The Power of Nonviolence (1959)

More than anything this 2nd revised edition of Richard B. Gregg’s The Power of Nonviolence got me interested in the 2007 edition, making me wonder what insights had been gained in the last 50+ years, especially in regards to the case studies about nonviolence in the opening chapter. The 1959 edition has stories of nonviolent resistance from South Africa, India, WWII Europe, and Montgomery, AL.

The most striking image in the book for me was that of nonviolence as “moral jiu-jitsu,” saying that “[j]ust as in jiu-jitsu, violence itself helps overthrow its user” (45) because the violent person who attacks a nonviolent person finds that prolonged violence requires too much energy to sustain. Moreover, the nonviolent person challenges the violent person’s conception of the way things must be and causes a loss of self-assurance in the violent attacker. Just as jiu-jitsu requires a knowledge of balance and how to disturb it, so nonviolent resistance disturbs an attackers violence through a knowledge of love, returning anger with the will to reconciliation. Quite a useful metaphor, I think.

The next chunk of the book represents an argument for the usefulness of nonviolence. Promoting its efficacy, Gregg focuses on psychology and the different notions of how an attacker’s mind can be changed through nonviolent resistance. He eventually arrives at the conclusion that nonviolence can be an effective “substitute” for war because “it does not require state organization, direction or assistance; it is not used against the exterior forces and conditions of nature but against human wrongs and evils. It is therefore much more dramatic, interesting and alluring….It has even more possibilities of high daring, adventure, risk, bravery, endurance, and truly fine and noble romance than any of the chivalrous violent fighting of bygone ages” (102).

The final third of the book deals with disciplining people to practice nonviolence, starting out with an examination of how nonviolence is a much more effective form of persuasion than force, compulsion, and/or threats. Following his discussion of persuasion, Gregg talks about discipline and the need for training. I found this chapter interesting because of Gregg’s emphasis on habituating practices, particularly, upon repeating peaceable actions until they become one’s natural response. Such practice is important for forming us into nonviolent persons.

The final chapter of the book, then, is a training manual for nonviolence. (Here, too, I wonder what additions have been made in the last 50+ years.) The list includes:

  • Undergoing intense and special study of nonviolence, recommending The Autobiography of Mohandas K. Gandhi, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, “Civil Disobedience” in Walden and Other Writings, Stride toward Freedom, and Conquest of Violence
  • Proving space for group organization
  • Cultivating the qualities and sentiments which will lead people to take nonviolent action by “always speaking in a low, calm, gentle, evenly pitched tone of voice; exercising patience, self-control and courtesy in all the little daily functions of life; and always trusting the best in other people” and ridding oneself of “fear, anger, so-called ‘righteous indignation,’ pride, desire for conventional ‘respectability’ that has no firm moral basis, and desire for power over others” (154).
  • Having self-respect
  • Believing in unity of spirit, adding “Gandhi’s frequent statement that successful nonviolent resistance requires a firm belief in God. From his firm belief in God came his firm belief in nonviolent resistance” (157).
  • Loving others and recognizing everyone’s unity as humans
  • Developing moral courage
  • Taking action
  • Training through concrete deeds, especially manual labor

This list, I think, is quite helpful, and I would be interested to see how it has developed and what books have been added to his brief research bibliography.

All-in-all, I enjoyed this book. Though repetitive at times, it repeating the truth that nonviolence is superior to violence, having the power to transform oppression into liberation. I was challenged to take more concrete steps to be nonviolent in all my day-to-day actions and to hone my habits to create a personhood of nonviolence. And for that I think the book is most worthwhile.

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