For James Morris Lawson Jr. (1928-2024)

James Lawson in Nashville, Tennessee, March 1, 1960 Paul Schleicher, Nashville Public Library Digital Collections

A free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation of life, not of death.

Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics

I think that we have to lay the seeds by which we can take government out of the hands of the oligarchy and out of the hands of the military and put it back into the hands of truth and the beloved community. That needs to be our goal in the twenty-first century, and I think that it’s a goal that we can achieve if all around the country ordinary people get involved in it.

James Morris Lawson Jr.

We have never categorically defended or condemned violence or nonviolence, independently of whether they are set forth as absolute or as circumstantial strategic and/or tactical means to ethical-political ends. We have expressed and shared views that cover the spectrum of positions on the debate. But we believe the debate to be open and we recognise the force of all of those who participate in it.

On this occasion, and in memory of the work and “revolutionary nonviolence” of the Reverend James Morris Lawson Jr., we share below the first two chapters from his book, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Organizing for Freedom (University of California Press, 2024), in which he passionately defends the power of nonviolence.

We precede this with a short biography of James Lawson from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee-SNCC website and succeed it with links to three important conversations with him around his own politics and his views on the Occupy Wall Street movement.

James Lawson

September 22, 1928 – June 9, 2024
Raised in Massillon, Ohio

While in prison as a conscientious objector to the Korean War, James Lawson wrote, “I’m an extreme radical which means the potent possibility of future jails. My life will be rather exciting, and (will) offer security only in the sense of service to God’s Kingdom.” After his release from prison in 1953, Lawson traveled to India as a Methodist church missionary and studied satyagraha–loosely meaning “insistence on truth”–the philosophical heart of Mohandas Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to British colonialism. After returning home three years later, and keenly interested in the Montgomery bus boycott, he met Martin Luther King, Jr., who later called Lawson “the greatest teacher of nonviolence in America.”

Encouraged by Rev. King to move south, Lawson enrolled in Vanderbilt University’s Divinity school and began cultivating a group of potential activists. In a Nashville church basement in November 1959, he led the first nonviolence workshop for students like Diane NashBernard LafayetteJames BevelMarion Barry, and John Lewis. Lawson taught non-retaliation strategies and instilled a deep belief in the potential of nonviolent direct action to achieve equality. “I discovered that practical and real power of truth and love,” Diane Nash later recalled about the workshops. For her, the principles Lawson taught were “invaluable in shaping the kind of person I’ve become.”

When four students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro three months later, Lawson’s cohort of nonviolent activists were ready. They had been testing lunch counters since the December, and they joined the Greensboro students’ efforts by sitting in at the same chain stores in Nashville.

In April 1960, Ella Baker invited James Lawson to give the keynote speech at SNCC’s founding meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. His influence with “borning” the organization was profound in its first year. He drafted SNCC’s original Statement of Purpose, which began, “We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our belief, and the manner of our action.”

As sit-ins accelerated in Nashville, Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt Divinity School because of his central role in them. Ten Divinity School professors, including the Dean, resigned. Lawson later refused an offer of reentry as a student but in 2005 became a distinguished visiting professor there.

Lawson moved to Memphis in 1962 and became a pastor of the Centenary Methodist Church. Six years later, he helped develop an organizing strategy for Memphis’s Black sanitation workers. On February 12, 1968, 1300 Black sanitation workers went on strike under Lawson’s leadership. They demanded a pay raise, overtime, and union recognition. When the mayor refused to negotiate, Lawson and the workers persisted, organizing rallies and a sit-in at city hall. Union leader Jerry Wulf said, “They feared Lawson for the most interesting of all reasons – he was a totally moral man, and totally moral men you can’t manipulate and you can’t buy and you can’t hustle.”

Dr. King came to Memphis to lend his support to the strike. It was there that he was tragically murdered at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. Afterwards, President Lyndon Johnson sent federal troops to Memphis, and the sanitation workers achieved their demands for wage increases, union recognition, and a grievance procedure.

