The Original Praxis of Non-Violence by Richard Renshaw

Wednesday, 25 January, 2012

The Original Praxis of Non-Violence

 (from the blog of Richard Renshaw )
   Even if the coining of the word “non-violence” is attributed to Gandhi, the sources he turned to in order to give meaning to the word go back in history through people like Tolstoy, Thoreau and especially Jesus,    who appears to be the original source of the “praxis” (action-reflection-action) of non-violence (in the sense of ahimsa and of satyagraha).
   It is important to note that the most salient characteristic of Jesus’ practice is his attention to the sick and excluded. It was a question of the heart. We are told a leper approached him and said, “If you want to, you can cure me.” (Mark 1, 40-45) The Gospel writer goes on to say that Jesus replied, “Of course I want to” and, contrary to a very important norm of his time that forbade all contact with lepers, he touched him, thus making himself as “unclean” as the leper. In another place, we read that Jesus felt compassion for the crowd because they wandered without direction. He is also said to have wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus before calling him out of the cave. Jesus was filled with compassion for those who were rejected by society and condemned to poverty and solitude. Everything he did flowed from that unceasing love for the people who had no place in the society of his time.
   Jesus was a Galilean, progeny of a people who, at that moment, lived under a Roman military occupation that had established a local puppet government and were supported by a sector his own society (the Pharisees, Sadducees and, above all, the Scribes, who were the lawyers of his time). This sector conspired with the Roman authorities to assure their privileges.  He was wise enough not to attack the empire directly or his public life might have been even shorter than it was. Galilee was a zone of revolt against the occupation but also against the temple religion. There is nothing strange in the fact that Jesus rejected the temple and its rules as maintained by the Scribes. While he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the imperial authority, he reserved his anger and his direct actions for the temple and its defenders.
  His manner was to approach the excluded and to treat them as full persons, worthy of his attention and perfectly capable to participating fully in society. To demonstrate this conviction, he went against all the social norms that posed an obstacle to that participation: he “cured” the blind, the paralyzed, the deaf and the lepers; he “pardoned” those who had no means to comply with all the rules imposed by the authorities; he refused to recognize the legitimacy of norms that prevented doing good on the Sabbath. In so doing, he publicly opposed the authorities who interpreted these gestures as a personal insult.  He went so far as to chase the vendors from the temple. His was a life of classic “direct action.”
   Jesus placed enormous importance on the truth: “The truth will make you free,” that is to say, will liberate you. It is the same word in Hebrew as what religion terms “salvation.” For Jesus, the truth that counts here is that the excluded are persons who deserve recognition for their dignity and who can fully and freely participate in society. It was a fundamental commitment and he accepted the consequences. When the Gospel of Mark says that the people were awed by the fact that he spoke “with authority,”   It points to the inner power that radiated from his conviction of the value of the poor and excluded.
   Those who followed Jesus tried to do the same and paid a great price for being an open and inclusive community. For decades, that first community tried to dialogue with their own Jewish people until finally they were expelled from the synagogue. For two centuries after that, they remained distance from the dominant power of the empire refusing to recognise its demands. Thousands were executed.
   Even after the Christian authorities made a pact with the empire—for motives we can only imagine—there were always those who sought to be faithful to the initial inspiration. The best known of these is Francis Bernardoni, better known as “of Assisi.” It is well to remember that Francis took in hand the great conflict of his time between the state power of the Christians and that of the Muslims. He went, all alone, to ask for a dialogue with the Sheik on the Muslim side and after quite an adventure managed to meet him on Muslim territory. There is no document recounting the details of their conversation but we know that they had a meeting of hearts. Following that the Sheik ordered that Francis be given safe passage back to his own land.
   So then, when Gandhi developed his practice of non-violence, he had before him the example of Jesus and that whole history of the communities who followed him.
What might that mean for today? The empire and the complicit religion are all too clear and yet it would seem most people have no “eyes to see or ears to hear.”  The political empire is led by the “highly industrialized nations” led by the United States. The religion complicit with it is that of money led by the banking system and the major multinational corporations. The great handicape for change today is that the vast majority of the population (certainly of the countries of the “North” are in a situation of life-idebtedness to the system. Most depend totally on that economic religion for their survival, involved in “selling” their freedom in order to have a job and a livelihood. In this respect, the population of the countries of the “North” are in a situation of serfdom, of ecnomic slavery. They cannot imagine, at all, stepping outside the lines that provide their only imaginable option.
It would seem to me evident then that a non-violent approach would probably follow much of that employed by Jesus in his time. And for that I leave it to your imagination since the power of non-violenct action has always relied on its capacity for inventivent, creativity and surprise.

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