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Readings for Reflection: November 2008
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

Phillips Moulton was an attender at AAFM during the 1970s and early 80s.  This reading is from his 1986 publication Ammunition for Peacemakers: Answers for Activists.  An active peacemaker himself, as well as a thoughtful scholar, Phil is perhaps best known for his edition of the Journal of John Woolman. In his chapter on civilian-based nonviolent alternatives to an armed system of “defense,” he looks at the methods of King and Gandhi and explores the practicality of nonviolence.

Practical Effectiveness of Nonviolent Resistance

One obvious advantage of the nonviolent approach is that its success does not depend on superior physical force.  It has power of its own, which is probably enhanced by an ethical component, the sense of being in the right, not only in reference to goals, but also in the use of means. This creates an esprit de corps that is conducive to steadfastness and reliability. Moreover, it tends to gain the approval of third parties – those who are not yet committed but whose eventual support may be crucial.

Nonviolent action also facilitates a more intelligent choice of objectives. It can have clear, specific goals, while maintaining sufficient flexibility to change or modify them for sound reasons. The goals of warring parties are more likely to reflect emotional, rather than rational, factors. Hence they are less likely to be well defined or subject to judicious modification. They often undergo change in the stress of combat, but such changes are likely to be for the worse; even victory may be followed by chaos, in which dissident factions struggle for power and the incumbents exercise ruthless suppression.

Another merit of nonviolence is that it clarifies the moral distinction between the aggressor, who is using violence, and the defender, who is not. When both sides are violent, each rationalizes its own position and has grounds for accusing the opponent, so that any moral distinctions become veiled in obscurity. If the defender wins, the aggressor continues to feel self-righteous and hostile. The conflict has sown the seeds of future discord. Milton has stated this distinction well: “Who overcomes by force hath overcome but half his foe.”

The refusal to use violence constitutes, in effect, an appeal to the moral sensitivities of the aggressors; unable to accuse the defenders, they are more likely to confront their own practice and see its invalidity. Facing opponents who are willing to endure unmerited suffering without retaliating, the aggressors find themselves in an unexpected situation in which their morale for fighting is undercut. As their fear, anxiety, and hostility are reduced, they may come to feel respect and sympathy for the sufferer. This opens the way for union and the cooperation needed not only to handle immediate problems, but also to minimize future conflicts and deal with them effectively.

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