James Lawson left the South in 1974. He became the pastor at Holman Methodist Church in Los Angeles, where he continued to fight for workers’ rights and racial equality.

(Source: SNCC Digital Gateway)

The Power of Nonviolence in the Fight for Racial Justice

I have been teaching nonviolence for the past sixty years, since the launch of the Nashville sit-in campaign in 1960. Although I have taught nonviolence over the decades, this is the first publication that captures my teachings on the four steps to a nonviolent campaign.

Nonviolence is a living and breathing science. It has been called the most powerful force on earth, one that has shaped human history and propelled us forward. Since 1789, the United States has not reached a consensus on the meaning and practice of nonviolence. From 1789 until 1954, the Supreme Court never issued a decision that said all the residents of the United States of America are the people of the United States of America. On the contrary, the Supreme Court declared in several cases that Black people had no human rights that any white person needed to consider. The Supreme Court also said that a corporation is a person and therefore is a recipient of the human rights that God the Creator has given all humankind. And until very recently, the Supreme Court did not acknowledge that women are of equal worth and equal importance in our society.

Why is it that we have the United States badly divided by racism, by sexism, by white supremacy, and by violence, but we do not have a consensus that we can make the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble of the Constitution apply to all? America has been shaped by a history of slavery, genocide, and settler colonialism, with capitalists seeing the world as their plantation. Black people in Memphis used to refer to this as the plantation mentality. The governing theories, philosophies, and practices that shape our political, economic, social, and cultural life are based on what I call plantation capitalism.

The situation after the election on November 3, 2020, illustrates the point that we have not yet developed a human consensus that the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble of the Constitution must be interpreted and understood, with their vast humanistic power for the betterment of the human race. We still contend and struggle with each other to see this nation go forward as “We the people of the United States of America.”

Multitudes of Americans do not understand that our present freedoms represent the consequences of three essentially nonviolent movements of the twentieth century: the push by women for the right to vote, especially the period between 1910 and 1920; the labor movement and the worker strikes, from the 1930s to the 1960s; and then what the late Congressman John Lewis has called the nonviolent movement of America, which others have termed the Civil Rights Movement, from 1953 to 1973.

In all three of these major movements, you see millions and millions of people struggling to shape a more democratic society. But the opposition to that today still comes from racism, sexism, and the violence of plantation capitalism. The slow climb in the quality of life for millions of people is not a result of plantation capitalism and big business. The power structures have not done this. The power structures have not made the workplace safer. The improvement of workers’ lives hasn’t come about by the big banks or the Chamber of Commerce or Congress or the president. It has come about because we the people have done the work to organize.

We have recently experienced perhaps the largest, most creative nonviolent movements that have captured the imagination of the human family. The general term for that campaign is Black Lives Matter, and it has resulted in millions of people in the streets in peaceful marches and largely peaceful demonstrations. In the summer of 2020, it brought together people from all sections of the country in an estimated twenty-four hundred locations in all fifty states, in more than seventy-three hundred demonstrations, as well as in protests in other parts of the world.[1]

In this moment, we need to understand nonviolence more than ever. In the early part of the twentieth century, Gandhi proceeded to experiment with nonviolent struggle and also drew from the religion of Jainism. Nonviolence is a philosophy and a methodology he called “satyagraha,” putting together the Indian word satya, meaning primarily truth, God, soul, spirit, or love, with graha, meaning strength, power, or force. We also call it soul force.

We are now witnessing a struggle in which many different groups that have been recipients of the hostility of the nation have demanded that their rights be recognized and that discrimination against them end. But during much of our history, neither the Supreme Court, nor Congress, nor the White House have been forthright allies for the affirmation or the practical application of these human rights for all the people of our country. Some talk about our past as though it is an ideal past, rather than acknowledge the intense struggles that we have gone through and that continue. In doing so, they belittle and they limit the present moment of conversation and struggle.

The Black Lives Matter movement presents another evolutionary period for the awakening of the American people in this, the United States of America. Millions of us now as never before are demanding that our sociopolitical structures become thoroughly equal, thoroughly democratic, thoroughly just, thoroughly manifesting the total human rights of all the people of this country.

