We are reminded again of that dreadful September morning, five years ago, when America was attacked by a cunning enemy, armed with box cutters and a quartet of fuel-laden, high-jacked aircraft. A thousand years from now, the images of 9/11 will remain vivid still, as will those of the atomic blasts over Japan and man’s landing on the moon.
It was one hundred years ago, in 1906, on that exact date, September 11th, that one of the 20th century’s greatest phenomena began – nonviolent resistance. In Johannesburg, South Africa, at the Empire Theatre, an Indian barrister introduced his new philosophy of Satyagraha to a people who faced increased isolation and denial of basic civil rights. Thousands of Indians were present.
That barrister was Mohandas Gandhi, later known as Mahatma, a title of respect which in Sanskrit means “great soul.” The word Satyagraha was fashioned from two Gujarati words – satya meaning “truth and love,” and graha meaning “firmness.” Gandhi, a Hindu himself, was influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, Essay on Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, and Leo Tolstoy.
At issue was a proposed law requiring Asians to register and to carry registration cards on their persons at all times. Gandhi was organizing resistance to this law. In Catherine Bush’s 1985 biography “World Leaders Past & Present – Gandhi,” she wrote concerning that meeting “One of the other speakers declared that he (himself) would swear in God’s name to resist. As always, Gandhi took the idea of an oath very seriously. He (Gandhi) stood up and warned the people that swearing a vow was not to be done lightly. They must be prepared to face threats, beatings, even imprisonment. Only if they believed they had the inner strength to be true should they swear. Then he encouraged them. Even if there were no more than a few true to their oath, they would bring victory. The entire audience rose and swore to resist.”
Soon Gandhi and many of his followers were sentenced to two months in prison, but their movement grew stronger and stronger. Gandhi insisted that they refrain from violence and be courteous to (and think well of) opponents, officials, and jailers. They were not fighting against individuals, but against the evils of the system.
Gandhi’s Satyagraha found modest success in South Africa and then, over time, reached astonishing success in India. What Indians were unable to achieve by force – home rule and independence from the United Kingdom – Gandhi and his followers secured by Satyagraha.
Satyagraha succeeded elsewhere as well. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela adopted Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance. The successes of this method were unbelievable. Many who read this essay will remember “Separate but Equal” in America and, through press reports, “Apartheid” in South Africa. Would any of us have believed such peaceful transformation possible?
Elsewhere, we have seen governments and cultures favorably and peacefully influenced by nonviolent demonstrations. Woman’s suffrage in our country for one, and the “Freeze” movement and similar demonstrations in Europe – which influenced President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev toward nuclear disarmament – for another. Without sword or firearm, “Solidarity” in Poland and Pope John Paul II’s message, “Be not afraid”, led hundreds of millions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to hope and freedom.
What Gandhi, Jesus, Thoreau, King, Mandela, John Paul II, and others offer is a powerful philosophy that can be as strong, even stronger, than military force. It can help us conquer fear and our thirst for revenge. It can help calm the wrath of an enemy. As Gandhi told his followers in Johannesburg that evening, “Even if there were no more than a few true to their oath, they would bring victory.” This could be true in America, also, where every child is taught, the People possess the power. Rulers cannot rule without approval of the public.
At this season – and every year at this time - America will remember that dreadful September morning when we saw the towers fall. Revenge - it’s a natural desire. Who did it? Where are they? Just find someone to hit. Anyone!
Somehow, we must move beyond this temptation.
Recently I heard a song that frightens me. The words that hurt the worst were, “And the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist.” I went to Google to find the lyrics. They continue,
And the eagle will fly,
And there’s gonna be hell,
When you hear Mother Freedom start ringin’ her bell,
And it’ll feel like the whole wide world is rainin’ down on you.
Hey, brought to you courtesy of the red, white, and blue.
We can do better. We must do better. Let us remember the lessons of Gandhi and his colleagues in Peace.
Published in the Stanly News & Press, Albemarle, NC, September 10, 2006.