention. I want to focus on his achievement as a theorist of nonviolence: how his life and writings contributed to a clarification of language and thought in the long effort to find the most suitable name for the concept often called nonviolence.

As William Meredith said in his great poem, “Jain Bird Hospital in Delhi,” those of us who speak English make do with the word, “nonviolence,” aware that the word is inadequate, even misleading. As Meredith wrote, the Jain prophet:

Mahavira along with those twenty-three other airy creatures
who turned to saints with him/ preached the doctrine of ahimsa,
which in our belligerent tongue becomes nonviolence.

The limitation, linguistically, of the term “nonviolence” is obvious. It is rather like saying “non-hate” when we mean “love.” Linguists tell us that the brain is likely to register “violence” first, without the qualifier. In an effort to be clear about what we mean, I offer this working definition: Nonviolence: a philosophy or method or strategy associated with resisting injustice and humiliation, resolving or transforming conflict, and bringing about social change without killing or harming people.

Ballou may be considered a major early theorist of nonviolence. In his book, Christian Non-Resistance, he makes every effort to be precise about what he means by “nonresistance,” and provides numerous examples of nonviolence in action. He explains what it is and what it is not, describing instances of people waging conflict and transforming conflict nonviolently. He suggested that nonviolence involves not just belief, but action. As with later theorists, he regarded it is as a force, a political reality.

Comparing and contrasting Adin Ballou (1801-90) with three later theorists, Leo Tolstoy (1829-1910), Mohandas Gandhi (1856-1948), and Gene Sharp (b. 1928), we may appreciate the implications, within the context of their lives, experiences, and cultures, of the terminology the chose to employ.

Christianity was a defining element for Ballou. This distinguishes him somewhat from the other three figures. He was a minister first in the Christian Connexion, then a Universalist preacher for a decade. In 1831, at the age of twenty-seven, he co-founded the Massachusetts Association of Universal Restorationists, whose ministers had collegial relations with Unitarians and often served Unitarian churches. He later served as a Unitarian minister in Hopedale.

Ballou’s rhetoric, particularly in his major books, Christian Nonresistance, 1846, and Practical Christianity, 1854, is decidedly Christian, though obviously American as well. In the preface to the first book. he claims that “non-resistance” is “as ancient as Christianity, and as true as the New Testament.” In Chapter 1, he says Christian non-resistance is “that original peculiar kind of non-resistance, which was enjoyed and exemplified, according to the Scriptures of the New Testament.” Acknowledging that there are other kinds, such as philosophical, sentimental, and necessitous nonresistance, he proceeds to define the underlying concept.

Although Ballou’s rhetoric and approach is decidedly Christian, it also relies on ideas and arguments that draw from English and American political philosophy. His reasoning reflects Western social and political thought since the Renaissance. The word “non-resistance,” for example, had been used in English for several centuries (the more recent term “passive resistance,” by contrast, was first referred to in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, 1819. Non-resistance was the term used by Ballou’s fellow abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison and Elihu Burritt, who, in 1854, co-founded what may be the first international peace society.

But the clearest indication of Ballou’s understanding of an essential property of nonviolence is his use of the term “uninjurious force.” He thus anticipates Martin Luther King’s invocation of “the power of nonviolence” and Hannah Arendt writing of “the enormous power of nonviolence.”

In the first chapter of Christian Nonresistance, “Explanatory Definitions,” Ballou clarifies the meaning of “uninjurious force”: strategies for responding to conflict without resorting to violence and for thwarting violent persons without hurting them. He thus links two words in a fresh way: “uninjurious,” a relatively new word, and “force,” a term that had been central to political discourse for centuries.

“Force,” Ballou defines as “strength, vigor, might,” whether physical or moral, as in “the force of love, the force of truth, the force of public opinion, the force of moral suasion, the force of non-resistance,” just as we have the force of gravitation, the force of cohesion, the force of repulsion, or the muscular force of human beings. We speak, he said, “of benevolent force, kind force, that is, the application of muscular strength for the purpose of preventing human beings from committing some injury to themselves or others.”