The media talk about tension, while they misplace what the tension is about. The tension is not between political parties or between different understandings of the economy. The tension is in fact about the visions and the dreams in the language of our historical documents and the way we seek to implement them today.

We are perhaps the first generation of the people of the United States of America who are contending with the full spectrum of the issues that afflict the human family. No previous generation has struggled with the wide, huge variety of human issues from the ancient and immediate past that have prevented the human race from advancing as far as we could advance.

This is why the introduction of nonviolent struggle with that language is the most important invention out of the twentieth century leading into the twenty-first century, when we know much more about nonviolent history and nonviolent theory. The twentieth century produced many campaigns that helped us to see the possibilities of nonviolence. We have seen that the way of nonviolent struggle can replace violence, war, hostility, and fear and instead, help us to embrace courage and character.

We must not allow this tension in this struggle to cool off. We must do the work that needs to continue. We need to make an urgent effort, an urgent push to understand the history and practice of nonviolence – even as we understand that we are still neophytes in applying this energy that has always been with the human race – and to apply it to our own pragmatic concerns. The nonviolent invention from the twentieth century has another major quality that Americans have not yet carefully examined: it comes from our own long history of nonviolence, it comes from Gandhi, and it comes from Martin Luther King Jr.

In contrast to nonviolence, the way of violent conversation, violent structures of inequity and injustice, is the way that will turn our planet into a hothouse and then into an ice-cold Mars. Military violence, domestic violence, the continued lynching of people in the prison systems and by the police—that system of violence is causing our society to sink into greater and greater chaos, turmoil, confusion, animosity, and division. The contemporary world has too much violent rhetoric and violent means and weaponry. Either the nations and the peoples of the world will pick up nonviolent struggle, or the current way in which the world moves will conclude with the massive suicide of the human race and life as we know it on this planet Earth.

Human life as we know it is such a powerful mysterious stream of energy and powers, and I submit that nonviolence is the only way to make progress for the well-being of the human family. It is the only way we the people of the United States can proceed to make equality, liberty, justice, and the beloved community a reality at every crossroads, in every rural and urban area of this country and the world. There are never any guarantees, but it is important to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world.

Understanding Violence and Nonviolence

Our society has a very long history of violence, which we largely deny again and again. We pretend that we are the most peaceful people in the world, that it’s the other people who are violent. It is very difficult then for people to wrap their heads around the idea that there may be far superior ways of getting things done. Most of us have been weaned and nurtured on the mythology that if you want to make any kind of serious change, violence is the way to do it. A lot of us male people think that if we want to have a stable family, we have to be in charge, and we are the boss. And if this means a little roughness – even physical roughness or abuse – we do it. This is a form of violence that is prevalent across the United States and is not talked about, which makes it much more devastating for children and women and even for the men themselves, though they may not understand this.

Violence thrives at the government level as well. Since World War II, which I lived through as a high school student, we have systematically deserted the Constitution and its historic roots. The Constitution says that civilians will be in charge of the military. The people who wrote that lived in a time when the military was extremely strong, when there were draft acts in Europe and Great

Britain, and many men were drafted for the expansionary adventures of Western Europe. The writers of the Constitution wanted to see if they could slow down that history of tyranny and dictatorship, so they made the president of the United States the commander in chief and gave Congress control and oversight of the budget. All that has largely been thrown out the window. It is now the military and the huge private profiteering industry of war that runs the Congress and the White House. That’s the reality.

So when we got hit with terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, and the whole nation was bewildered and hurting, our president said we must do something. And what is that something? It is, “We go to war.” So we go to war. That’s an illustration of doing the wrong thing, and it only increased the quagmire and further complicated the issues. It resolved nothing. And that’s why a nonviolent perspective says that oftentimes doing nothing, that digging in to analyze and investigate, is better than any kind of immediate action. The kinds of military escalations and violence we have all around the world are proving to be the number one enemy of the human race and especially of women and children.

