No Other Way: The Hard-Nosed Realism of Nonviolent Love

A Course in Miracles tells us that attack leads to danger and fear, and that totally non-attacking love is the only way to safety and happiness. This radical view naturally begs the question: Given how dangerous the world seems to be, is there real-world evidence to suggest that the kind of radically loving way of life the Course advocates is a realistic way to live? The good news is that there is indeed a great deal of evidence – so much, in fact, that I’m convinced that an ethic of nonviolent love is not pie-in-the-sky idealism, but rather the epitome of hard-nosed realism. There truly is no other way.

Before looking at that evidence, let’s see what the Course has to say. One of my inspirations for this piece was practicing Workbook Lesson 170, “There is no cruelty in God and none in me.” This is a rich lesson with many profound insights. But what especially jumped out at me while reading the lesson in preparation for practice was its contention that, in our upside-down way of looking at things, we love fear and fear love. So profound is this reversal that fear has become our de facto god, our “protector” from all that seems to threaten us, while the real God of Love Who alone can truly protect us is now regarded as a dangerous threat to homeland security. Here’s the key paragraph for me:

Next, are the attributes of love bestowed upon its “enemy” [fear]. For fear becomes your safety and protector of your peace, to which you turn for solace and escape from doubts about your strength, and hope of rest in dreamless quiet. And as love is shorn of what belongs to it and it alone, love is endowed with attributes of fear. For love would ask you lay down all defense as merely foolish. And your arms indeed would crumble into dust. For such they are.

With love as enemy, must cruelty become a god. (W-pI.170.5:1-6:1)

What does this mean in everyday life? We love fear – which ultimately means we love attack, which is both the source and the expression of fear – because in our eyes that’s what really keeps us safe. Safety comes from keeping all of those external “enemies” at bay through everything from stronger locks to more jails to the mightiest military. We “are safe because of cruelty” (1:3). And if our real safety comes from this god of cruelty, then we will naturally fear love, because a God of Love Who tells us to lay down our arms and sing “Kumbaya” is setting us up for a nasty fall. Sure, we’d all like to be more loving, but doesn’t He get how the world really works? Doesn’t He know that laying down our arms will get us creamed?

In our eyes, then, the god of cruelty is the “realpolitik” guy – we might not really like him that much, but his realistic, no-nonsense view of all those threats out there keeps us safe. That other God is the crazy peacenik – more pleasant to be around (He probably has cooler music too), but hopelessly naïve about the facts on the ground. That mushy love stuff is great and all, but it’s fear that keeps us alive.

The Course, needless to say, claims that we have it all backward: In truth, “Love is your safety. Fear does not exist” (W-pII.5.5:3-4). Our defenses are “merely foolish,” and we should lay them down with gratitude and complete trust that God will keep us safe. That being said, however, even those of us who yearn deeply for the God of Love cling doggedly to that god of cruelty. Why? Surely part of the reason is that, whatever the Course may say, it sure looks like attack is a necessary evil in this dangerous world. Is it really true that nonviolent love is what will keep us safe? Do we have actual evidence from daily life that this is so?

As I said, I believe that we do indeed have such evidence, from many angles. One line of evidence that I find especially compelling comes from the growing field of peace studies, a relatively new branch of academia that examines humanity’s various attempts at creating a more peaceful, more loving, less violent world. I love reading books and articles on this topic, and from them have gleaned many real-life stories of people who worked miracles through nonviolent love. We all know the big stories, like Gandhi’s liberation of India, the civil rights movement in the United States, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. And there are countless lesser-known stories as well, a few of which I’ve featured in these “Course Meets World” pieces.

I’ve just read another of the many excellent books on peace studies, and this book became my second inspiration for writing this piece. The book is The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World, by Michael N. Nagler. Nagler is a retired professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied peaceful and nonviolent movements for many years. He was a student of well-known meditation teacher Eknath Eswaran, who himself had grown up in India, met Gandhi in person, and attended some of Gandhi’s prayer meetings. Nagler’s studies in the field of peace and nonviolence, combined with his own spiritual path, have led him to a perspective that in many ways is remarkably like that of the Course. Here is my own paraphrase of some of his Course-like ideas:

  • The power of nonviolence is rooted in the conviction that at our deepest level, what we really are is love.
  • True nonviolence is the product of a nonviolent state of mind.
  • To develop this nonviolent state of mind, we need a disciplined mental practice. (Nagler’s primary practice is meditation.)
  • We extend this nonviolent state of mind to others through loving thoughts, words, and deeds, including forgiveness (what the Course would call miracles).
  • Practicing nonviolence in this way gives our lives meaning and purpose, and living this purpose (what the Course would call our special function) is the key to happiness.
  • Practicing nonviolence in this way is the only way to truly transform our world from a place of fear to a place of love.

