I have no recollection of how Stephane Hessel’s Time for Outrage: Indinez-vous! got on my birthday list, but I picked up the short piece (more essay than book, although it is nicely bound in a 3×5 red hardcover) this morning to read while on the exercise bicycle. Written by Hessel, a Resistance leader, concentration camp survivor and former UN speechwriter, at the age of 93, it has sold millions of copies since it was published in France a little over a year ago.
As the title of his piece suggests, Hessel believes we all should be outraged because we live in a world where there are things to be outraged about and because it takes outrage for us to fight for greater justice and freedom. He talks about many things that might outrage us, and discusses his own outrage over the situation in Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank. (His criticism of the behavior of the Israeli government has earned him much criticism.)
Hessel adds something that is incredibly important for us to keep in mind. Outrage can be accompanied by exasperation or by hope – and which of those accompanies outrage makes an enormous difference. He writes
Violence inspired by exasperation is too often the outcome of unacceptable situations. In this light, one can see terrorism itself as a form of exasperation – and, as such, “exasperation” becomes a negative term. Instead of exasperation, there should be aspiration. Exasperation negates hope. As an emotion, it is understandable. I might even go so far as to say it is natural. But it is nonetheless unacceptable, because it will never accomplish what hope could.
The temptation to resort to violence can sometimes be strong, but violence always “turns its back on hope.” We should be outraged and we should right for justice. But Hessel is right that the message of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela remain relevant to us in those struggles. “They are messages of hope, of faith in a society’s ability to overcome conflict through mutual understanding and watchful patience.”
I attended a talk the other night by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, the opening of a Peace Studies Conference held at the College of St. Benedict. One of first points the speaker made had to do with what nonviolence meant to Gandhi.
Someone once asked Gandhi why he spoke in terms of nonviolence rather than love. Why use a negative, speaking simply of “not” being something, rather than affirmatively speaking of love. Love, the questioner implied carried with it something greater and more positive than merely nonviolence.
Gandhi’s replied that he was all in favor of love, but that he thought nonviolence was a better and fuller term to use for his purposes, a term that he believed conveyed something much more than “not” being violent. Love, Gandhi explained, was a word that has many meanings. The risk he saw was that one might infer from love a passivitity, a passive acceptance of the situation. Just take what is meted out to you and love in response.
Gandhi, however, believed that struggle is necessary. One must struggle against injustice. One must struggle for peace. In Gandhi’s mind, nonviolence includes love, but also carries with it an understanding of the need to struggle. Far from being passive, nonviolence is an active, loving struggle.
The lesson is perhaps a simple one, but one worth being reminded of. Love is not passive. Love does not excuse us from fighting (albeit nonviolently) for peace and for justice in this world.
In 2007, the United Nations declared October 2 (the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi) as the International Day of Nonviolence. The UN describes the day as a global observance that promotes nonviolence through education and public awareness.
While nonviolence includes peace from armed conflict, it means much more than that. It has to mean freedom from violence of every kind, including (among other things) poverty, racism, sexism, and the violence we perpetrate upon our environment.
Education and public awareness are important pieces, but if we have any hope of achieving a world of nonviolence, we also need to call upon the assistance of our God. And so, for those who consider prayer an imporant component of this day, I offer the closing prayer in a Prayer Service for Nonviolence, written by John Dear, S.J. It reads:
God of peace, thank you for calling us to follow the nonviolent Jesus on the road to peace. Help us to become your holy people of Gospel nonviolence. Disarm our hearts tha twe might be instruments of yoru disarming love. Make our church a community of Gospel nonviolence, that rejects war and radiates your love and peace. Bless us to love one another and our enemies, to reconcile with everyone, to resist injustice and spread the practice of nonviolence. Give us a new world without war, poverty, nuclear weapons, global warming, or violence. Give us your reign of nonviolence, here and now. We ask this in the name of the nonviolent Jesus, our brother and our peace.
Although our national celebration of the day is not until Monday, today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the principal leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1964, he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in recognition of his efforts to end racial segregation and other forms of racial discrimination through nonviolent means.
King was a powerful orator and if you haven’t heard his I Have a Dream or I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speeches, you should listen to them, or better yet, watch them. (These and other of King’s speeches are easily available online.) As I was checking out some of this writings and speeches, I came across one I had not previously been familiar with: King’s 1956 imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians. The words are as salient now as they were then. Here is an excerpt of what King imagines St. Paul might have to say to us:
…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.
I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. …
But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Phillipian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. …
These are words we can all profitably spend some time reflecting on. It seems to me worthwhile for each of us to ask ourselves: Where am I being called to take a stand? What is my particular responsibility as a Christian in the environment in which I find myself?