My point is that it is extremely difficult for us to wrap our heads or hearts or wisdom around the notion that there is such a thing as nonviolence – a nonviolent theory, nonviolent techniques, and nonviolent strategy that can make things change so that in the end, there is a better feeling among a much larger number of people. There may be diehards who disagree. For example, in the Montgomery bus boycott of December 5, 1955, to January 17, 1956, a lot of white people in Montgomery and Alabama were outraged that the bus boycott had effectively stymied a piece of segregation and hatred. The other side of the story in Montgomery, Alabama, was that Black people were treated miserably. There were lots of incidents with bus drivers and police that outraged Black people year after year before they finally did the boycott. But there were still white people at the end who just could not stand it. And so you have people like that still in the United States, who have not yet bothered to do some searching to truly join the human race and to find their own role with human affections, human understanding, and human perspectives.

It’s extremely difficult for us to wrap our heads around nonviolence. And yet, most people in the world basically are nonviolent, or they want to be nonviolent. Most people do not raise children by hammering them with abuse or violence; most people starting families try to love one another. Most people do not profess to “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth.” There is a common human wisdom that Gandhi expressed well when he said, “If you practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, very soon everyone is blind and everyone is toothless.”

Most people are not supporting the wars in their countries. For example, the women and children in Sudan, who are the major victims there, they do not like war, and they do not like the violence. They do not like the abject overthrowing of their lives and the turmoil, hatred, injuries, and deaths, or the starvation, malnutrition, and hunger. Whether it’s Liberia or Sierra Leone or in old Yugoslavia in the nineties, most people do not like war in their midst. People do not want to join an armed rebellion, which is why it is so hard to find soldiers who will submit themselves to the training, the discipline, and the hardship or who are willing to obey the leadership in an armed force. Most people have not joined such efforts. So, I don’t think the people of the world are violent per se. But I do think that a lot of the national leadership across the earth is consumed by a lust for power, which makes them horrible leaders for their nations. I could name many nations, but I will name only one: the United States of America.

Violence Is Abuse of Power

Let me define two things to begin. I will define violence and compare it to nonviolence. To define violence, let me first define power. Part of my quarrel with passivism or “pacifism” I arrived at in 1947 after I was already experimenting with the passage of scripture in 5:38 Matthew, about turning the other check. People called this passivism or pacifism. As I learned about pacifism, people were talking as if pacifism has no power, and I disagree with that. So I did some study on that and concluded that power can be defined as simply the capacity to achieve purpose, as the ability to make things happen. You have to have a certain power to do that.

The difficulty is that we think of power as electric or nuclear power or the power of Rupert Murdoch through the media, and so forth. But we need to bring the idea of power back into our own understanding and under our own control. If you watch the birth and growth of a baby, you will see power. You see the power of physical development—the development of the eyes, the hands, the toes, the limbs. You see the power of curiosity. You see the baby pushing to sit up, to crawl. That’s all power, friends. And one of my definitions of nonviolence is that it is the creative energy that we each receive with birth and with life. It can take a variety of forms – mental, social, language, thought – but it is power. Part of our problem is we get confused in our social and political environments to think that we have no power when in fact we were birthed with it. This is not original with me. Aristotle said that power is the capacity to accomplish purpose.

So that said, I will define violence. Violence is the use of power to harass, intimidate, injure, shackle, kill, or destroy a person or persons. It is accomplishing a purpose that is negative, that is intimidation, harassment to persons or a village or a nation, with the result that we deprive the people we’re pushing against of their right to shape their own lives and their access to the things that make life possible. So sexism is a form of violence. Racism is a form of violence. Those are structural violence. Slavery was kept in place by violence. Sexism is kept in place through the abuse of and violence against women and children. Violence is an abuse of power. It is a misuse of power. And my contention is that while many people may have the power to do such things, I maintain they have no right to do such things. They are usurping rights. And remember that the Declaration of Independence declares that we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all are created equal, that all are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is power. And violence is the abuse of power.

