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Henry-David-ThoreauThis chapter in Ira Chernus’ American Nonviolence discusses the contributions of U.S. author Henry David Thoreau to the nonviolence movement.  Jumping to the end of the chapter, Chernus points out that, ironically, while people tend to count Thoreau among the heroes of nonviolence, Thoreau “never actually embraced the principle of nonviolence” (54).  He supported violent revolutionary acts such as John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry.  Neither did Thoreau have confidence in the efforts of social justice activists.  Thoreau saw social justice activists, at least those working to change policy and institutions, as wasting their time – he thought it was more important to change “individual souls” rather than social institutions: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root” (52).  He urged reformers to look within themselves and change themselves rather than trying to change others.

Still it seems he recognized that these individuals were the building blocks of society and societal institutions and that “one man expressing his own opinion amounted to the re-origination of many of the institutions of society” (53).  What Thoreau found to be of utmost interest and importance was waking each individual to follow their conscience — even when this means breaking unjust laws.

His philosophy of commitment to conscience led to his own short stay (one night) in jail for refusing to pay taxes which supported the U.S. war against Mexico and also a government (the U.S.) that supported slavery.  This experience led to his writing his infamous “Civil Disobedience” which in turn influenced Mohandas Gandhi and countless nonviolence activists.  This contribution to nonviolence theory is why Thoreau is still exalted as a nonviolence theorist.

Thoreau’s way of thinking moves beyond the thinking of Thomas Hobbes, who believed that any government was better than no government.  Hobbes believed that because people were innately selfish and brutish, that we must transfer our right to self-rule (and even violence) to the state.  Hobbes believed the government is a necessary evil.  To Hobbes, there is no such thing as an unjust law because right and wrong is determined by the law.

Thoreau on the other hand, sees justice as our primary loyalty, not laws.  He foresaw a day when this adherence to conscience by masses of individuals would lead to the obsolescence of the state — what Thoreau called a “glorious State.”  Rather than looking to the state for guidance and punishment, each would look to themselves and their own good conscience for what is morally right.  The state would wither and become unnecessary.  Chernus calls this Thoreau’s “political ideal” of “enlightened anarchy” (51).

Chernus, Ira. 2004. “Henry David Thoreau.” 45-55 in American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

March 31 marks the birthday of Cesar Chavez, one of the all-time heroes of Nonviolence. Cesar understood the interconnection between human rights, environmental stewardship, and animal protection. He taught us how our consumer choices affect the world around us. And he truly “walked the talk” — making consumer choices connected to his values of kindness, justice, and compassion for other people, for the planet, and for all animals. Ahead of his time? Or, maybe, just in time.

We thought it might be helpful for those of you interested in practicing and advancing Active Nonviolence to offer a synopsis of what, strangely and sadly, is a rare find — a book looking deeply into Cesar Chavez’ genius in understanding and using Nonviolence.

This is not a book “review” but rather a short synopsis for those who can’t find time to read further. For those who can make the time, we highly recommend it.

Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence
Orosco, Jose-Antonio. 2008.
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Orosco points out that the contributions of Cesar Chavez to Nonviolence theory have been largely ignored or overlooked (as in Ira Chernus’ American Nonviolence) or have been kept in the shadow of the contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s adaptations of the Nonviolent strategies of Mohandas Gandhi.  With Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence, Orosco places the spotlight on the unique aspects of Chavez’ contributions and the important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other Nonviolence theorists.

Orosco reminds us that Cesar Chavez (who only attended school through the eighth grade) tends not to be recognized in academic circles as an “intellectual” as are Gandhi, King, Richard Gregg, and Gene Sharp, but that this is an unfortunate oversight.  He calls Chavez a “community intellectual” – someone who may not come from the world of academia, but nonetheless contributes to an important body of knowledge.  Chavez’ knowledge instead comes from real-world experience and on-the-ground testing of his theories.  But Chavez was also an accomplished speaker and speech writer.  Most of Orosco’s claims of Chavez’ beliefs and strategies come from recorded and written speeches of Chavez during his activism spanning across four decades.

Orosco breaks the primary points of Chavez’ theory of Nonviolence into five distinct chapters:

Chapter one explains Chavez’ strategies for recruiting and activism.  He drew from his experiences in the Latino/a culture to create a three-fold strategy that included pilgrimage (as in marching and suffering together to create a community of activists), penitence (evoking Christian beliefs of penitence and his own stress on the importance of reflection on motivations to make them unselfish), and revolution (while Orosco admits Chavez was a reformist working through political channels, he shows that Chavez’ long-term goal was nothing short of transforming the U.S. culture to one of compassion and cooperation).