Ballou explains further what “non-resistance” is not. It is “not identical with absolute passivity, but allows, implies, and requires various kinds and degrees of moral and physical strength, according to circumstances.” Therefore “the term force must not be used as its converse.” For example, “in restraining a madman from outrage, or holding a delirious sick person on the bed, or compelling an ill-natured child to desist from tearing out the hair of a weaker brother, or interposing his body and muscular strength to prevent rape, or any similar act,” one does no real injury, but to some or all the parties concerned a real benefit.” Further, non-resistance “is a divine spring of action, which intuitively and spontaneously dictates the doing of good to others, whether they do good or evil.”

How did Ballou arrive at his perceptions and delineations? In responding to this question, I disagree slightly with Lynn Hughes, in her excellent introduction to Christian Nonresistance, when she says that Ballou’s “world view was fundamentally moral rather than rational and material.” Although he clearly came to his theory of nonviolence through Christian teaching, as an ethicist, he had a “rational” and “material” or “political” world view, perhaps even more sophisticated than that held by Tolstoy in his discussion on non-resistance fifty years later.

It was, in fact, Ballou’s language, now associated with the social sciences, that may have provoked his disagreement with Tolstoy. Although acquainted with natural law and well-informed about political discourse, as in his analysis of conscription and war, Tolstoy was often less nuanced and practical, one might say, less “secular” in his rhetoric.

Tolstoy regarded himself as a Christian anarchist, severely critical not only of the State but also of established religion. As Ernest Simmons says, Tolstoy condemned “Christian churches of all denominations for perverting the true teaching of Christ in order to maintain their power over the masses upon whom their economic existence depends.” He regarded the Christian church as the primary prop justifying the war-making state, which, through conscription, prisons, and taxes, favored the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. Tolstoy’s criticism deepened into opposition as the Russian government banned the publication of The Kingdom of God Is Within You, then imprisoned and exiled his followers. (Coincidentally, Russians and Burmese were imprisoned a century later simply for having Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy in their possession.)

Ballou and Tolstoy shared many of the moral and religious assumptions of Western culture. They nevertheless parted company on two important matters: Ballou, like Thoreau in Civil Disobedience (published a year after Christian Nonviolence), wanted not “at once no government,” but hoped for “at once a better government.” Ballou desired, in fact, a Christian socialist government. On the other hand, Tolstoy, as an anarchist, wanted no government at all. Ballou, a communitarian and a community builder, was the co-founder of the Hopedale Community. In 1854, in Practical Christian Socialism, he indicated that his socialism was consistent with Christian teaching, and even wrote a constitution for his “practical Christian republic.”

Tolstoy thought that the state would eventually whither away if people refused to obey its laws. Having lived through and studied the Russian Revolution of 1905, he argued that replacing one government with another through violence would only perpetuate injustices inherent in the power of the state.

The difference between Ballou’s and Tolstoy’s recommendations for the transformation of society, may be the result of their experiences as citizens of quite different governments. Ballou lived under a government that was less repressive than Tolstoy’s czarist government, and in a culture with a less vibrant tradition of nonviolence. Political theorists such as Locke, through Madison and Jefferson, influenced Ballou’s political philosophy, as well as his fellow abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

From Ballou to Tolstoy to Gandhi, that is, from 1846 to 1894 to 1906, a number of important developments relating to nonviolent theory took place. After reading Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Gandhi named his ashram in South Africa, “Tolstoy Farm,” and corresponded with Tolstoy. When Gandhi sent him a copy of his new book, Hind Swaraj, Tolstoy responded with “Letter to a Hindu,” published shortly before his death in 1910. He wrote; “the longer I live, and especially now, when I vividly feel the nearness of death, I want to tell others . . . what comes to my mind is of great importance—namely, that which is called passive resistance, but which is in reality nothing else than the teaching of love uncorrupted by false interpretations.”

How did Gandhi come to “nonviolence”? One can trace the path from his preparing for the bar while belonging to a vegetarian society in England, around 1890, through his wide reading, to his experience as a lawyer in South Africa in the 1890s. After meeting a Quaker, who referred him to various Christian texts, he experienced a kind of religious ferment induced by his reading during the next decade. He confessed to being “overwhelmed” by Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You about 1903. Extensive reading in Hindu writings revived his interest in—and reconciled him to—his own Indian religious traditions, including that of the Jains, the oldest tradition of nonviolence in the world.