Violence is not about simply physically beating up, injuring, or killing. It’s about intimidation. It’s about harassment. It is about seeing other human beings as less than human. Nothing is more dangerous to the United States and to its three-hundred-plus million people than the public conversation, the education, that teaches us that we are an exceptional people and that we’re not like other members of the human race or the human family.

Violence destroys rather than builds. Violence prevents human beings from putting the issues on the table and conjuring up the courage to look at them from the perspective of seeking a solution, healing, and the sort of compromises that lead you a little bit in the right direction. Violence destroys and hates. Violence against violence escalates violence. It doesn’t solve any of the human problems. Give some of us nonviolent religious people in the United States all the money we are spending on war and the military and the freedom to put it to work for a different society, and in a decade, you will have a different society in this land of ours.

I have named sexism and racism as violence. I can add materialism and greed as other -isms, and these have taught many of us not to respect one another and to be suspicious of our own worth. It is not common sense to believe that I have been created in the likeness of the universe and the likeness of life and the likeness of God, but you haven’t, and you haven’t, and you haven’t, and you haven’t. It makes me insecure and suspicious of my own worth if I believe that other people don’t exemplify the creative force that I claim for myself.

Violence is Ineffective

The social theorists tell us that you cannot have a violent revolution if you have a monopoly of military power in the hands of the government. I used to say in the South in the sixties and the fifties, “If you want to use violence, are you going to have sufficient numbers of troops to beat the local police or the sheriff and his forces?” If you are going to prepare for a violent conflict, you are going to have to do it underground, you are going to have to have a high degree of discipline and secrecy, and you better have at least a sufficient force that you can take on the local police and beat them at their own game. And then if you are able to beat the local police, you better be able to beat the state police, then the National Guard, then the Navy, then the Army. There are militia groups talking about a race war in the United States, and they are talking about a war against the government. That is sheer nonsense. They may do fine in their mock wars in the woods of Michigan or Texas, but they could not fight the US government and its military. Even a man like Jesus nearly two thousand years ago told the story of a king who wanted to fight another king for his territory. The first king discovered that the other had ten thousand troops, while he had only five thousand, so he decided wisely that that was not a good venture.

So, there is impracticality to violence. It’s ineffective and has been ineffective throughout the world for too many years. We must not let people who romanticize or mythologize violence persuade us that it has proven to be efficacious. It has proven to be the number one enemy of the human race for the last sixty, eighty years, if not before. Since World War II at least, it has proven to be the most ineffective weapon. It drains emotional, psychological, moral, and spiritual energy with no good consequences.

I want to urge you today to the spiritual and moral task of creating a revolution that is utterly necessary in the twenty-first century. And when I use the term revolution, I do not mean violence.

Nonviolence Is a Force More Powerful

From the perspective of Gandhi, nonviolence is the use of power to try to resolve conflicts, injuries, and issues in order to heal and uplift, to solidify community, and to help people take power into their own hands and use their power creatively. Nonviolence makes the effort to use power responsibly. It’s personal, and that’s why Gandhi spoke of it as a way of life, a lifestyle that determines all of our relationships with one another, the way we deal with our families, friends, and neighbors.

At the root of nonviolence is the notion that within each person there is not only a spark of God, as the Quakers say, but also the spark of love and compassion. I hear many people saying, “I’m not going to love my enemy.” As Martin King points out so very well, when Jesus said to love thy enemy, he was not talking about friendship love, nor was he talking about romantic love. He was not talking about deep liking and appreciation. He was talking about what the Quakers and William Penn pledged to the Native Americans during colonial times: how even though we are very different, and we come from different countries and different cultures with many different languages, we have a common human experience that we can show each other and that we can come to respect.

There is no other way. It cannot be done with hatred. It can only be done by people who have compassion and awareness of their own lives in the light of creation. It cannot be done by insulting other people, cannot be done with the gun or the fist, cannot be done with bombs. We three-hundred-plus million people of the United States can be healed of our fears and our animosities, our hurts and our pains, but that can only happen if we adopt a nonviolent perspective, daring to put the issues on the table in front of us no matter the pain, walking through them and putting together the ethos and principles that can create in the United States a new earth and a new heaven. And I think if religion is valid, as I understand it for myself and for my family, I think religion must get out of the pews and become a movement for the moral, intellectual spirituality that can help us become the people that God has created us to be.