Sounds nice, but does it really work? As you can probably guess, Nagler has spent a lifetime addressing critics who claim that while nonviolence looks good in theory (especially to a Berkeley hippie like him), in the end it is just impractical idealism that will never “work” in the real world. Nagler’s response is that, contrary to what many would have us believe (especially in the mainstream media), his views are firmly based on actual real-world evidence and experience. This is not to say that his analysis of that evidence is infallible, of course, but simply that his work is evidence-based rather than merely theory and wishful thinking.

Nagler’s lifetime of study has convinced him that the verdict of history can be summed up in this arresting sentence:

Nonviolence sometimes “works” [in the short term] and always works [in the long term], while violence sometimes “works” [in the short term], but never works [in the long term]. (Nagler, p. 122; all quotes from the 2004 edition)

Let’s unpack this sentence. Critics of nonviolence point out that violence has actually worked at times, and they’re right, if by “worked” you mean that it accomplished its immediate, short-term objective. Violence has indeed overthrown dictators, fueled revolutions, stopped criminals, and won football games. But in doing so, it sows the seeds of further violence. How many times have we seen the victorious oppressed become the new oppressors? How many times have we seen the cycle of attack and counterattack, “righteous” wrath and equally “righteous” revenge, play out? Violence inevitably breeds more attack and more fear, and thus it doesn’t work in the long term, for it doesn’t really make us safe.

Nonviolence has worked at times as well – in fact, history and experience show that it has worked far more often and far more effectively than we’ve realized. But of course, in the short term, it is certainly true that some nonviolent movements fail to achieve their immediate objectives, for any number of reasons. Nonviolence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success: You also need some combination of effective strategy, good training, commitment, strong leadership, and even right timing. However, even when they fail in their immediate objectives, history shows that truly nonviolent movements plant seeds that produce positive results eventually. Indeed, the primary way such positive results are delayed is if the nonviolent movement loses its nerve and turns to violence. Real kindness, real commitment, and real love simply can’t be thwarted forever. This, then, is an approach that really works in the long term, for it really does make us safe.

Thus, it seems that history confirms what Lesson 170 says: Loving fear will never make us safe, “for here is fear begot and fed with blood, to make it grow and swell and rage. And thus is fear protected, not escaped” (W-pI.170.2:2). The only way to be truly safe is the way of nonviolent love. Such love can and often does bring immediate results, but even when it seems not to do so, we can trust that it will in the end.

Alas, we are often skeptical of this, leading Theodore Roszak to quip, “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it doesn’t ‘work’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries” (quoted in Nagler, p. 102). But however impatient we may be, it appears that idealism in the best sense – working toward the ideal of nonviolent love, a truly “better way” – is not unrealistic at all. If Nagler and other peace researchers (and the Course) are right, then this kind of idealism is also realism.

I realize that I haven’t laid out a systematic case for what I’m saying here. For more evidence and argumentation on this vital topic, I recommend reading Nagler’s book and others like it (another excellent book is A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, by Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall). Here, I simply want to share some stories from Nagler’s book that I find especially powerful. One of the best things about his book is that it is chock full of stories of nonviolent love bringing about powerful transformations in a variety of real-life situations. I find that as I read story after story, their cumulative effect is even more powerful than argumentation. So, here’s just a small sample of stories from the book that struck me as especially powerful:

  1. One of the common objections to nonviolence is “It wouldn’t have worked against the Nazis.” In fact, it did work against the Nazis in numerous instances. One example is the resistance to the Nazi occupation in Le Chambon, France. A pastor and his wife, André and Magda Trocmé, worked with many others to set up an underground escape route that allowed Jews to leave the country throughout the war. Other than the Danish evacuation of Jews (another nonviolent movement that worked against the Nazis), it was the largest Jewish evacuation project in Europe.

It was so large, in fact, that for many years people wondered how they managed to evade the Nazis’ notice. Many years later, they found out what really happened: The German Commandant of the region, Major Schmehling,

was so moved by the villagers’ courage that he actually defied the SS to protect them. “I am a good Catholic, you understand, and I can grasp these things,” he explained to the Trocmés twenty years later. (Nagler, p. 138)

Given the success that this and other relatively isolated efforts had against the Nazis, Nagler asks a thought-provoking question: How might history have been different if a large-scale, unified, focused, well-trained, well-led nonviolent anti-Nazi movement had arisen?

  1. Karen Ridd was a Canadian volunteer for a group called Peace Brigades International, a group that practices an effective technique called “protective accompaniment,” where unarmed international volunteers accompany local human rights workers in war zones to keep them safe from soldiers. In 1989, Ridd was working in Guatemala when she and her co-volunteer and friend, Marcella Rodriguez from Colombia, were arrested (along with three Spanish volunteers who were quickly deported) by the Guatemalan military. The two young women and others were taken by truck to an army barracks where they were blindfolded and interrogated for five hours. They could hear the cries of people being tortured in adjoining rooms.