In the meantime, before returning to India in 1915, Gandhi was deeply involved in movements in South Africa, resisting oppressive British laws and discrimination against the Indian population and, as a consequence, serving a prison term. He learned “nonviolence” on the firing line, if I can use such an inappropriate image to characterize nonviolent social change at this time. His commitment to nonviolence grew out of his organizing campaigns and his disciplining himself. This gives real poignancy to the title of his autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth.

Early on, Gandhi, like Ballou, but unlike Tolstoy, emphasized the fact that nonviolence was “active,” not “passive.” A key moment in naming the concept of nonviolence occurred when he and other Indians challenged the Black Act, passed by the Transvaal government in August 1906. This act, which required all Indians to register with the authorities and to carry a certificate at all times, meant, for Gandhi, “absolute ruin for the Indians in South Africa.” At that time the organizers of the resistance wondered what they might name their movement.

“I then used the term ‘passive resistance,’” Gandhi later wrote, though he did not quite understand the implications of the name “of this new principal that had come into being.” Thinking it sinful that the movement should “be known only by an English name,” the organizers decided to have a contest and to award a prize “to someone who invented the best designation for our struggle.” Although the first prize went to “Sadagraha,” meaning “firmness in a good cause,” Gandhi modified the word slightly, to “Satyagraha.” “Truth (Satya) implies love and firmness (Agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force.” He defined “Satyagraha” as the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence, and gave up the use of the phrase, “passive resistance.”

Throughout his life, Gandhi wrote approximately 500 words a day, much of it a direct account of campaigns, with commentary on hundreds of events leading to India’s independence in 1947 and his death the following year. Among the valuable publications analyzing and evaluating those campaigns is Gene Sharp, Gandhi as Political Strategist, 2002. Sharp is the fourth and last figure in my survey.

Since the publication of his The Politics of Nonviolence,1973, Sharp has been regarded as the greatest theorist of nonviolence since Gandhi, defining and clarifying the terminology, as in his forthcoming Dictionary. Unlike Ballou, Tolstoy, and Gandhi (as well as Martin Luther King, the most important figure in the history of nonviolence in the U.S.), Sharp is primarily a scholar. He writes out of his experience, knowledge, and research, as a participant in Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.

Sharp is careful to distinguish between “principled nonviolence” and “nonviolent struggle,” that is, between “beliefs and behavior in which violent acts are prohibited on religious ethical grounds,” and “techniques of conducting protest, resistance and intervention without physical violence “ And although he operates from a strong moral base, having spent months in prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean war and as secretary for A.J. Muste, his rhetoric is decidedly secular. This is a representative statement: “‘Nonviolent struggle is identified by what people do, not by what they believe.”

Sharp’s major contribution is his scholarship and research, often in consultation with leaders of movements around the globe and in collaboration with his associates at the Albert Einstein Institute. In addition to naming 189 methods of nonviolent action, he has published invaluable studies of nonviolent struggles in the 20th century, indicating, with great care, what worked, what didn’t work, and why.

In Waging Nonviolent Conflict, for example, Sharp includes analysis of nonviolent struggles associated with the Russian revolution of 1905, the democratic uprising in China, 1989, and the overthrow of Milosevic in Serbia, 2000. As are several others who helped initiate the new inter-discipline of peace, conflict, and nonviolent studies, Sharp is a social scientist, having chaired the sociology department at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Everything he writes is clear, unpretentious, and easily accessible to the general reader. His works have been translated into over forty languages, and have been used by Eastern European activists in their long effort to expel the Soviet occupiers and to claim their independence.

In this brief survey, I hope that I have made clear ways in which the four major theorists complement one another, while noting important similarities and differences. I want to add a brief note on how and why our understanding of nonviolence has been so slow in coming, and also to show how developments in theory and strategy, from Ballou to Tolstoy to Gandhi and Sharp reflect the on-going secularization of our language and culture.

