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What is Non-Violence?

We want to “get real” about nonviolence, so let’s jump right in.  There’s some disagreement about what counts as violence and nonviolence.  How do you define nonviolence? For you, is it a holistic mentality, or mainly a practical and tactical choice? How would you characterize actions like, for example, breaking locks or windows, trespassing, or blockading a freeway?

From the outset we should recognize that “nonviolence” is a contested term, and we shouldn’t be too quick to foreclose on that contestation with a single quick definition. It has become customary to speak of that holistic, spiritual, moral view as “nonviolence,” in the noun form, while referring to a more conditional strategic use of unarmed resistance in the adjectival form, like “nonviolent action” or “nonviolent struggle.” These approaches are different, and should be recognized as such, but in my experience they often converge; spiritual nonviolence is vapid without a commitment to strategy and struggle, while nonviolent action is often most effective when there is a deep spiritual foundation for it. I tend not to dwell too much on the internal disputes about nonviolence for the sake of simply bringing more people into this far-too-neglected conversation.

(This is the second of 5 short selections from an interview with Waging Nonviolence co-founder Nathan Schneider. You can read the first installment of the interview series here.)

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

Note: Photos by Nathan G. Thompson. Anti-Foreclosure Protest at U.S. Bank Headquarters, Minneapolis, MN, October 2011.

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