When Jesus said, “Love thy enemy,” he meant by that to have respect for the opponent. Do not demonize the opponent. See the opponent as another human being like yourself. That doesn’t mean to underestimate the opponent. I have problems with the way professional and university sports are financed, but I nevertheless have great respect for athletics, which I myself have enjoyed all my life and which I have coached. But one of the things I like most about sports is that when you go into a game, you dare not disrespect your opponent. Great football or basketball teams spend a lot of time studying the films of their opponents, studying every member of the other team, because, on any given day, any team can beat the other team. The point I’m making is, that’s a good definition of “Love thy enemy.”

Don’t malign the enemy or demonize the enemy or say all kinds of bad things about the enemy. Know the strengths of the enemy, because your best strategy, in the case of football or politics, is to thoroughly appreciate and understand the enemy as someone who is nevertheless like you – different language, different creed, different culture, different country, but nevertheless fundamentally born out of the creative urge of the universe, out of the creative urge of the Creator. And this is what we have not done in the United States.

In the twenty-first century, we can advance in our self-governance; our ideals can become the tools of our hands and the weapons of our mind and speech. Or we can let things deteriorate to the point that the nonsensical things of violence and war dominate. No matter what happens in the presidential elections, only the people together can make the changes that will forge a new political order and a different perspective of ourselves. I would urge you to that task, to making the economic issue one of the fundamental issues. If a community is afraid to move, then maybe what you have to do is start one on one with people. Don’t give speeches like mine or congregational sermons, but instead do quiet study and conversation with one or two people. The nonviolent way is, if you see an issue, you investigate it by pulling together a handful of people and unpacking it until you see some ways that you can work to change it.

That’s the first step of the Gandhian methodology called nonviolence.

Soul Force. Spirit Force. Love Force. Truth Force.

I would like to explain some of the influences on India’s Mahatma Gandhi. When he was a child, his parents practiced Jainism, a very ancient form of religion in India. It may have been as long as four hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth that they invented a theology or a kind of philosophy called ahimsa, which can be translated, according to Gandhi, as nonviolence. And their principle was that you have to live in such a way that you do not injure life, any life. So in India where Jainism is practiced, you may see a person wearing a mask across his nose and mouth because he does not want to breathe in a gnat and thereby kill the gnat. Gandhi was raised in this philosophy as a child, and he always thought that that was the way that he should live.

In South Africa then, he was trying to figure out what to do about the oppression by the South African government of Indians who had been brought in or immigrated into Africa to build the railroads and to do a lot of the menial work. That sounds familiar here in the United States, doesn’t it? But then it turned bad, and they had a lot of nativism and racism going on. As he found himself in the middle of that, he began his experiment in Pretoria. One of the things he did at that time was read the Bible. He was a great reader of all kinds of books, and when he read for the first time the four books on Jesus, he said, “Aha, that’s it. That’s what I’ve always believed, and that’s what I want to try to do.”[2]

In all the wisdom of the human race, there is a cross-fertilization that was an important piece of Gandhi’s philosophy. He later said that nonviolence is as ancient as the human race and that it is the best-kept secret of human history. If you read American history books, you do not read about the movements of peace, strikes, or boycotts that effected change on a local level and brought meaningful improvements in people’s lives. When Gandhi launched his fifty-year experiment, he did not like any of the terms he’d heard. He did not like “nonresistance,” he did not like “passive resistance,” he did not like “pacifism,” which were all bandied about in certain Christian circles. He liked none of them, so he set out to invent his own word.

