I am deeply committed in my life to plumbing my understanding and practice of active nonviolence in my professional and personal life. For me nonviolence is the practical application of my Christian faith that challenges the divisiveness, violence and harm in our culture, and in our personal and communal lives, through transformation to an ethic of inclusiveness and love.
This transformation must confront a deeply rooted American culture of violence that Thomas Merton describes as "rooted in extreme individualism and competitiveness, inflated by myths of virility and toughness, and is preoccupied with the power of the tactical, nuclear and psychological overkill of the military." In this milieu, he says, we cannot be surprised with the violence that flows from it.
In response, the prime principle in nonviolent practice, and in any substantial social change effort, is a dynamic of developing a deep and sensitive understanding of the problem of injustice to be addressed so we can appreciate, and even respect, the complexity of what we are attempting to change. And then it is equally important, if possible, to have a compelling, viable, well-researched alternative to the problem. Richard Rohr, for example, says the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.
The challenge, then, of nonviolent social change is to embrace a tension between resistance to whatever is harmful or unjust, and, in turn, persuading others to accept a viable alternative, and to do it with conviction, humility, acceptance of sacrifice, and love of all the parties involved. In a dominant violent culture of power brokering, control, and dominance, nonviolence, of course, can seem naive and idealistic.
Here is my personal experience with nonviolent social change in my work in the field of criminal justice. For the past thirty three years I have applied nonviolence practice in my effort to challenge and resist the punitive, retributive culture of the U.S. prison system with the practice of restorative justice. Instead of asking what law is broken, and how we are to punish the lawbreaker, we can ask a whole different question: What harm has been done and how can we heal, if possible, the broken relationship when someone abuses others physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually? This immediately shifts the primary emphasis on the victim. Now can the broken trust be reestablished - transformed, if you will - among victim, the offender, and the community with the goal of healing and reconciliation? Surprisingly the proposal for nonviolence is usually well received by leaders in the criminal justice system. Implementation, however, is often a huge challenge.
Over the years now I personally have been part of numerous examples of the success of wide range of restorative justice practices. I have found that although it may seem counter intuitive, my experience, and extensive research, has shown fairly conclusively that victims of crime prefer - and benefit from - efforts to heal the harm rather than resort to punishment of the offender. On a larger scale restorative justice is a form of truth and reconciliation now being applied to current efforts, for example, to deal with the accountability and restorative transformation needed to address the great harm done to Native American children when they were removed from their families and placed in state custody for the purpose of alienating them from not only their families but their language and culture. And the efforts to now reckon with the U.S. history of slavery and racism are essentially a restorative, transformational process that must contend nonviolently with those who are resisting the reality of the enormous harm done to minorities throughout U.S. history.
I want to close with a story of restorative justice that we will be presenting later this month here on Whidbey Island but also widely available to my readers through a Zoom broadcast. The details of the presentation are linked below, but the gist of it is when a traumatic auto accident could have resulted in years of recrimination and legal process, the parties involved chose instead to work through their trauma in a way that ultimately led to healing and reconciliation. Please consider joining us for the program below and inviting others to join you. The story is a classic of nonviolent practice.
My touting restorative justice is not to say the practice of violence will be easy, or always successful, but I firmly believe it can be useful in addressing the profound levels of violence in our culture. What I want to say is that nonviolence and the practice of restorative justice provide us with the hope that violence and retribution can be overcome, whether in individual lives or whole nations. If nations were to practice nonviolent restorative justice they would meet with capable facilitators and work through the complex, often generation-old traumas and harm done to them in the past rather than resort to the continuance of simmering resentments that lead to destruction of war. This, of course, is the intention of the United Nations and International Criminal Court. So I have reason to believe, we are, in fact, making progress.