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Embracing Nonviolence

I grew up living in the tension between care and coercion, love and threat. I got those mixed messages all around me, from extended family to school to television, but especially my conservative religious community. Love was freely given, but the fear of that love being withdrawn hummed like fluorescent lights in the background. The threats were not empty, either. As I grew up, I learned that there were certain people that were expendable. When bad things happened to them, they deserved what they got. Violence against them was usually understandable, if not justified. And if we knew what was good for us, we would make sure we didn’t turn out like them – or we would end up like them.

Growing up at the end of the Cold War added another layer to this, with a steady diet of cultural artifacts that reinforced the idea that the USA’s violence was always good, bringing freedom to all, while our enemies’ violence was always bad, trying to rob us of our freedom in a fit of jealous rage. This worked itself down to even stories of personal redemption, where I learned that violence can even heal. (NOTE: While researchers continue to investigate how media violence does (and does not) directly impact behavior, that’s a complicated issue and that is not what I am referring to here. Instead, I am referring to the ways that popular (or, increasingly, corporate-driven) culture both reflects and, in turn, shapes society. 

At the most obvious level, just think about advertising. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry, expected to reach $1 trillion by 2025, that operates on the premise that a consumer can be influenced to change their behavior - to buy or support something - based on how they respond to an ad. But a good ad must connect to the consumer in order to have that influence. So there is a feedback loop of reflecting and shaping society.)

Violence as a Solution (Lessons from Die Hard)

With that in mind, let’s go back in time to 1988. The first R-rated movie I remember seeing in a theater was the eternally celebrated Die Hard, with its two redemption arcs. (Spoilers ahead!) The hero, John McClane, was flawed and relatable. He had trouble balancing his career and family life, a failure that was also the movie’s premise. John had traveled to California to try to make things better with his estranged wife, a successful businesswoman. And it worked! At the movie’s end, his marriage was saved – but not through the hard work of developing a healthy relationship. No, John McClane proved how much he loved his wife by single-handedly defeating the thieves-posing-as-terrorists in an exciting and dramatic exhibition of heroic violence.

The supporting storyline featured LAPD Sergeant Al Powell. He also found healing, but of a different kind of wound. He was a cop, like McClane. But while Al seemingly had a healthy family life, he had lost his capacity for lethal force. He had spent his career on desk duty because he had shot and killed a thirteen-year-old child after mistaking a toy gun for a real one. At the movie’s end, Al (and his masculinity) is also saved – but not through the hard work of healing trauma and perhaps even working for social change. No, Al Powell resolves the tragedy of killing a child and proves he is still a man by fatally shooting the last remaining terrorist, saving McClane’s life.

That shooting carried another meaning, too: we can never rest, can never trust that things are okay, and must always be ready to act violently. The man that Al shot, Karl, was presumably killed earlier in the movie. We had forgotten him, as had John McClane. The movie was wrapping up, and we were getting our happy endings. John and wife Holly had already emerged from the chaos, locked eyes with Al, and were making grateful introductions. The music swelled as we enjoyed this very human connection between people who endured something terrible. (This was also the moment when we knew John’s marriage was saved, because, after John introduced Holly by her maiden name, she corrected him, reclaiming her identity as Holly McClane and assuring the audience that all is right in the world.) 

This peace was interrupted by an FBI bureaucrat’s attempt to confront McClane on his actions and, as if to prove that such accountability is also a threat to our safety, Karl erupted from the building, pointing a gun at our heroes. That’s when Al saved John, their redemptions both complete.

At least, these are the lessons I learned from Die Hard. I’m not asking you to agree or disagree that they exist in the movie, or with the points about life that they made. And I’m not trying to make any point about whether you should like or dislike the film, which remains incredibly popular and inspired a whole generation of kids to go around yelling “Yippie-ki-yay, m*f*er!” Instead, I mention these lessons because they formed part of the context for my own understanding of violence and nonviolence. Seeing that film helped me understand how I was expected to understand the world and the meaning and role of violence. Yet the more I experienced, the more unsatisfied I felt. And the more unsatisfied I felt, the more the world seemed to insist that violence and coercion were the answers, and that I better stop questioning the way things are and had to be.