He recovered “ahimsa” from his youth and translated it as “nonviolence.” But the other thing he did was to have a contest in his newspaper, Indian Opinion, out of Pretoria. That was one of the things that he put together for the movement that he was organizing, after some of the first great moments of three thousand or four thousand people tearing up their official governmental ID cards and going to jail to protest the treatment of Indians. He asked, “How do we name this?” He took in suggestions and out of those, he took two words: satya, meaning truth, and Gandhi also said that it was synonymous with love, synonymous with spirit; and then graha, synonymous with tenacity, synonymous with force, power, firmness, strength. Satyagraha can be translated into the term “soul force,” which is the term I most like for nonviolence.

Soul force. Spirit force. Love force. Truth force. Wisdom force. Soul force is a twentieth-century term, and we have to wrap our minds around this. A tremendous number of twentieth-century terms people sometimes want to say came from the eighteenth century or even the first century, and it’s not true at all. The terms, for example, homosexuality or heterosexuality—these are twentieth-century terms. They were invented toward the end of the nineteenth century, but they were most used in the twentieth century. And I should say that folk who think that these terms are in places like the Bible are quite mistaken. The Bible says no such thing; it hardly mentions anything about human sexuality. So people who want to force into the Bible stuff from the twentieth century are taking on themselves a little bit of tyranny in their interpretations. The point I make here is that satyagraha, soul force, is a twentieth-century term.

One of the great things about Gandhi was that he was not only a speaker but also a writer. Sometimes he wrote as many as three and six hours a day, examining what he was doing and why, putting together his methodology, and collecting nonviolent techniques. It is Gandhi, in fact, who insists that the nonviolent way of doing work is far more rooted in science and reason than violence is, far more rooted in approaching a problem systematically. After fifty years with massive success in South Africa and great success in India, he left us essays and writings that in the Indian government’s collection fill one hundred volumes, describing his theory of nonviolence and some of the methodology.[3]

America’s Longstanding Traditions of Nonviolence

In our own history, we have had a rather extraordinary story of nonviolent behavior. For example, can you name the colony where there were no killings or wars between the Indigenous people and the settlers for a period of something like seventy-five years? In 1681, William Penn, a Quaker, got a charter from the king to settle

the area that we now call Pennsylvania. Before he went to that area, he found the names of Indigenous people and wrote them letters, saying, “We are coming to live with you as neighbors. We are not going to harm you. We respect you. It is our belief ” – and it was as radical a belief then as it is now – “that every human being has within them a spark of God, and we want to honor that spark of God in you, as we honor it in ourselves.”

For approximately seventy-five years, the Quakers were in charge of the Pennsylvania colony, and not one settler or one Native American was killed. William Penn and John Wohlman went around the colony, talking to the first settlers and to the Native Americans, as a wonderful example of that word that you see in the press often today: evangelicals. They were evangelicals in the best sense of the word. They went about encouraging people to live as sisters and brothers, to live as citizens, common dwellers in the colony of Pennsylvania. There were Indian wars in New York, the north, wars in the east, Delaware, wars in the south, Maryland, and elsewhere. There were no wars in the colony of Pennsylvania for the years that the Quakers had a majority vote and voted in a Quaker policy. That’s one of the finest stories in human history anywhere. It is one of the finest stories in our own history, but it’s not taught in our schools.[4]

I should say that the word nonviolence was unknown at that time. In 1681, some of the Quakers may have used the term passive resistance; some may have called it nonresistance. Those are two terms in the literature on the history of nonviolence, and they have a fairly ancient past. There is another Christian group called the Anabaptists—the Mennonites and the Brethren—who use the term nonresistance. That word comes from Jesus of Nazareth. Now when I use the name Jesus of Nazareth, I want you to do a little intellectual exercise. Dismiss from your mind, your heart, and your understanding any dogma about Jesus of Nazareth and especially dogma about supernaturalism, supernatural God, and all that stuff. I’m saying this as an active follower of Jesus since a very early age, and I’m saying it as a United Methodist pastor who pastored in churches for forty-three years. The supernaturalism and the dogma of the church about Jesus make it very difficult for the church to really talk about the spirituality or the religion of Jesus. So much of the stuff is about Jesus and not of Jesus.