Eventually, the Canadian embassy was able to secure Ridd’s release, and she was ready to walk to a waiting Canadian official and freedom. But as her blindfold was removed, she saw Marcella (who had not been freed) blindfolded against the wall, “a perfect image of dehumanization” (Nagler, p. 42), and she couldn´t bear to leave. She walked back into the barracks to join her friend, to the shock of the Canadian official and the soldiers. At first, the soldiers were abusive, handcuffing the “white bitch” Ridd again and banging Rodriguez’s head against the wall, saying, “Now you’re going to see the treatment a terrorist deserves!” But as they continued to talk to Ridd, the soldiers softened. Explaining why she returned, she said, “You know what it’s like to be separated from a compañero.” This touched the soldiers’ hearts so much that, on their own initiative, they released both women, and the two compañeras walked out hand in hand.

  1. Ernesto Cardenal was the Minister of Defense in the Sandinista government of Nicaragua when they were fighting the Contras in the 1980s. He visited Nagler in Berkeley, and Nagler reluctantly asked him about the peace groups who, through unarmed protection, were preventing Contra attacks. Nagler asked reluctantly because Cardenal was no peacenik, and Nagler expected a dismissive answer. Instead, to Nagler’s surprise, Cardenal passionately said, “We need more of these groups and we need them quickly. Wherever they have been there has been no violence.”

A short while later, Cardenal said the exact same thing through a translator to a small group of UC Berkeley faculty. The translator, perhaps surprised at Cardenal’s actual words, fudged a bit and translated them as “There has been nearly no violence.” Cardenal, whose English was good enough to catch the “correction,” hit the table and exclaimed, “I said, absolutely no violence!” (Nagler, p. 239). Even a confirmed military man like Cardenal couldn’t deny the power of nonviolent action that was protecting his people.

This is actually a form of what peace activists call “Civilian-Based Defense,” a strategy in which unarmed people form “armies of peace,” literally stand in between two opposing armed forces, and call upon them to lay down their arms. (Perhaps the God of Love in Lesson 170, Who “would ask you lay down all defense as merely foolish,” is speaking through them.) This has been highly effective in many war zones. For instance, in the Philippines, such a group protected a small army of rebels from a much larger army loyal to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Let that sink in for a moment: A group of unarmed civilians was protecting an army from another army. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

  1. The examples cited so far bring to mind the “classic” image of nonviolence as a tool to stand up to oppressors in extreme situations. But in fact, as Nagler makes clear, nonviolence is a total way of life that has the power to transform every aspect of everyday society. It can, for instance, lead to healthy new ways of dealing with crime, and that is the topic of my final story.

The Iberá Provincial Nature Reserve in Argentina was having a problem with poachers hunting and killing endangered animals and selling their hides. Normally, of course, the approach to such a problem would be to hunt down the poachers, capture them, and punish them severely. But new reserve director Pedro Perea Muñoz had a different idea when he met “Mingo” Cabrera and Ramón Cardoso, two poachers who had lived their entire lives in hiding in the expansive reserve. They told Muñoz that they needed to hunt those animals to survive, so he gave them a new way to survive: jobs as guards on the reserve. Muñoz says:

Now they are the most dedicated and conscientious guards (at Iberá)….to understand nature, one must be peaceful. These men were born with this. They were hunters by necessity, and now, as guides and guardians, there is no one better. By just looking into the eyes of people entering the reserve, they know who the poachers are.

Cabrera and Cardoso became the “go to guys” for photographers, researchers, and ecologists touring the reserve. And through Muñoz’s decision to treat them as human beings to be helped rather than criminals to be punished, both of them discovered a new life’s purpose in which they became helpers themselves. As Cabrera says, “Now that we understand the importance of the reserve, we see that, without realizing it, we were spending our whole lives preparing for this” (Nagler, pp. 155-56).

What are we to make of all this? Of course, critics of peace studies interpret the evidence differently, and have their own arguments against nonviolence as a practical way of life that can respond effectively to every situation. These arguments certainly deserve a fair hearing. I am no expert, and I realize that these issues are complex and there is so much we don’t understand. Nagler himself acknowledges that we can’t simply let everyone out of prison and disband all of the armies tomorrow. Applying an ethic of nonviolent love to all aspects of life requires sober intelligence, boundless creativity, open-minded dialogue, and (I’m sure Nagler would agree) deep inner wisdom.

But all that being said, the inexorable logic of nonviolent love (so brilliantly laid out in the Course) combined with the sheer weight of so many inspiring stories of nonviolent love opening up “a way out of no way,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, has convinced me more strongly than ever that the Course is right: “Safety is the complete relinquishment of attack” (T-6.III.3:7). Safety is the full embrace of radical, unconditional, entirely nonviolent love. This is not airy-fairy nonsense, but the most realistic way to live on this earth. I believe with all my heart and mind that there really is no other way.

Source of material reported on: The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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