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“The Tradition of Nonviolence is Inseparable from Power”

(This is the first of 5 short selections from an interview with Waging Nonviolence co-founder Nathan Schneider.)

At times I’ve encountered people who are drawn to talk of nonviolence but anxious about talk of power. Perhaps they equate power with violence. I tend to think this anxiety is most of all the result of not wanting to acknowledge the way in which they themselves benefit from coercive power being wielded over others — especially if they’re relatively affluent. (People who lack sufficient power to survive know very well that their lack of power is itself violence.) But the tradition of nonviolence is inseparable from power. That’s why Gandhi called nonviolence “soul force.” The difference between soul force and military force, however, is in how that power is organized. Does one’s power stem from one’s ability to silence dissent and suppress those who experience injustice? Or does it stem from ordinary people withdrawing their consent from the institutions that allow injustice to flourish? Those are two very different kinds of power. One of them we need, and the other doesn’t deserve to exist.

Nathan Schneider is a co-founder and editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, both published in 2013 by University of California Press, are Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse and God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet. He has written about religion, reason and violence for publications including The Nation, The New York Times, Harper’s, Commonweal, Religion Dispatches, AlterNet and others. Visit his website at

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Comments (8)

  • Katie Loncke

    At times I’ve encountered people who are drawn to talk of nonviolence but anxious about talk of power.

    This rings so true to me. Especially in circles of Buddhism and social justice, I find that folks can get very nervous when we start naming power — especially pointing out the abuses that happen in accordance with power and power differentials. People see it as negative or hostile. But to me, the ability to speak openly about power, describe it, get to know its various types, is so refreshing.

    I also really love the way Nathan describes a type of power from below: when “ordinary people [withdraw] their consent from the institutions that allow injustice to flourish.”

    It strikes me that this is a different focus from the attempt to change the minds and hearts of those who wield top-down power. Are others of y’all seeing this happen in social-justice Buddhist (or spiritual) circles? The popular idea that the way to change the imbalance of power is to convince those in power to transform their greed, hatred, and delusion? I would be interested to hear from folks who believe in this angle, who work on this angle, how you view this methodology of applied Buddhism.

    To give one example, the folks over at Buddha On Strike (who share a lot of super interesting analysis on compassion in economics), summarize their practice of meditating at the Goldman Sachs offices in this way:

    “So we go to Goldman every day and meditate and extend compassion, and demand that they extend that same compassion to the billions of people across the world affected by their practices.”

    Of course, sometimes we are working from below even as we address people in power. We can model compassion for people in positions of top-down power. That piece seems really solid in the daily Goldman meditation, holding signs like “Let’s Alleviate Suffering Together.” But where is the mechanism to enforce the “demand”? It’s one thing to compassionately address people in power because we *depend on them to change their ways,* and another thing to organize for change from below — soul force — people power — and *from that stance of pressure and leverage,* manifest our compassion for those defending injustice, protecting the structures that keep injustice flowing.

    What Nathan is talking about, in terms of “ordinary people withdrawing their consent” from the status quo, seems to me to imply a working-from-below approach that is only implied (at most) in the meditation-at-Goldman tactic.

    What do you think? Have you experienced a tendency in Buddhist circles to talk around power, or hope that the people in power will change their ways without active, strong pressure from below, and systemic overhauls?

  • bob

    Hi Katie, I have basically taken a break from going to Buddhist Centers here in Minneapolis / St Paul because I find most of my community in activist circles. That being said, I still Meditate a lot and I appreciate the teachings I have received and integrate them into my activism. I was thinking about the BPF this past few days while doing an eviction foreclosure defense. Basically defying the police to enforce a banks order to evict the homeowner. I spend 72 hours in the house and I did a lot of meditation. I never stated that I was meditating, I just did it. There was little privacy, yet nobody asked me what I was doing. I spent hours on the porch watching for cops / meditating. I wish more Buddhists would get involved with activism, but until that day I’m content to wait and let go of attachments. .

  • nathan

    For anyone interested in what’s happening in the Twin Cities Anti-foreclosure movement, here’s the blog to go to.

  • Jeff

    Bob, I’m inspired by your engaged Buddhism and the way you have integrated meditation and resistance. Keep up the Right Action, brother!

  • bezi

    you bet: that’s what’s up… bearing in mind tho’ that there are various classes of people who’d have a lot more at risk spending hours on a porch watching cops and meditating… that’s just real.

  • bob

    Bezi, today the group Occupy Homes MN physically reopened a home that had been closed up with steel shutters. many of the folks in attendance did not look like me. ie not white. The subject of mediation or mindfulness did not come up even one time. Yet I found myself reflecting on the bodhisatva instructions to hold others happiness above my own. when a group of neighbors gave a spontaneous i was blown away. how come so many practitioners of spirituality are missing out on this type of stuff. no one would ever know that Howard Zinn was Jon Kabbat Zin’s father in law. Sure doesn’t seem like it.

  • bob

    Above comment should say that the neighbors gave a spontaneous cheer.

  • bezi

    as far as I can tell from the way you’ve conveyed it so far, you’re bolstering my point. It sounds like you’re saying that most of the people there were nonwhite, the subject of meditation never came up, and you had to initiate. Bam. There you have it.

    My admittedly surface reading of the whole situation (and I’m not there so I’m hardly claiming expertise) is based on a lifetime examining and experiencing US power relations. So what I can tell you for absolute certain is: whether or not violence is involved, nonwhites, especially black people, and even more particularly, black men, have a very different set of expectations about their encounters with the law than do whites.

    here’s the unfortunate truth:

    I’m not surprised the neighbors cheered you. In my experience, nonwhites don’t routinely expect to encounter whites expressing the level of solidarity you displayed. But it must be added that one needs a baseline of autonomous feeling, a certain kind of assumed freedom of movement, of thought, of exploration, of hope and vision for one’s life and the lives of others, to show up the way you did. *see Maslow’s hierarchy of needs* That freedom is simply not shared by everyone. To an extent, altruism (a connection to others and thus a dimension of self-actualization) is a kind of luxury, a higher need. Destitution (borne of various forms of race and class oppression) makes you much more inclined to “look out for number one.” Put another way, it’s no easy task to be materially impoverished and spiritually mature. Gautama’s Middle Way – not too fancy-pants wealthy and not too rags-and-bones poor – kinda points in that direction.

    How come so many practitioners are missing out on that kind of stuff? My guesses – in some cases they are distrustful they will escape the action without incurring unacceptable risks; in other cases the practitioner is unaware of their exceptional autonomy and freedom of movement and doesn’t realize how powerful a statement can be made by utilizing that autonomy and exhibiting mindful solidarity with those who feel more trapped and limited.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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