Nonresistance comes from the way Jesus himself, in the book of Matthew in the Christian Bible in the fifth chapter beginning at the thirty-eighth verse, says, “Do not violently resist the evildoer,” and, “If that person is trying to hurt you, someone knocks you on the one cheek, turn the other. If someone makes you go one mile, go two miles.” This is hard stuff, isn’t it? But it’s a part of the foundation of the theory of nonviolence. And some Christians did call that nonresistance or passive resistance. I am not sure what the Quakers called it, but I think they called it respecting the spark of God in each person and working with that.

So there’s a wonderful history of nonviolence in the United States, though that term was not established until the twentieth century, when it was introduced by Mohandas Gandhi of India. I think that each of us has a personal responsibility to try to sense how God speaks to us in terms of the pain that people are experiencing and then to try to organize in the best way we can – and not do it by ourselves but do it with other people – investigate, research, build a little community, and then adopt specific tasks that you are willing to try to accomplish. I think that’s the way to go.

Begin Where You Are

In the Nashville movement, I followed that process. We had the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference that would first counsel with a number of excellent human beings to do training on nonviolent struggle, and then we met every week for three to four months. It takes discipline. We assessed our situation in Nashville, and we listed every issue that we could think of that was an unhelpful, unhealthy element in the city for all people, but especially for Black people. And then we went back for another three months, and we examined them with one purpose in mind: in the light of the need for change. For the Montgomery bus boycott, where do we begin? We made the choice by listening to many of the women in those meetings, which would usually include around thirty people. Based on what the women recommended, we said, “We will desegregate downtown Nashville,” and that’s how the sit-in campaign began in 1959 and 1960.

And when we said desegregate, we did not mean just the ability to buy a hamburger. We meant bringing the “colored” and “white” signs down. We meant jobs for Black people across the community, in banks and stores and so forth. We meant all of those things, and we worked for two or three years there making that happen. So we first did an assessment, and there was a common mind in that assessment of our first task. It was a big task, but we did not try to tackle it as a big task. We took the first piece of it and worked on it, and that helped us to work on many other parts of it in 1960, 1961, and beyond.

So, begin where you are. That’s what I say. As anxiety-ridden as that can be, begin where you are in your own situation, and see what happens. But I think the important word is, begin. Let’s do it.

[1] Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman, “This Summer’s Black Lives Matter Protesters Were Overwhelmingly Peaceful, Our Research Finds,” Washington Post, October 16, 2020. For Chenoweth’s research on nonviolence and international conflict, see Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[2] Gandhi began as an immigrant lawyer in South Africa with no knowledge of the apartheid system, which he experienced as a member of an in-between, “colored” caste, below the white ruling class and misled to believe they were above the Black masses. It took him time to understand racism in all its dimensions. Activists today are reexamining Gandhi’s early racial views, understanding that they changed dramatically to a universal regard for all human beings regardless of caste, color, or religion. See Mary Elizabeth King, “How South Africa Forced Gandhi to Reckon with Racism and Imperialism,” Waging Nonviolence, October 1, 2019,; and Mary Elizabeth King, “Can We Celebrate Gandhi’s Achievements While Also Learning from His Errors?” Waging Nonviolence, October 4, 2019, https://wagingnonviolence. org/2019/10/can-we-celebrate-gandhis-achievements-while-also-learningfrom-his-errors/. Caste and religious distinctions would later afflict the independence movement in India, and Gandhi’s staunch opposition to both led to his assassination by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948.

[3] Rev. Lawson based his own experiments with truth on Gandhi’s practice. M.?K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957, 1993). See also Anthony C. Siracusa, Nonviolence before King: The Politics of Being and the Black Freedom Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).

[4] This example is not meant to discount the history of land theft and genocide by Europeans against Native peoples but to point out that nonviolence offered other possibilities.

The two interviews with James Lawson mentioned earlier may be found here and here, and for a roundtable discussion with Angela Davis and James Lawson on Occupy Wall Street, click here.

Samuel M. Simpkins/The Tennessean, 18/01/2016
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