Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gandhi still experimenting

So, what is new in nonviolence since the Mahatma moved on? He left some big sandals to fill and it's rare to find any idea about nonviolence that he didn't already have, try out, or for which he did not at least create an analog. With his quips to reporters and his voluminous correspondence, one might even say he anticipated organizing with emails and tweets 80 years before either.

Indeed, that is one of the new components of nonviolence, when the poor masses can stay one tech step ahead of their lumbering oppressors. The world of the citizen journalist was certainly well and truly occupied by Gandhi as he edited newsletters, wrote guest editorials for the British press, and prepared prodigious amounts of argument in his various writings--all gathered for posterity in the 100 volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Each of the 100 volumes is about 500 pages. Gandhi communicated.

It may be that we have been just backsliding in many ways since a cruel misguided assassin took Gandhi from us. After all, our notions about religion can't seem to rise to his ecumenism or his interpretation of the religious literature as mandating nonviolence. Religion, after all, is in some profound ways both connected to, and the polar opposite of, Gandhian nonviolence. Religion almost always offers its believers comfort in absolute truth, one eternal way, without shades of gray and certainly without change. Religion sets up the us and them dichotomy far more often than it does an inclusive humanity for all believers and nonbelievers alike (or believers, believers in something different, and nonbelievers--but for true believers, there are only two categories).

Gandhi, however, subtitled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. How confusing. What do you mean, Mohandas? How do you experiment with truth? Do you test to see if it is findable? Do you boil it to see if it explodes? Do you run it through a sieve to see if it's pure?

What Gandhi meant, I believe, is that he reflected as objectively and rationally as he could on the merits or failings of his methods and the assumptions that caused him to decide to use them. Then, if something seemed lacking, he added something. If something seemed superfluous, he took it out. If something needed changing, he'd devise a different permutation. He saw this as his version of the scientific method, which is certainly was. He was not a lab scientist, nor was he an observer of other people's events. He was in the thick of it and he took the time to reflect and adjust based upon the new truths he found.

Yes, he was searching for eternal verities, just like any good scientist. He hoped to connect them to religion, to values that he believed were holy and sacred, but he was not pretending to speak the word of God, immutable and eternal. He was seeking it with all his rational powers. He was the complete opposite of the fundamentalist, open to learning, unwilling to kill the unbelievers, ready to dialog rather than lecture.

So those who learn from Gandhi are carrying on his experiments, from Barbara Deming's challenging applications to a wide range of issues in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, to the Serb students and their amazing lessons learned as they overthrew Milosevic in 2000.
Some are in the streets, some are crunching data and contemplating its meaning, and some are pausing to think long about this nonviolence business and how it can bring hope to a world still stuck at war, still mired in religion so backward that loving couples are stoned to death in the name of religion, still willing to arm itself with weapons that are as blasphemous as they are destructive, and still willing to try to live large at the expense of Creation. There is no greater hope than nonviolence and no greater need to try to understand it than right now. Gandhi's experiments are done: Long live Gandhi's experiments.

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