Violent Force and Non Violence

September 11th, 2013

twisted gun 2

I’m not a pacifist. I wish I lived in a world where being a pacifist was an option; a world where everyone was kind and reasonable and all problems could be solved creatively and peacefully. But I don’t, and they can’t.

I like the idea of being different; of refusing to play power games and meeting violence with peace. So I guess I’m a wannabee pacifist. But reality gets in the way.

A few weeks ago, my oldest son (who’s in College and lives three hours away from us) was mugged, punched, and threatened with a gun. He’s fine, by the way, and handled it brilliantly (and non violently). One of my first thoughts was, “If I’d been there at the time, I would have done ANYTHING to protect him.”

Its not about vengeance for me. I get that the mugger had his own tragic story and I don’t need him to suffer to make me feel better or safer. Its not hard for me to find compassion for the mugger. Its the protective instinct of a parent that is more to the point. It sounds like a cliche, but I would do anything for my kids and my wife. If I’m in a position to defend or protect them, I would do it even if it meant using force, even if it meant risking my own safety. So I have to be honest and say that I’m not a pacifist.

The next question is, “Would I go the the same lengths for a friend, or even a complete stranger being mugged?” How far does my protective instinct extend, or at some point would self preservation kick in?

Its hard to second guess a situation you never experienced, but when I think about the circumstances of World War II, and the horrors of what Hitler did, I hope I would have done my part to end his reign of terror. Otherwise what’s the point in even being alive? What am I preserving for myself or those I love, if I stand idly by and allow hatred to win?

Every situation needs to be judged on its merits. I’m not comparing Syria’s President Assad to Hitler, and I’m not saying there are any current situations that compare to Nazi Germany. But if it becomes clear there are, what then?

People who advocate non violence are people of great passion and principle. They look for EVERY means possible to solve problems without violence, but many non violent advocates still keep the possibility for violence as a last resort.

One of the greatest warriors for non violent resistance was Mahatma Gandhi. I hope I’m not taking this quote out of context but even Gandhi said,

If the capacity for non-violent self-defense is lacking, there need be no hesitation in using violent means.

Non violence is better than violence. And I’m sure the threat of violence comes before violence itself as a tactic. But there may come a time and a circumstance when all else has failed, and violent force becomes a last resort.

Gandhi also said,

It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no such hope for the impotent.

As I understand this quote, its all about motivation. If you use violent force as an act of ego and power, it will perpetuate the same cycle of violence it resists. If you use violent force as a last resort to preserve life, hating the very thought of it but knowing you are working toward a higher purpose, then you have right motivation.

Of course, its so easy to delude ourselves in the heat of the moment. It requires a large degree of self awareness to know why you want to act in a particular way.

Violence is a matter of the heart, first and foremost. If I understand Gandhi, he is saying that if you have violence in your heart but speak words of non violence, you are just pretending. And conversely, if you have a peaceful heart but circumstances call for it, you might need to use force.

The winner in any battle, mental or physical, is not the one with greatest might, but the one with the greatest inner strength.  This Zen story describes the quality of inner strength.

During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master.

Curious about this old guy, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was.  When he wasn’t treated with the submission to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.

“You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you know who I am? Don’t you realize I can run this sword through you without blinking an eye!”

But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved.

“And do you realize who I am,” the master replied calmly, “I am a man who can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye?”

This wannabee pacifist will continue to live as non violently as possible, seeking an inner strength that doesn’t depend on violence for an ego boost. I seek a peaceful heart, and a life lived with passion and conviction. But I will keep searching the limits of my compassion; my family, friends, strangers, children in Syria, innocent victims of power politics, the poor. And where I can make a genuine difference, I hope I can be the sort of person who gives up my own security to ease the suffering of others. Otherwise, what is the point of my life? Namaste!

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  1. Margaret says:

    Hugo, and this article show the inner power and conviction that produce non-violent strength. Well done!