Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation 

Working for peace, social justice and principled nonviolence since 1976

Home | Contact Us  | Donate or Volunteer

What “Nonviolence” Means – And Why It Works

~ Glen Anderson 

Essay #2 in the “Building an Effective Peace Movement” series:

This is the second in a series of articles exploring various ways the peace movement can strengthen itself and become more effective.  These articles recognize that:  (1) The way to win peace and social justice is through grassroots organizing to build an ever-larger movement of the general public;  (2) To win public opinion, nonviolence is both necessary and powerful;  (3) We need to strategize carefully to build this movement through a variety of smart campaigns and activities;  and (4) Details that might seem small can mean the difference between success and failure.  Every two months the Olympia (WA) Fellowship of Reconciliation is publishing another article related to one of these topics, although not necessarily in this 1-2-3-4 order.  The first article, “Grassroots People-Power Can Win Hearts and Minds,” appeared in the Olympia FOR’s December 2007-January 2008 newsletter and is on our website, www.olyfor.org


For peace & justice activists, is “nonviolence” simply a given – something that that we practice without thinking?  Or – as some folks imagine – it is merely a set of specific tactics, like linking arms together and sitting down to frustrate the police?  Or – as some other folks imagine – is it spiritually based and largely overlapping with their religious faith?  Or – as some folks imagine – is it a consciously chosen way of life that guides how we live our daily lives, what we eat, what jobs we’ll perform, and how we raise our kids?

Perhaps “nonviolence” is like the story of the blind people and the elephant.  Each person touched a different part of the elephant and characterized the elephant as being like that part.

Actually, nonviolence is probably all of those things – and more – and less – and different.  It’s amazing how different people understand nonviolence so differently!  The explanation below offers some useful ways – but not the only possible ways – to understand nonviolence.  The national Fellowship of Reconciliation’s website www.forusa has additional information, as does www.nonviolence.org  We also recommend the writings of Gandhi, King, Gene Sharp, and others.  Contact the Olympia FOR at (360) 491-9093 or info@olyfor.org for additional resources and referrals.

A creative alternative:

Peacemaking involves some methodologies and some techniques.  But a great deal of peacemaking has to do with attitude and faith.  If we approach situations with a peaceful attitude (friendliness, openness, respect for all, etc.) and with faith in the deep dynamics of nonviolence (e.g., the assumption that it’s possible to devise a workable solution using the principles explained below and totally free from violence), we are likely to do fairly well.  If we happen to know some technical peacemaking methodologies and techniques, so much the better!

In school we learn that there are two basic responses to danger:  “fight” or “flight.”  Actually, there is a third alternative:  nonviolent action.  This third option is to actively deal with the danger without using violence (“fight”) and without running away (“flight”).  Nonviolent responses might include various strategies of talking with the adversary (negotiating, appealing to conscience, re-framing the conversation, saying things to catch the adversary off guard, etc.).  A variety of creative nonviolent actions and behaviors can also be used to rewrite the “script” of what the adversary has in mind and what the conflict is really about.

Books and history and our own personal lives are full of these examples, but they are not often recorded as “nonviolent” responses.  The history we learn in school is mostly a sequence of wars and generals, so people are not taught to imagine – let alone practice – creative nonviolent alternatives to the “fight” or “flight” dichotomy.  Nonviolence is often referred to as a “creative third way.”

And it actually works!

Military violence is so widely accepted as a legitimate way to conduct foreign policy that our society ridicules people who reject war and call for a nonviolent foreign policy.  Mainstream politicians assume that it’s OK to attack other nations and to overthrow governments that the U.S. government doesn’t like.  Nonviolence challenges these basic cultural assumptions.

Nations have tried war for thousands of years, and it only results in deaths, bitterness, bankruptcy, and another cycle of wars.  War has a proven track record of making problems worse.  Violence is not only immoral but also ultimately self-defeating.  How ironic that pacifists are ridiculed as naïve, while militarists and mainstream politicians think that – even after thousands of years of failure – the next war will fix everything!

Actually, nonviolence works better than violence – especially over the long haul.  Martin Luther King often said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  As we all know from our 10th grade geometry class, an arc is a line that curves.  It doesn’t need to curve very much to qualify as an arc instead of a (geometrically straight) line, but an arc curves nonetheless.  And King affirms that history’s long track is on the side of justice!

