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You Must Be the Change You Wish to See in the World -Gandhi

From the Fall 2002 Newsletter

by Jan Cebula, A FAVAN leader in Kansas City, is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis, Clinton, Iowa, and coordinator of their Center for Active Nonviolence.



The Pledge of Nonviolence is a dynamic tool for enabling us to live more peaceably in our daily lives.  When we use the Pledge, however, do we consider only the personal and interpersonal aspects?  Can we use the Pledge as a lens for exploring the structural and systemic dimensions of our lives?

Gandhi's approach to being the change you wish to see was three-fold:  (1) adopt nonviolence as a way of life; (2) noncooperate with those systems, structures and values that promote oppression and violence; (3) promote social reconstruction to create a nonviolent social order.  Gandhi's strategies for both noncooperation and social reconstruction were based on an analysis of the systems and structures of society.  The bedrock was the nonviolent individual.  It is a dynamic process:  the social structures and systems influence the way we live and the way we live can have an effect on the structures.  An awareness of this dynamic is necessary if we are to be the change we wish to see.


Let's take a look at the To Respect Self and Others component of the Pledge.  Respecting self certainly seems like solely a personal quest.  However, this quest for self-respect has implications on the systemic level as well.  In his book Preventing Violence, James Gilligan concludes, "The basic psychological motive of violent behavior is the wish to eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation..."  According to Gilligan, violence always represents a means of self defense and is an attempt to force respect from others.  Furthermore, Gilligan points out that shame is spread through the economic and social system; e.g., poverty and discrimination increase feelings of shame and humiliation.  Recognizing both the individual and systemic aspects is essential to preventing violence.  For example, correctional systems designed only to punish just increase the feelings of shame and lead to more violence.  The need for self-respect has serious implications when attempting to transform conflicts even on the international level.  People whose homeland is occupied by another country, ethnic group, or army feel extreme humiliation under the occupier.  And a negotiating position that does not consider the need for the other party to "save face" (have self-respect) is only setting the stage for a violent response.


In the U.S., the belief in rugged individualism runs deep.  We believe that we can define ourselves on our own.  However, it is only in relationship that we become who we are.  Relationships imbedded in structures and systems impact us on deep levels of our being.  In his book, The Powers That Be, Walter Wink points out that we have internalized the violent systems and believes that surround us.  We are called to a deeper understanding of this in order to break free of the systems that control our minds (noncooperation) and to create the nonviolent world we wish to see.


This dynamic among systems, the interpersonal and the self was brought home to me in a vivid way during a program that included participants from around the world.  Two were from opposite sides of a long-term violent situation.  When they first arrived they would not be in the same room.  The structural and systemic identity of "enemy" had been deeply embedded.  A woman from a third country listened to both, respected them and by doing so appealed to the goodness in both.  She patiently practiced shuttle diplomacy by passing verbal and written messages.  By the end of just two weeks the two participants were having conversations.  They were beginning to free themselves from the systems that controlled their minds and identities (noncooperation) the nonviolent world we all wish to see.  It was a microcosm of what could happen on an international scale  The pledge was courageously being lived by the participants:  respecting self and others, listening, communicating better, starting the process of forgiveness.  It was a moving experience showing that we can really be the change we wish to see.



The following links are to two of the Fall 2002 Newsletter articles:


Teens Acting for Peace -- A Personal Perspective on How We're Doing


What's a Parent to Do?