It has taken human beings many centuries to learn a language of peacemaking—to which the language of nonviolence, is related. Although every one of the world’s religions possess peace testimonies as part of their moral code, everyone of them has subverted it—Christianity, notoriously in the 4th century. We have long had sophisticated documents on strategies for war-making, beginning with Sun Tsu’s The Art of War from the 4th century B.C. By comparison, we have had sophisticated documents on strategies for peacemaking only since 1795, beginning with Emanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace. (Ironically, it was left to a military historian and former Regis Professor at Oxford, Michael Howard, to point this out, in The Invention of Peace, 2000.) Is it any wonder, then, that when acknowledging engagement in peace, conflict, and nonviolent studies, one is often met with blank stares and incomprehension?

Successful nonviolent campaigns around the world since 1980, along with commentaries on and evaluations of their successes and failure, have contributed enormously to our knowledge of nonviolence.

Recent poets, by their lives and writings, have also contributed to our learning a language of peacemaking. Denise Levertov, in her poem ,“Making Peace,” is one of them. In a startling recovery of the word, peace, which probably died on the Western Front in 1918, she defines “peace,” as “a presence, an energy field more intense than war.” She means, quite rightly, that it is a dynamic rather than a static entity.

One might argue that the history of nonviolence has perhaps been furthered by the secularization of Western culture over the past five centuries. As people become less identified with the dogmas of institutional religion, theories of nonviolence have become less dependent upon religious rhetoric or principles to justify them. Over the past one-hundred sixty years, from the publication of Christian Nonresistance until now, the secularization of the language has accompanied the secularization of Western culture, including Christianity.

In the struggle for human rights such as habeas corpus, not to mention the separation of church and state, human beings have increasingly based their values on humanism, rather than Christianity, on natural rights rather than divine rights. At the same time, the community and nature have replaced the church and the state as authoritative sources. So, although many people engaged in nonviolent struggle emphasize their religious backgrounds, participation may or may not depend upon that association.

Perhaps because my own commitment to nonviolence is grounded in religions teaching, I think it is important to add that both principled nonviolence and nonviolent struggle, to use Sharp’s terms, have been strengthened by recent biblical scholarship and research on the historical Jesus.

The writings of the theologian, Walter Wink, for example, on the basis of a famous passage in Matthew, identify Jesus as a nonviolent activist. In counseling people to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, and to surrender their cloak as well as their coat, Jesus was being confrontational, recommending active resistance to authorities, not mere passive acceptance of their punishment. Turning the other cheek meant forcing the other person to strike you with the back of his or her hand, thus acknowledging your humanity. Walking the extra mile meant inflicting punishment on yourself that went beyond what had been meted out to you, so that your guard or jailer risked being criticized, or even disciplined him/herself. Surrendering your cloak as well as your coat meant standing naked before the crowd, to the embarrassment of your assailant.

In the long effort to find a term that accurately conveys the full meaning of “nonviolence,” activists and civil disobedients have resisted injustice, resolved conflict, and brought about social change at great personal sacrifice, often at the cost of their lives. Over the last two centuries, Adin Ballou, Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Gene Sharp, among others, have also made major contributions through their commentaries, research, and scholarship, to the benefit of everyone. And it is encouraging indeed to find young scholars and researchers, including members of the International Peace Research Association, continuing to enrich a tradition of informed discourse which these four theorists helped to establish.

Copyright 2008 by Michael True; republished with permission of the author. Presented as the Adin Ballou Annual Lecture, Hopedale, Massachusetts, April 27, 2008. Michael True is the author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature, is former president International Peace Research Association Foundation, and is Emeritus Professor, Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts.

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One Comment Leave a comment.

  1. On July 30, 2015 at 12:53 Todd said:

    Great article. Very helpful. Thanks.

    I was “converted ” to nonviolent resistance, as opposed to violent resistance, last year. The more I learn about this movement the more I am amazed at how both perennial and hidden it has been from popular consciousness.

    I believe there is a force that has deliberately tried to hide this information from the eyes and ears of the public. Evil external force, or willful self-delusion… hard to say, or a mixture of both.

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