Indeed, there is a long history of nonviolence actually working.  Gene Sharp’s amazing 3-volume series, The Politics of Nonviolence, documents 198 methods used over the past few thousand years.  The Olympia FOR has articles, books and videos documenting nonviolence’s success rate – a success rate that has grown remarkably over the past several decades!  Nonviolence really works!

The people who dismiss nonviolence as too “nice”  and “moral” for the “real world” don’t realize that nonviolence is also very practical and has a great track record of success.

Conflict has always existed, and conflict will always exist.  What nonviolence does is change the dynamics of conflict so the parties are able to pursue workable solutions. 

Ends and means:

I agree with Martin Luther King’s faith that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  I believe that the moral universe – and actual human society – work better:

~ When we practice justice rather than injustice;

~ When we live peacefully rather than violently;

~ When we speak the truth rather than deceive others;

~ When we respect the environment rather than abuse it.

Our responsibility is to live our lives in ways congruent with how the universe was designed to function – a world of justice and peace.  We need to actively work to promote justice and nonviolence in our local community and in the world around us.

One of the most important reasons why nonviolence works so well is that nonviolence uses means that are consistent with the ends.  If we want to build a world that is peaceful and just, we must use methods that are peaceful and just.  What we do sows the seeds of the world that will grow.  Violent and unjust seeds produce a violent and unjust world.  Peaceful and just seeds produce a peaceful and just world.

Violence keeps us “stuck” in cycles of vengeful and ineffective reactions.  In contrast:

~ Nonviolence rewrites the conflict’s “script” and creates fresh alternatives that allow people to actually solve the problems.

~ Nonviolence is consistent with how the universe wants to work (the arc that bends toward justice).

Nonviolence is sustainable:

Nonviolent solutions are sustainable because they are based on truth and they preserve the human dignity of all of the adversaries.

~ Nonviolence recognizes the essential humanity of our adversaries, even while we may strongly disagree with their behavior.

~ Nonviolence engages and cultivates the conscience and personal dynamics of the adversaries.

~ Nonviolence engages and cultivates the conscience and personal dynamics of the other people around us.

~ Nonviolence also protects and cultivates our own human dignity.

We live in a world – and in a nation – that seems to think it is exempt from the laws of nature:

~ That global climate problems don’t affect us;

~ That we can use as much oil as we want for as long as we want;

~ That we can dominate and exploit other nations year after year without any repercussions;

~ That we can use violence against others without provoking violence in return.

Our society is just now starting to understand that in environmental matters we cannot ignore Mother Nature’s laws without suffering serious consequences down the line.  Disregard for the environment is not sustainable.  Neither is disregard for human dignity.  Arrogance, violence, militarism and violations of human rights are chickens that come home to roost.  Our society’s contempt for peace and human rights around the world is hurting us at home too.  The 9-11 tragedy is only one piece of evidence.  Others are all around us, and more will appear.

In contrast, the values supporting nonviolence (truth, love, justice) are congruent with how the universe works best, so these values and nonviolence are sustainable.  We need to realign ourselves with the justice-based universe and resolve problems nonviolently. 

Choosing a nonviolent future:

Working for nonviolence is an uphill struggle, because the world’s powerful entrenched systems are built on power, greed, violence.  It will take a lot of work to turn things around.  Our society accepts violence as a given, so every day we need to re-learn the truth and power of nonviolence and substitute it in place of the lie and weakness of violence.

In a time when the domineering politics-as-usual is taking away our freedom, we need more freedom.  In a time when the domineering politics-as-usual is taking away due process for everyone, we need more due process for everyone.  In a time when the domineering politics-as-usual is imposing secrecy and interfering with people finding the truth and exchanging ideas, we need more searching for truth, and more open exchange of ideas.  We need to make our means consistent with our ends – and we in the peace & justice movement need to practice what we preach.  We need to walk our talk.  We need to practice the most scrupulous and profound nonviolence.

If we do this, we can succeed, because although “the arc of the moral universe” might seem very long, it does indeed bend toward justice!


For more information, resources and workshops

on effective grassroots organizing – contact

the Olympia Fellowship of Reconciliation at

(360) 491-9093 info@olyfor.org   www.olyfor.org

Home | Contact Us  | Donate or Volunteer