Opening Another Path

A few years after I first watched Die Hard, that teen-aged version of myself came to something of a breaking point. I had lots of unresolved traumas, a deep pain that desperately wanted some place to go. I don’t know how I would have described it then, but I can try to put words now to the feelings I remember from that tumultuous time. The pain wanted to become something - something I could better understand and manage. The pain, by itself, was both inscrutable and overwhelming. I was afraid to look at it directly. For me, the pain wanted to become rage. And if it couldn’t become rage, it wanted to become despair. I was torn between those two poles. But I could sense that this becoming could hide the pain, but it could not heal it. My life could not be an action movie. I could not find answers in super-heroics or blazing guns, like John McClane. I could not silently set the pain aside by taking a desk job, like Al Powell. I would need to do something less exciting but more difficult. To heal, I needed to return to the pain and open to it.

I’ve specifically chosen “open” instead of “accept,” although they are often used interchangeably. I agree that either is fine, but I personally prefer reflecting on openness rather than acceptance. 

For me, acceptance carries the connotation of resignation; not only is this how things are, this is how things must be. It carries a feeling of giving up, being passive, and standing aside while the world burns. But openness is active. The easier paths are those well-worn ruts of rage and despair. To open to the pain is to open a path, to be a trailblazer of my own wellbeing. To open is to tend to the heart; it is the most active response I can imagine. And my own healing opens new possibilities around me, too, which were not possible before. 

Openness is creativity and hope. What kind of possibilities could we open? What beautiful world might we create together, if we traded coercion for connection, threat for goodwill, and violence for generosity, kindness, and justice?

Nurturing a Commitment

The first tools available to me were the religious ones hidden under the dominant teachings in my community. I found a deep connection with Jesus and the prophets, and I found my home among mystics and mendicants, especially in the Quaker and Franciscan traditions. After spending many years in community programming, especially related to family conflict and violence, I eventually spent time as a peace advisor through the Mennonite Central Committee. These religious roots were enriched by studies in the social sciences, community development, conflict transformation, and transformative justice. 

As a teen, I understood nonviolence as mainly relating to my own personal response to the world. Over time, I came to understand nonviolence as part of a greater movement, such as the one Riane Eisler has described as moving from domination to partnership.

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Since 2005, I also increasingly relied on the teachings of the Buddha to open this path. Instead of being a basis for reward and punishment, practicing with the Five Precepts, developing virtue, is a foundation for finding well-being within ourselves and as a society. These precepts begin with a commitment to refrain from taking life, and the Buddha taught that “skillful virtues lead step-by-step” to Awakening, beginning with the gift of being free from remorse. He understood that, in harming others, we harm ourselves. And our willingness to use violence and coercion – through taking life, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, uttering harmful speech, and using intoxicants – undermines our wellbeing. The Buddha explained:

“That's the way it is! Those who engage in bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, & mental misconduct are not dear to themselves. Even though they may say, 'We are dear to ourselves,' still they aren't dear to themselves. Why is that? Of their own accord, they act toward themselves as an enemy would act toward an enemy; thus they aren't dear to themselves. But those who engage in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct are dear to themselves. … for happiness isn't easily gained by one who commits a wrong-doing.”

Nurturing this commitment is a practice; it is not easy to cultivate a commitment to not taking life, the aspiration to not harm yourself, others, or the earth, in a society that is convinced that violence is inevitable, if not virtuous. Commenting on the endless cycle of the powers-that-be calling on violence, such as war, as the answer, Thanissaro Bhikkhu recently taught that:

“The only way to keep yourself from getting sucked into this pattern is to have strong principles against killing, principles you hold to no matter what. … That’s as clear-cut and absolute as you can get, and it’s clear-cut for a reason: Clear-cut rules are easy to remember even when your emotional level is high—and that’s precisely when you need them most.”

