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Nonviolence Is Power: A Conversation with Rev. James Lawson

(I first met my friend Civil Rights leader Rev. James Lawson in the L.A. Jail in January, 1990 after protesting US military aid to El Salvador. In 1998, he hired me to be the director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Over the years we have spoken at many events together, including on “Democracy Now.” This is an edited transcript of a zoom conversation we had on October 2, 2021 for the Beatitudes Center. Jim Lawson recently published his first book, “Revolutionary Nonviolence”)

 John Dear: Jim, I’d like to begin by asking your definition of nonviolence. You’ve been teaching, practicing, experimenting with and organizing nonviolence your whole life, and I wonder if you’re understanding of nonviolence has changed over the years. So how do you define nonviolence today?

Jim Lawson: It is hard to define nonviolence. I think it is Gandhi who first used the term nonviolence, and he does maintain in his book Nonviolence in War and Peace that the term “nonviolence” is his translation of the Jainist theory of “ahimsa.” So Gandhi translates “ahimsa” which had been translated as “Do no harm; do no injury.” Jainism was an ancient religion of India, begun around the time of Jesus of Nazareth. So that’s one definition that I cling to. It is not specific, but it allows me to live, to function, to practice.

But the other thing that Gandhi says in that same volume is that nonviolence is love in action. Nonviolence is compassion and truth in action. He of course put together the word “Satyagraha” further to explain tenacity in truth, tenacity in the soul, tenacity in God, tenacity in struggle.

So for me, nonviolence is that quality that comes out of all the great world religions, the notion that the creative force of the universe is love, that God is love, and that love is all encompassing. Gandhi insists—and I think this is Gandhi’s great contribution—that the creative force of the universe is the force that we humans must learn to exercise because that force is the only force that can cause the human race to do on earth God’s will.

And nonviolence is power. It is not, as I was originally told in college in 1947, just persuasion. Persuasion is a form of power. Aristotle says that power is the capacity to achieve purpose. It is a God given gift of creation to human beings. Nonviolence has its deep roots in the long journey of the human family as so many people operated out of love and truth in spite of all that was raging around them.

As Gandhi and King also said, nonviolence is the science of how you create your own life in the image of God. Nonviolence is the science of how you create a world that practices justice, truth and compassion.

So I’m giving two points: Nonviolence as do no harm to do God’s will, and nonviolence as a science. Gene Sharp was the first scholar to pull together the science, the methodology of nonviolence, the 198 tactics and methods that human beings have used over four or five or six thousand years. 

So I have a two-fold definition: first, the finest thought of the religions of the world reflects on love as truth and power as the way the human race discovers how to carry out the will of eternity. Secondly, what we’re still learning, nonviolence as the science of bringing about personal and social change and establishing a world where all of life is honored.

JD: The culture of racism, poverty and war says we’re powerless; there’s nothing we can do. So please speak more about nonviolence as power, and also about nonviolence as a methodology and a strategy for social change.

JL: I continue to insist, that yes, you have to build your life around nonviolence and live a nonviolent lifestyle. There’s a huge range of practices and styles. I like to use the term these days, “the religion of Jesus,” to indicate that nonviolence is the way one discovers how to live. We have to ask not, “Are you saved?” but rather, “In light of the universe we’ve inherited and the gift of our lives, what kind of human beings ought we be? What kind of human beings does the God of the universe require of us?”

I think methodology is an important part of how we live. Every single one of us has a personal, daily routine for the day, and it’s different for each of us. I try to maintain a lifestyle that reflects for me personally the religion of Jesus, and I do this very poorly. But methodology and strategy are critical. Both of them mean that you have to plan and scheme if you are going to exercise the power of truth and love. That won’t happen by accident.

Also there are millions of people around the world who do exercise daily care for life, for their children, for their village, for the street where they live, for their community, for their nation. Far more millions of people faithfully follow the life of love than we know.

Unfortunately, we have inherited a world that is largely dominated by power-brokers of one kind or another. Part of the nonviolent revolution is to struggle against those power-brokers who want the world under their domain rather under the will of God. That is a struggle that goes on and on. A major contribution of Gandhi is that if we follow the path of love and truth, compassion and care, we will one day shape the earth more into God’s will. So strategy and methodology are good words, but they may mean the same as a way of life because you have to struggle and scheme your way.

