The Common Good
December 2006

Gandhi For Today

by Jim Rice | December 2006

How would Mahatma Gandhi confront terrorism today? And what action would the apostle of nonviolence take in response to the wars waged in the name of anti-terrorism?

How would Mahatma Gandhi confront terrorism today? And what action would the apostle of nonviolence take in response to the wars waged in the name of anti-terrorism? David Cortright’s new book, Gandhi and Beyond: Nonviolence for an Age of Terrorism, doesn’t directly answer these questions, but it provides an excellent foundation for anyone seeking nonviolent social change in any era, including our own.

Cortright, who teaches peace studies at Notre Dame, makes a thoughtful and compelling case that the power of nonviolent action is virtually untapped—our understanding of nonviolence as a political and social force, he says, is like the awareness of electricity at the time of Edison. With Gandhi and Beyond, Cortright provides a tool that could actually help change that lack of awareness.

The book, which has its roots in Cortright’s peace curriculum, has two related conceptual frames: The first is focused on Gandhi himself—his life, his teaching, and most important his “experiments with truth” that led to the independence of India. Since Gandhi was “the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale,” as Martin Luther King put it, this is an essential study for any Christian interested in social change.

The second framing concept of the book is around nonviolence itself. Cortright tells the story of some of the most important and well-known practitioners of nonviolent action, from Gandhi and King to César Chávez and Dorothy Day, and he explains the theories and practices of some not-so-well-known scholars and activists such as Gene Sharp and Barbara Deming. Using these (and other) real-world examples, the book describes the various sources of nonviolent power and analyzes how and why nonviolent actions have worked—and why at times they’ve failed. Gandhi and Beyond has an up-to-the-minute feel, examining recent social protest movements including the “velvet revolution” in Eastern Europe, the global justice demonstrations in Seattle and Genoa, and the ongoing efforts against the U.S. war in Iraq.

IT MAY BE TRUE, as the cliché has it, that we’re fated to repeat the mistakes of history if we don’t learn from the past. That’s reason enough to immerse ourselves in these stories of people who have actually put nonviolent theory into practice. But telling the stories, while essential, isn’t enough, and Cortright also provides the critical analysis that helps draw out the lessons to be learned and the principles to take forward into future nonviolent struggles.

Near the end of the book, Cortright devotes a chapter to “gender matters.” At first, the material seemed irrelevant if not embarrassing, a distraction from the deeper issues at stake, since both Gandhi and King are more hindrances to be overcome than examples to follow in matters of sexuality and justice for women. As it turned out, the chapter is perhaps the most revelatory and (for male readers) challenging part of the book. Cortright’s self-confessional questioning of his own leadership role in various peace and justice efforts and his perhaps-inadequate empowerment of women around him invites other men to do the same. And he rightly encourages us not to reject the powerful wisdom of Gandhi and King because of their all-too-human flaws; rather, we should seek to improve and strengthen Gandhian nonviolence by incorporating the insights of feminist analysis.

Cortright, a Sojourners/Call to Renewal board member and longtime colleague in the nonviolent struggle for peace and justice, has written a useful and important book—the world would be a better place if Gandhi and Beyond were required reading at every church, high school, and university in the country. Why? Because Cortright has managed to explain in 221 pages how to transform nonviolent action from an admirable ideal to an effective vehicle for social change. If that’s not essential material for our movement, I don’t know what is.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.

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