Old South, New Ways: Arun Gandhi Teaches Nonviolence in Alabama

Arun Gandhi, grandson of M. K. Gandhi, came to the Walnut Grove Methodist church near Birmingham to guide 50 people through a three-day retreat on nonviolence. With a quiet presence and a humble demeanor, this world class peacemaker and advisor to global leaders speaks with clarity and authority on the principles and practice of nonviolence.

As a young teenager living in South Africa, he was often ridiculed and attacked — by blacks for being too light skinned and by whites for being too dark. Arun was filled with anger at the humiliations and oppression he experienced in the apartheid system, so his parents sent him to India to learn from his grandfather.

One theme that Arun repeated during the weekend is how anger is a natural emotion and can be understood like the energy of electricity – that it can be good or bad. When used intelligently, anger can be channelled positively as a power for good. In a “culture of violence “ such as exists in our world today, anger causes 85-90% of that violence.

The retreat was organized by Jim and Shelley Douglass of the Mary’s House Catholic Worker, as part of their lifelong practice and promotion of nonviolence. Though many in attendance were Catholic, including some Benedictine sisters from the monastery in Cullman, Alabama, many other faith traditions were represented.

Rev. Ken Higgs of Birmingham’s Methodist Church of the Reconciler, noted that “Alabama makes North Carolina look like a Socialist state.” Through his ministry, Birmingham’s thousand homeless persons are served. At least half are veterans, he said. A van load of high school students from a private Episcopal school in Austin, Texas, checked into the dorm the day before we arrived and their spirited interactions went point-counter-point with their elders’ insights throughout the weekend of discourse and exercises.

Coleman’s technical assistance with the sound system and our help setting up the breakfast service during the weekend kept us active. As we had expected, the event drew a diverse group from Texas, New Orleans, Alabama, North Carolina and even Mexico. Our eclectic literature table attracted the students, and our interest in learning about the ways people do peace and justice work in Alabama, a bastion of the old south, kept us engaged in many lively conversations.

This past January Arun Gandhi was asked to resign his position as President of the Board of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. The Institute has been located at the University of Rochester since 2007. Gandhi had written two paragraphs on the Washington Post blog, On Faith, titled “Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence.” Within three weeks, according to reports, Gandhi was forced to resign as Director of the Institute he had founded after a storm of criticism that he was anti-Semitic by pro-Israel groups such as the Anti-DefamationLeague (ADL), the American Jewish Committee, and by pressure from the President of the University of Rochester, Joel Seligman. When questioned about the situation at the weekend retreat, Gandhi said that Jewish funders threatened to withhold money from the school as a consequences of his remarks. His apology, he said, was not for criticizing the use of violence by recent Israeli governments, but for any unnecessary hurt and anger caused by the way he made the criticisms.

Another perspective on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict was embodied in the presence of author and former CNN Middle East correspondent Jerry Levin. His capture in July 2002 and eleven-month imprisonment by the Hezbollah, ending in his escape, becomes a human narrative of commitment and transformation in his book West Bank Diary. Jerry, a Jew, has now converted to Christianity and is teaching nonviolence to Palestinians. Both he and his wife Sis brought their own form of giving to the dynamic of the retreat. Dr. Sis and Jerry Levin, founders of community Nonviolence Resource Center in Birmingham told us about their upcoming Conference Workshop: Teaching Creative Nonviolence- Education’s Missing Link, to be held at Birmingham Southern College in November.

“We have translated religion into meaningless ritual,” Gandhi told the mostly faith-based group. “Get to the essence and use the essence to build yourself and make a better human being of yourself.” Addressing his remarks to the students, Gandhi said “the whole education system is based on creating technocrats for industry. The ambition you young people need is not how to make millions but how to become a better human being.” Gandhi continued, “Life is not about moving in circles, but more about climbing a ladder. Every day take time to consider how to be better today than yesterday; each day a rung, climbing higher and higher.”

“Nonviolence is more than just not fighting; this does not equal peace,” Gandhi said. There is both physical and passive violence – conscious and unconscious. Ignoring how the products we use daily are made would be a passive violence against nature. Ignoring our affluent society and wasting our resources is a passive violence against humanity. If you were to plot your daily experience of physical versus passive violence, you will discover that the passive greatly outweighs the physical. It is this passive violence, which is mostly unspoken, that fuels physical violence or the need to strike back.

We don’t live in a perfect world, Gandhi said. So until we have created the perfect world we will be forced to occasionally accept some lesser form of violence in order to avoid a greater amount. When asked about abortion, Gandhi was treading on contentious ground with this group. His clear and firm response that abortion is “not a societal matter or a matter for government…it’s a woman’s choice,” diverted the conversation for awhile as the group attempted to listen, both to those who appreciated the moral complexities of the issue, and those who could not accept it as a woman’s choice.

Other themes discussed throughout the weekend included:

  • Trusteeship: We each have talent and think we own it to exploit for our own gain. We don’t own; we’re in trust of these talents and need to share them with and for the betterment of others.
  • Constructive Programs: The sense of making others self-sufficient. Providing assistance, not out of pity, such as giving the homeless money just to make them go away.
  • Greed of American Capitalism: As a society, our behavior is counter-intuitive to self-sufficiency, decentralization, and community. That we’re seeing the effects of our living beyond our means through the current recession. Materialism and morality have an inverse relationship and that materialism makes for more greed.
  • Anonymity of Mega-cities: Neighborhoods in our cities are just localities and do not automatically produce community. It’s not enough to just live somewhere. Humans must have an understanding of who else is around and how folks are interconnected.
  • Living with Violence: Until we have created the perfect world we will be forced to occasionally accept some lesser form of violence in order to avoid a greater amount, such as defending yourself if you being attacked.

In a group exercise, Gandhi listed what his grandfather named as the SevenDeadly Sins:·

  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Knowledge without humanity
  • Commerce without morality
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without Sacrifice
  • Politics without Principles, and another Arun added:·
  • Rights without responsibility

How do these lead to violence? What would the opposites mean as well? In our next posting, to really do justice to the Gandhi retreat, we will expand on some of the themes and exercises that have deepened our understanding of the practice of nonviolence as a lifetime pursuit.


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