Chapter two includes a strong and effective rebuttal to claims by some academics (specifically Ward Churchill) and activist theorists (specifically Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon) that Nonviolence bows to the state and remains impotent by ignoring violent means as potentially effective in creating social change.  Orosco shows how Chavez claims that that type of thinking is limited in its creativity, ignores the true nature of power (as proposed by Gene Sharp and by Hannah Arendt), and is ultimately reverted to because of an inability to lead people (34).  Regarding the nature of power, Chavez makes an interesting point about government in this chapter saying that the type of government really doesn’t matter – the will of the people is where power lies.

Chapter three included Chavez’ reasoning behind the fruitlessness (and dangers) of property destruction, mostly because it contradicts the end goal of Chavez – a just society.

Chapter four speaks to the claims that machismo equals violence.  Chavez says that just the opposite is true – that giving one’s life to others is more powerful than taking lives.  He supports feminist theory and the idea that power and the means for maintaining power should be available to all not just those with physical or political might.  Orosco reminds us of the important roles of influential women in the lives of not only Chavez, but of Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King.

Finally, chapter five contrasts the use of time by King and Chavez.  King used “crisis time” to evoke change and to motivate activists, the public, and politicians.  Chavez resisted this tactic and instead set his strategy on moving toward a new social paradigm of collaboration.  This required everyday citizens to maintain a “daily commitment” to Nonviolence and to the strategies that would lead toward a more just society – not simply a crisis-motivated piece of legislation.  Orosco reminds us that King moved toward this strategic use of time and moral commitment after 1966 when he began to focus on the Vietnam War and the Poor People’s Campaign.

All one,


Take part TODAY!

The Compassion and Health Campaign – The World Peace Diet.

An extraordinary one-day event to spread the word about “The World Peace Diet.”  Lots of free gifts available if you take part in this one-day-only opportunity.  Here’s the message from our friends at The World Peace Diet…

As seekers of truth, compassion, and health, we are learning to question the assumptions of the established order, and to rely more on our inherent wisdom to bring healing and peace to our lives.

There is a book, written by our friend Dr. Will Tuttle, called The World Peace Diet. It helps you understand the power of food, and the cultural mentality reinforced by our practice of food, for many levels of healing-–physical, psychological, cultural, ecological, and spiritual.

Many people have called it a revelation, and one of the most important books of the 21st century.

Today, Friday, March 12, Dr. Tuttle is coordinating a special offer for this critically-acclaimed book called “The March 12 World Peace Diet Compassion and Health Campaign.” Please pick up a copy of The World Peace Diet today and pass one along to a friend, library, school, etc.

Many generous and caring sponsors have donated excellent bonus gifts and prizes to anyone who buys The World Peace Diet (today only).  Including! 🙂

There are downloadable audio books, recipes, music, e-books, discount coupons and the chance to enter drawings for some terrific prizes! There are over 50 gifts and prizes, all told, and anyone who buys the book on March 12 (only) is eligible to receive them. Here’s the link to this special campaign

It’s a great way to help animals, the Earth, hungry people, and all of us, and spread the message we believe in.

This is the page to go to – – everything is explained there.

P.S. – Please share this special offer with your friends and colleagues, and encourage them to do the same.  This is not an exclusive offer. The more of us who participate, the better it will be for everyone.  This is a one-day offer–March 12 only.  Thanx!

There’s no real word for Active Nonviolence. Nonviolence is one of those “non” words — a “not” word. But it is much more than not-violence. It is active, creative, courageous, sometimes complicated, often difficult, organized, and driven.

It’s difficult to describe, build, or recognize something that doesn’t have a name. Did the word smiths purposefully write Nonviolence out of our language and therefore out of our understanding?

Even Gandhi struggled with what to call the Nonviolent fight for India’s independence. He announced a contest to find the best word to describe the new powerful movement. Satyagraha, roughly translated from Sanskrit to mean “Truth-Force,” won the contest. But the word Satyagraha hasn’t entirely caught on… it doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

In his book, Nonviolence: 25 Lessons From The History of a Dangerous Idea (meaning “dangerous” to the status quo) Mark Kurlansky asks what if “war” was a non-word? What if the only word for war was “nonpeace?” When we would talk about waging nonpeace, our natural question would be, “Why? Why don’t we want peace?” Nonpeace seems abnormal and impotent. It’s a non-word afterall.

Kurlansky’s book goes on to explore historical examples of Nonviolence, question some of the reasons people support violence, and delve into the “25 Lessons” — all of which are summarized at the end of the book. Here are some “lessons” we found particularly interesting:

  • Practitioners of Nonviolence are seen as enemies of the state.
  • Once a state takes over a religion, the religion loses its Nonviolent teachings.
  • A rebel can be defanged (made less threatening to the status quo) and can be co-opted by making them into a saint after death.
  • Wars do not have to be sold to the general public if they can be carried out by an all-volunteer professional military.
  • A conflict between a violent and a Nonviolent force is a moral argument. If the violent side can provoke the Nonviolent side into violence, the violent side has won.
  • Violence does not resolve. It always leads to more violence.

Thanks for stopping by.  And thank you for all that you do.

🙂 matt