This is key: nurturing nonviolence requires ongoing energy, resources, and effort. Those clear-cut rules act as guard rails, reminding us of our commitments and aspirations. They call us back when we make mistakes and encourage us to learn: why some strategies are helpful and others are not, when they are helpful, and how to adapt them to complex, changing circumstances. This isn’t a casual commitment, but a dedicated path. It is a difficult, but also joyful, path. My commitment to nonviolence has carried me through so many desperate situations, as I worked with others to open up new avenues free from violence and coercion. I have experienced many of the hypothetical situations people propose to prove that nonviolence is impractical and dangerous, and worked with others who have navigated some of the most impossible-sounding scenarios with their wisdom and compassion intact. While there are always risks, and nonviolence does not come with guarantees, the tools and skills have shown that they are up to the challenge of each moment, and worth giving a chance.

“Where Your Treasure is …”

But we have never collectively succeeded in giving nonviolence that opportunity. The world has changed a lot in the decades since I watched Die Hard, but the lessons I heard then are still alive and well. 

Committing to Nonviolence

You can see it in the share that military expenditures take up in the federal budget, a mountain of money over time and currently ~37% of the budget ($1.665 trillion). 

Committing to Nonviolence

The Costs of War project at Brown University estimates that the post-9/11 wars alone carry an $8 trillion price tag. You can also see it in the rapid expansion of police budgets, which grew from $44 billion to $123 billion between 1977 and 2019. These increases did not translate into a feeling of safety, however, as civilians continued to hoard guns at record-breaking rates.

Committing to Nonviolence

Today, there are 120 guns for every 100 people in the USA, and manufacturers have not produced less than 6 million guns a year in the US since 2010, “peaking at 11 million in 2016.”

These patterns connect with the ongoing militarization of society. The National Priorities Project estimates that the USA “has spent $21 trillion on foreign and domestic militarization” since 9/11. They also point out where we have not invested our money and effort:

  • $4.5 trillion could fully decarbonize the U.S. electric grid.
  • “$2.3 trillion could create 5 million jobs at $15 per hour with benefits and cost-of-living adjustments for 10 years.
  • $1.7 trillion could erase student debt.
  • $449 billion could continue the extended Child Tax Credit for another 10 years.
  • $200 billion could guarantee free preschool for every 3-and-4-year old for 10 years, and raise teacher pay.
  • $25 billion could provide COVID vaccines for the populations of low-income countries.” 
Committing to Nonviolence

Those are decisions we have not made but could have done so, even while maintaining a large military. (The USA continues to spend “more on defense than the next 9 countries combined,” as noted by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.) This reflects our faith in coercion and violence as the most trustworthy solution, in contrast to other actions we could take. As Jesus observed, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The world is complicated, and there are plenty of reasons to be afraid. I understand that our systems that rely on violence and coercion are not going anywhere any time soon, and that many people dismiss the possibility of nonviolence as impractical and even dangerous. But surely we can temper our investments in violence with investments in human and social wellbeing. John McClane and Al Powell are not healthy role models for healing marriages or PTSD. In the real world, we need to invest in healthcare, childcare, education, social infrastructure, and other policies and programs that reduce social and economic disparities, that heal trauma, and support healthy communities where we can be and feel safe. Violence is not the answer; violence is a symptom of our society’s disease, and our faith in violence has undermined our ability to create a society where we can thrive. Even if you believe that violence is sometimes necessary, or inevitable, we all benefit from moving as much as possible from harming to healing, and from coercion to connection.

One of the gifts of nonviolence is that we are allowed to learn and grow, to open to the pain and find healing and health. I hope we increasingly open to at least the possibility that we can learn better ways to parent, teach, practice religion, do business, organize society, and treat one another that rely less on violence and coercion, and more on equity and goodwill. What kind of possibilities could blossom? What beautiful world might we create together, if we traded coercion for connection, threat for goodwill, and violence for generosity, kindness, and justice? If we truly care about ourselves, we will dare to find out.