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An Experiment in Faith

More on nonviolence. I hope this isn’t dull to some of you. To me it is an important conversation to have in anticipation of the new administration entering office, when any radical hope feels, for the moment, more thinkable than usual, more possible.

In several recent articles and posts relating to nonviolence (here, here, and here), I’ve been working in the space between the knowledge of evidence and the knowledge of faith. On the one hand, there is strong evidence and experience from around the world that Gandhian methods can work when employed by resistance movements against the powerful. On the other, the possibility of a U.S. foreign policy founded in Gandhian method is essentially untried; no powerful state, his own India included, has ever made a serious attempt of this kind. Consequently, I have suggested that this possibility lies more in the territory of faith. A faith-based initiative, so to speak.

Often, not to sound soft and fuzzy and sentimental, advocates for nonviolence have put their arguments in terms of science-y evidence. I have done the same with my DoNT project. We want to speak to the bureaucratic hunger for evidence that drives so much of our society. But I am also a watcher of religions and therefore know the hunger for faith that runs in people, often in places where talk of evidence lets it lie unnoticed. So, together with evidence, I think it very practical (and, incidentally, honest) to speak also of the faith that must support any effort to do what has never been done before. Again, the upcoming inauguration calls to mind faith in the never-before-seen all the more cogently.

Last night, in the final chapter of Gandhi’s Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha), “The Future,” I discovered some remarks that speak to this quite clearly. It begins with questions to him by “a friend writing from America” who asks what will happen to nonviolence when India becomes an independent state. Won’t it simply revert to using violence as all other states do (and as India has)? Further, is it even possible for a state to behave nonviolently?

Gandhi concedes:

The questions are admittedly theoretical. They are also premature for the reason that I have not mastered the whole technique of non-violence. The experiment is still in the making. It is not even in its advanced stage. The nature of the experiment requires one to be satisfied with one step at a time. The distant scene is not for him to see. Therefore, my answers can only be speculative.

Very reassuring, to be sure, that the possibilities of nonviolent action were far from exhausted by a single man and a single movement. There are places yet to go, undiscovered countries to unveil. Still:

I fear that the chances of non-violence being accepted as a principle of State policy are very slight, so far as I can see at present.

That has certainly been true. Those who took power after Gandhi’s death were much more conventional types who lacked his vision, however much they admired and benefited from it. In the same short essay, he continues,

But I may state my own individual view of the potency of non-violence. I believe the State can be administered on a non-violent basis if the vast majority of the people are non-violent. So far as I know, India is the only country which has a possibility of being such a State. I am conducting my experiment in that faith.

I love that language here—”an experiment in faith.” Now I am no stranger to the troubles of mixing the language of faith with the language of science, but here, what else can be done? No experiment happens without faith. The failed “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq was an experiment conducted on faith, too. Since it was a disaster, the time has come to look for other faiths to try on ourselves.

In “The Future,” Gandhi goes on to describe how a nonviolent country would act in the face of an attack. It would be non-compliant. People would offer themselves to the cannons in the firm belief that something human lies within their opponent, probably suffering less in the end than if they had taken up arms. He concludes with disbelief about nations’ continued and unsupported faith in violence. Then something personal:

It gives me ineffable joy to make experiments proving that love is the supreme and only law of life. Much evidence to the contrary cannot shake my faith. Even the mixed non-violence of India has supported it. But if it is not enough to convince the unbeliever, it is enough to incline a friendly critic to view it with favor.

Those last words might sound familiar to none other than American evangelicals—they know that we are creatures who live not by bread alone, but by faith, and that where faith is concerned, rational evidences often aren’t enough.

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