Monday, November 23, 2009

Satyagraha - A Uniquely American Practice of Peace Written by John Schaberg Presented 1/13/08 - Emerson UU Congregation, Marietta GA

Today we gather to honor the memory of Martin Luther King - one of the greatest American practitioners of Satyagraha, the use of nonviolent direct action to build a "Beloved Community".

Mahatma Gandhi, another follower of nonviolence, created the word Satyagraha to fill the void in all languages for a positive idea for nonviolent direct action. But since the term Satyagraha is quite foreign to most Americans, let me give you a textbook definition.

The term Satyagraha is a composition of two terms: Saty - meaning the truth or how something should be, something that is really original or authentic and Graha- meaning strong hold of something, insistence on something, perseverance, enthusiasm. Satyagraha literally means down to the truth and in a figurative sense, the power of the truth or truth force.

Satyagraha implies openness, honesty, and fairness. Each person's opinions and beliefs represent part of the truth. So, in order to see more of the truth we must share our truths cooperatively. This implies a desire to communicate and a determination to do so, which in turn requires developing and refining relevant skills of communication. There is also a refusal to inflict injury on others, as well as a commitment to communicate and to sharing our own pieces of the truth.

Finally, satyagraha means a willingness for self-sacrifice. A satyagrahi (one who practices Satyagraha) must be willing to shoulder any sacrifice which is occasioned by the struggle which they have initiated, rather than pushing such sacrifice or suffering onto their opponent, lest the opponent become alienated and access to their portion of the truth become lost. The satyagrahi must always provide a face-saving "way out" for the opponents. The goal is to discover a wider vista of truth and justice, not to achieve victory over the opponent.

I believe that this definition is clearly, inextricably linked to many of our principles of Unitarian Universalist teaching. In UU terms, Satyagraha is the free and responsible search for truth, using the democratic process and true acceptance of one another with a goal of peace and justice for all. You could say that by our faith, we all profess to be satyagrahi.

In September of 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. was quoted as saying

"I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom".

But King did not come to this automatically.

In 1949, Martin Luther King Jr., a young student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester Pennsylvania, who had written on his application that he had "an inescapable urge to serve society", attended a lecture by A.J. Muste, the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, on nonviolence. Francis Stewart, a white friend from Georgia, later recalled "a pretty heated argument" between Muste and King after the lecture. "King sure as hell wasn't any pacifist then" said Stewart. King himself stated that most of the time he was in the seminary he continued to believe "the only way we could solve our problem of segregation was an armed revolt".

Let me repeat that - Martin Luther King Jr. believed, as a young man, that "the only way we could solve our problem of segregation was an armed revolt".

Later that year, King attended a lecture about the work of Gandhi by Howard University president Mordecai Johnson, freshly returned from a trip to India. And after he had changed his thinking, he talked about his first encounter with Muste:

"...A.J.'s sincerity and his hard-headed ability to defend his position stayed with me through the years. Later, I got to know him better, and I would say unequivocally that the current emphasis on nonviolent direct action in the race relations field is due more to A.J. than to anyone else in the country".

The theme of this talk is that Satyagraha is a uniquely American practice. Well, what do I mean by that? Gandhi, the author of the term, was a British-educated lawyer influenced by Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, the teachings of Jesus, and the writings of our own Henry David Thoreau, whose small book, Civil Disobedience, written while the author was in prison, Gandhi had read while himself in prison.

So how can I claim Satyagraha as an American practice?

Curiously, some of the best earlier examples of Satyagraha come from right here in the United States, in the years leading up to the American Revolution. To oppose British rule, the colonists used many tactics amazingly like Gandhi's, and used these techniques with more skill and sophistication than anyone else before the time of Gandhi.

For instance, to resist the British Stamp Act, the colonists widely refused to pay for the official stamp required to appear on publications and legal documents; a case of civil disobedience and tax refusal, both used later by Gandhi. Boycotts of British imports and, of course, the famous Boston Tea Party is one of the great examples of American civil disobedience.

But John Adams, a Unitarian by the way, points to a much lesser known action as the high point of nonviolent direct action during that time. In the spring of 1774, the British Parliament passed the Massachusetts Government Act in response to the Boston Tea Party. It removed the right of Massachusetts elected representatives to have a say in the appointment of judges. It also stripped them of their power to remove corrupt judges. When the new British-appointed Court of Common pleas for the county of Worcester tried to sit in September, thousands turned out to block them. Of the estimated six thousand, about one thousand were armed. They stopped the court from coming to session and formed a "convention" that effectively took over, closing the courts and freeing prisoners.