JD: My contention is that, as Gandhi said, Jesus was totally nonviolent, and if you want to follow Jesus, you have to try to be as totally nonviolent as possible. Please share your reflections on the nonviolence of Jesus.

JL: If I ever had any doubts about your question, John, they were largely obliterated by the time I was eight years old. Growing up in the streets of Massillon, Ohio, from the age of four, I experienced racist epithets that were directed at me. My custom was to fight back with my fists, in contradiction to my mother’s good word, but not in contradiction to my father’s word. My brother Bill and sister Daisy also fought back. But my brothers and sisters and I never talked about this at an early age.

Now we did talk about violence. My mother was adamant that we should not mistreat each other or mistreat other people. In the first grade, I had a certain amount of fighting to do because the other boys wanted to fight me. It was never on the school ground, but on the street going to school or on the way home.

My mother’s word was you should not retaliate by fighting. At age eight, in the Spring of the fourth grade, I slapped a boy who yelled racist epithets at me on Main Street. And for the first time, when I returned home from this errand for my mother, I told her about the incident. She continued to do what she was doing in the kitchen and without turning around to face me, responded, “Jimmy, what good did that do?” And there was a long period of silence in the house as I heard her voice telling me who I was–that I was loved, that I belonged to God, and that we were a family of the church, and how important that community was to us, that I did not need to use my fists on anyone. Her last sentence to me was, “Jimmy, there must be a better way.”

So from then on, I was confirmed in my life which was already committed to the faith and the church, to St. James’ Methodist church where my Dad had been the pastor. I determined that from now on, on the playing field, for example, I would not get angry anymore because I had a bad hit. Or because some youngster in the game hit me in football or basketball inappropriately.

So from that time on, there has been no compromise for me that the way of Jesus is the way of truth and love and compassion. I think there are many, many different stories about Jesus. If you go to the book of Luke, chapter 4, when Jesus returns to Nazareth, you’ll find a story about how the men in the synagogue in Nazareth became very angry at him. The last verse of the story says, that as they dragged him out of the synagogue, dragged him through the streets of Nazareth, which was a very small community, they took him to the precipice and they were going to throw him over the precipice, “But he made his way through the midst of them and went on his way.” I maintain that represents one of the ways in which Jesus walked and lived. He did it with the spirit of nonviolence and compassion. He did not imitate the folk who were angry at him.

In addition to that, there are many stories of many people who have done the same thing. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, for instance, wrote a lifelong journal. He tells about the time he was met by a male mob on some side street as he rode around preaching and teaching. I’ve read it more than once. First, when he was being dragged, pushed around and hit, he threw off his hat. Next, the moment the mob came upon him, he started looking to see who were the loudest voices in the mob, who was leading the mob. He pinpointed the leaders of the mob who were seeking to hurt him. Thirdly, he fastened his attention on one or two of those leaders. He tried to catch their eye. And then he asked them a question like, “Sir, have I done you any harm? Do I know you?”

The net result was that John Wesley never got badly beaten or hurt by any of the mobs he met over the years. On two or three occasions, he writes, the leader of the mob would come over to him and look him in the eye and say, “Sir, let me stand with you. Or let me take you where you’re going.” Two or three men would change their minds and walk him to the church where he was going. Wesley is a major witness to Luke’s description of how Jesus walked through the midst of an angry mob who wanted to throw him over a precipice.

Today Christianity is not following Jesus adequately. Christianity has become the most powerful religion in the world ever because of its linkage with the Roman Empire in the fourth century. The Roman empire and its theology made some changes to the teachings and writings of Jesus. I have no doubt.

In my own thinking, Christianity as the most powerful religion in the world must break with the use of that power which has created so much havoc, including the conquest of nations, and telling other people around the world that their culture, their religion, is wrong and they must be baptized. We have a lot of baptized people in the United States who are deeply enmeshed in the culture of sexism, racism, violence and what I call “plantation capitalism.” As I read and reread the Gospels about Jesus, I know full well that Christianity has to undergo a basic revolutionary change.

