WHILE TIME magazine’s Person of the Year for 2011 was the nonviolent protester who awakened hope from the Arab Spring to America’s Autumn, it is no accident that a close second was Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the Special Forces operation that assassinated Osama bin Laden. As symbols, the protester and the assassin represent two very different hopes for change. But their roles on the world stage are more than symbolic. In a time when change is so desperately needed, the choice between violence and nonviolence may be the fundamental moral issue of the 21st century.
If that choice is real—if the way of the nonviolent protester is a viable option in the 21st century—it is because of the witness of Gandhi and his satyagraha movement in the 20th century. While Gandhi maintained that his tactics of nonviolent struggle against the British Empire were distilled from the best Hindu scriptures and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, his employment of those ancient truths in a popular resistance movement vis-a-vis a world power was both original and electrifying. The modern world had never seen such a demonstration of “soul force.” Gandhi’s witness sparked the imagination of America’s civil rights movement, of resistance to apartheid in South Africa, of the nonviolent overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe.
But, as James Douglass chronicles so well in his new book Gandhi and the Unspeakable, Gandhi’s way of nonviolence always had its detractors. Gandhi’s enemies were not only racist Europeans but also Indians who insisted that his peculiar philosophy of nonviolence would never work.
In October 1909, when Gandhi was visiting London to garner support for his campaign in South Africa, he was invited to speak at a dinner on the feast of Dussehra, which commemorates the victory of good over evil in the classic Hindu epic The Ramayana. The invitation was a set-up, and Gandhi knew it. An intellectual and activist named Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, whom Gandhi had met before, was organizing Indian youth to fight for Indian independence via strategic assassinations. Only violence would drive the British out, Savarkar insisted. At the dinner, Gandhi would offer the opening remarks and Savarkar would close.
Gandhi accepted on two conditions: that the meal be vegetarian, and that “no controversial politics would be touched upon.” Gandhi and Savarkar each offered a reading of the classic epic that represented their own convictions about how good overcomes evil.
Over the next four decades, their interpretations were each played out in the struggle for India’s independence. In an account that is both meticulously researched and strikingly spare, Douglass shows how Gandhi’s embodiment of satyagraha matured, even as Savarkar’s commitment to violence endured. By attending closely to how these two means toward change played out in particular personalities, Douglass skillfully highlights their cosmic spiritual significance. Gandhi was learning, in the words of the New Testament, that his battle was not against flesh and blood, but against “principalities and powers.” In the language of Thomas Merton, he was taking on the “Unspeakable.”
Gandhi had the courage to face the Unspeakable not because of an illusion about his own personal strength, but because of his conviction about how good overcomes evil in the world. Through a lifetime of “experiments in truth,” Gandhi learned to trust with his whole self in the way of nonviolent love as the only true means of change in a broken world. He understood Jesus as an embodiment of this way: “Living Christ means a living cross,” he said, “without it life is a living death.” Gandhi would know that he had learned to embody this truth if, when he was killed (as he knew he would be), he died with the name of God on his lips, asking forgiveness for his assassin.
With careful attention to the ways and means of the Unspeakable, Douglass shows how Savarkar was behind Gandhi’s assassin, embodying his own philosophy in a peculiarly desperate attempt to prove that the way of violence was superior by killing the chief advocate of nonviolence. As in his monumental book on JFK and the Unspeakable, Douglass tells the truth about history in a way that helps us recognize the urgency of our moral decisions now. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence, but between nonviolence and nonexistence.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs School for Conversion and is a compiler of Common Prayer: Pocket Edition (Zondervan 2012).