The weapons, which were not used, were unnecessary, since no armed force opposed them. Everywhere else in Massachusetts where the British tried to open a Court of Common Pleas, they were also stopped by large crowds, which often had no weapons at all. The crowds were large enough to keep the courts closed, force the judges to resign, and keep the army helplessly at a distance. The people of Massachusetts spoke truth to power and by that act they overthrew the government in Massachusetts without firing a shot.

But even more important than the actual acts conducted by the revolutionaries in America, it was a revolutionary idea that makes Satyagraha possible in our modern world. It was the American Revolutionaries who met in Philadelphia in 1776 that said

"...Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, - That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness".

Once the concept of power, divine and ordained by God was rejected, and the concept of power derived from the consent of the governed came into being, it then became a question of how do we mere mortals, with only our heads and our hearts, organize power in such a form as to affect our Safety and Happiness. Only in a democracy can the concept that each person's opinions and beliefs represent part of the truth be fulfilled.

When America broke its bonds with Britain, a radical new experiment commenced. During the 19th century, a number of peace groups formed in America. One such champion of this cause was David Low Dodge, who in his1815 treatise "War Inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ" stated:

"The professed object of war generally is to preserve liberty and produce a lasting peace, but war never did and never will preserve liberty and produce a lasting peace, for it is divine decree that all nations who take the sword shall perish with the sword. War is no more adapted to preserve liberty and produce a lasting peace than midnight darkness is to produce noonday light".

Later in the 19th century, the abolitionist movement was fertile ground for nonviolent direct action. The Underground Railroad was just one example of hundreds of people putting their beliefs into action at great risk to their life and liberty. Such luminaries as William Lloyd Garrison and Elijah Lovejoy took up the cause, advocating boycotts, publishing newspapers and generally agitating for change.

Lydia Maria Child, another Unitarian, published "An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans called Africans" in 1833. In the best traditions of nonviolence she did more than condemn slave owners; she wrote of the physical and moral harm that slavery caused both slaves and owners, and she placed blame equally on Northerners and Southerners. Here is one of the first examples of the Gandhian concept that oppressors are morally and spiritually diminished in their placid compliance to oppression, no matter how remotely connected they are to that oppression.

But the nonviolent direct actions of the abolitionist movement could not prevent this country from drenching itself in blood during the Civil War. And all that blood did little to resolve the issue of how we Americans STILL deal with the cursed compromise our founding fathers made when slavery was deemed acceptable by a nation founded on the proposition that all men are created equal.

And that brings us back to Dr. King.

The civil rights struggles of the 50's and 60's were great examples of nonviolent direct action. Could we ever imagine that the efforts of the Montgomery Bus Boycott would persuade those in power to make a substantial change in how both African American children and white children in America view their world today? Can we Atlantans even conceive of going back to a world in which some people would be forced to sit in the back of the Fox Theater? And that brings us back to us as Unitarian Universalists. What do we do as people of compassion?

Dr. King spoke about awakening direct action in all of us in 1959 when he said

"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action".

And so we must. Our UU principles and beliefs are not static - but dynamic calls for action. We call for Justice, equality and compassion in human relations. We claim the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We call for the free and responsible search for truth. But those goals require sacrifice, suffering, and struggle.

And we must celebrate every case of satyagraha. We must be vigilant in looking for it in our world because there are filters in media outlets and in our own minds that tend to miss the actions of Satyagraha in the world today.

For example, say that a Third World country undergoes a spontaneous, country-wide, mass noncooperation campaign against its dictator, lasting weeks or even months. Tens of thousands march in the streets, newspapers and radio stations defy the censors, whole cities are shut down for days at a time as people go on strike. Noted citizens call for the dictator's resignation, no one follows his orders, he has completely lost control.

Finally, four or five military officers, carrying out the obvious will of the people march nearly unopposed into the presidential palace, arrest the dictator, and escort him out of office.

The great triumph of direct nonviolent action is obscured by the military action. Chances are that our news media will attribute the dictator's downfall, purely and simply, to "a military coup", missing completely the months of Satyagraha that made the coup possible.

As Indira Gandhi put it, "The meek may one day inherit the earth, but not the headlines."

How then do we oppose injustice and reform society?

With Satyagraha.

Satyagraha is not a way for one group to seize what it wants from another. It is not a weapon of class struggle, or of any other kind of division. Satyagraha is instead an instrument of unity. It is a way to remove injustice and restore social harmony, to the benefit of both sides

Satyagraha, strange as it seems, is for the opponent's sake as well. When Satyagraha works, both sides win.

So let us as Unitarian Universalists keep these principles when dealing with each other in our small community, for peace begins with each of us.

Let us raise our children to be true and fearless Satyagrahi.

Let us pay attention to the actions and policies taken by our representatives in local, state and federal government, for they act on our behalf and do our bidding.

In conclusion, I would like to quote Martin Luther King on the occasion of his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, he said:

"After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time -- the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict, a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation."

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