JD: Gandhi read from the Sermon on the Mount almost daily. He thought it held the greatest teachings on nonviolence in the world. What are your latest thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount.

JL: The book of Matthew, chapter 5, starts with the Beatitudes. The last ten verses deal with a very important issue. It’s where Jesus says, “You have heard it said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors…” It’s in those last verses, he deals with the question, “What do you do when you have an enemy, when you see the enemy?” You pray for them, you love them.

So he says, “If they force you to go one mile, then concede and go with them two miles.” I happen to think that this actually happened to Jesus. Scholars have discovered an ancient Roman empire rule that when a Roman official or legionnaire met a person on the roadway, he could say to that person, carry my bags for one mile. Jesus is referring to an experience that he probably had more than once in occupied Palestine, Galilee and Judea.

I maintain that in those last ten verses especially, in the Beatitudes, and all of Matthew 5, 6 and 7, Jesus is telling us that you have to strategize your way of life if you’re going to try to live a life of truth and love. It has to be planned. He gives some suggestions on how you do this: turn the other cheek, walk another mile, pray for them.

Jesus is walking from Nazareth to Capernaum and meets a Roman soldier. As he approaches him, he sees that this legionnaire is about his age. As he gets close, that legionnaire says, “Boy, I need you to carry my pack.” By Roman law, Jesus has to take the pack, irritated as he may have been. He takes the pack, and may have to return from the direction he has come. As he looks at this Roman soldier who’s about his age, he begins to introduce himself to this Roman soldier. And he asks the man where he’s going, where he’s coming from, how long he’s been a legionnaire, and is he stationed in Galilee or Judea? And within a quarter of a mile, these two people are in a deep conversation about themselves, because the legionnaire is lonely, as he would be, for his home. And they talk. And before they have gone a half a mile, Jesus sees this young soldier as he views himself.

I think that Matthew 5-7 is the experience of Jesus as a young Jewish person, moving around occupied Galilee and meeting the so-called oppressor and discovering that the law of Moses is stronger, more powerful for him, and molds his life in that fashion. So Matthew 5-7, for me, represents a part of Jesus strategizing how he is going to live in a place where he has met Roman soldiers who have demanded that he carry their pack.

JD: Let me end by asking you about your friend Martin King and any thoughts about him that you would like to share.

JL: I think Martin Luther King, Jr. must be given credit for being the one who insisted in Western civilization that the way ahead must become the way of nonviolence. He said nonviolence is a power tool, nonviolent love is the power of God for life, for giving life and creating life and creating hope.

From the Montgomery Bus Boycott through the next thirteen years of his life until he was essentially assassinated like a crucifixion for his life and work, Martin King should be acknowledged as the one who has made the Gandhian message that we either go forward with nonviolence or self-destruction.

I’m grateful that in the Twentieth Century I met Gandhi through his books and that I came to know Martin King and we became fast friends and colleagues. We were planning the future at the time of his assassination on April 4th, 1968. Martin King was another person in the train of Gandhi. He was an advocate for justice and truth, elected so by the people of Montgomery, and he carried out that role in a magnificent fashion.

King was influential in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sit-in campaign of 1960, the Freedom Rides of 1961, the Albany desegregation campaign of 1962, the Birmingham desegregation campaign of 1963, and the Mississippi summer of 1964, which directly produced Head Start. Head Start was created by black women and a white volunteer in Greenwood, Mississippi. The Voting Rights Bill of 1965 is not as critical as Head Start; as the Civil Rights Bill of 1964; as Medicare of 1965; as the desegregation of immigration that took place in 1965 in the immigration bill that the Johnson Administration and the Democrats passed.

The ability to vote is significant but voting is not as significant as being an engaged citizen because the citizen who takes to heart “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” is going to be a voting person who’s going to vote on the right side of human history, and not vote conventionally to maintain the status quo or worse. Voting as an instrument of nonviolence is a part of a being a human being who wants to become fully alive, who wants to be fully an agent of love and compassion.