One of my many faults is that I buy a book, start reading it and never finish it. One example is The Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau. I did manage to get through a couple of essays, though. One was the famous Walden. That’s the story of the two years he spent living alone in a cabin in the woods beside Walden Pond. This account has inspired generations to look for meaning in nature. In conclusion, Thoreau writes, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.”
The other essay I managed to get through is more relevant to today’s topic. It’s called On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. As influential as Walden was, this is probably Thoreau’s most instrumental work. It’s the story of the time Thoreau refused to pay his taxes to protest slavery and the US invasion of Mexico.
On the Duty of Disobedience
He ended up in jail for that, but only for one night. Someone (people think it was his well-off aunt) anonymously bailed him out. That annoyed him. The essay goes beyond giving an account of his little run-in with the taxman. It deals with the philosophy behind the relationship between the citizen and the state.
In it, Thoreau says, “A very few — as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men — serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part.” Another famous line in his essay is, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” This is what non-violent action means.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress”
Frederick Douglass was a contemporary of Thoreau’s. As he put it, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” As we look through history, we never find those in authority redressing the peoples’ grievances without some kind of protest and struggle. Non-violence entails recognizing this fact while keeping that struggle peaceful and as civil as possible.
Thoreau has inspired many leaders over the generations. These have included both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Russian author Leo Tolstoy appreciated Thoreau’s principles and helped to spread them throughout Europe. For those involved in the mobilization to end the war in Vietnam, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience was their scriptural canon.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.
The United Nations proclaimed in 2007 that the global community observe an International Day of Non-Violence each year on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said of Gandhi on Tuesday, “His vision continues to resonate across the world, including through the work of the United Nations for mutual understanding, equality, sustainable development, the empowerment of young people, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
The Secretary-General went on to say, “In today’s turbulent times, violence takes many forms: from the destructive impact of the climate emergency to the devastation caused by armed conflict; from the indignities of poverty to the injustice of human rights violations to the brutalizing effects of hate speech.”
Overcoming these injustices without resorting to violence ourselves is the challenge our global society has always faced. The international community recognizes three broad forms of legitimate, non-violent action. These are protest and persuasion, non-cooperation and non-violent intervention.
The Internet has become a cesspool of violent propaganda
The Internet has become a cesspool of violent propaganda lately. That’s one of the reasons we put together Dare to Know. As the UN chief put it, “”We hear loathsome rhetoric directed at minorities and anyone considered the ‘other'”. A couple of initiatives are emerging to address this.
We talked about the global campaign against hate speech in an earlier post. As a reminder, the movement calls on public officials, politicians and the media, “’to assume their collective responsibility to promote societies that are tolerant and inclusive and to redouble their efforts in holding the culpable accountable.”
The other campaign is to reaffirm the sanctity of religious sites. Form Christchurch, New Zealand to Pittsburgh to Texas to Sri Lanka among others, we’ve seen a trend towards violent atrocities in places of worship lately. The UN chief stated, “Religious sites are powerful symbols of our collective consciousness. When people are attacked because of their religion or beliefs, all of society is diminished.”
Like Thoreau, Gandhi was a peculiar person. He also followed a rural, self-reliant way of life. He often greeted world leaders wearing a homespun loincloth and, if the weather was chilly, a crude, hand-woven shawl draped over his shoulders. Both Gandhi and Thoreau believed in austerity and abstinence. In our urban, high-tech world full of distractions and noise, Gandhi and Thoreau may have more wisdom to impart going forward.