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Home Resources Articles Chisholm Articles Constructive Nonviolence

Constructive Nonviolence

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Constructive Program was Gandhi's main hope for India. It meant confronting Indians' own acceptance of their dependency, powerlessness and exploitation under British rule, while also helping them envision and implement instead a just society of their own creation. It required reweaving the strands of Indian culture and restoring relationships between Muslims and Hindus and the Hindu castes.

In the campaign for Indian independence, these were his priorities. This was his vision. It is a historically-neglected side of Gandhi's work, perhaps because it seems less dramatic and powerful than organized public protest. Yet Gandhi himself considered Constructive Program far more important, more foundational, more sustaining, and deserving a greater share of time and energy than resistance.

Constructive Program in India clearly benefited from Gandhi's ability to articulate an overarching vision for cultural change that could link a variety of efforts and from his promotion of a unifying symbol and action. The spinning wheel was already a cultural symbol of creative life energy, but under Gandhi came to represent the work involved in Constructive Program: developing economic independence through meaningful local work, providing basic necessities like clothing for everyone, building solidarity with the poor, and "simple living so that all might simply live." The mere act of spinning cotton offered a concrete way for every person, no matter the circumstances, to contribute on a daily basis and feel united with others in the struggle. It also signified the reward of persistence and provided an almost spiritual, meditative discipline. As a powerful declaration of self-help and of independence already-in-the-making, spinning confronted the lie of Indian dependence with actions of Truth.

What are the lessons of Gandhi's Constructive Program for us today? By nature it is a program designed to reintegrate into the community those who are marginalized or rejected. As a result, it helps a movement gain and sustain momentum and unity, positively influences others, contributes to the intended new social order, reduces the sense of powerlessness and increases self reliance. Scholar Michael Nagler cautions that we should not be fooled into thinking Constructive Program is less effective than a campaign of protest. Rather, it is a valuable complement to and preparatory training for a confrontation involving protest. Constructive Program should not be confused with efforts that are like bandages holding together an unjust society. It is not the same as charity. It does not help prop up or perpetuate the status quo. On the contrary, Constructive Program challenges systemic and structural violence by finding and applying alternative approaches. Some of Gandhi's projects addressed needs related to job creation, land reform, health services, sanitation, substance abuse, education, the role of women, and discrimination.

Personal transformation is required, as well as social transformation. Participants are expected to evaluate and work to correct their own weaknesses, particularly passive acceptance of the status quo or injustice. The affected community also must identify and make improvements internally, where there is tension, disunity or injustice. Through spiritual practices and purification, personal discipline, education and training, and community-building, individuals are encouraged to seize the power which they already control over their own behavior and to achieve "self-rule." According to Gandhi, the energy of nonviolence first had to fill individuals before it would be possible to bring about nonviolent social change.

What would Constructive Program look like today in the United States? There are many existing constructive projects that represent personal and social transformation, that present alternatives to the status quo and are likely building blocks for a new culture. Participants in nonviolence training have planned community bicycling, counter recruitment and job counseling, a supply of Spanish language books for Spanish-speaking families, a food co-op, a nonviolence resource center, and a U.S. Department of Peace. Other constructive projects include fair trade goods, joint Israeli-Palestinian youth camps, co-op housing and preschools, restorative justice work, electing women to Congress, desert landscaping, creating pocket parks and community playgrounds, Habitat for Humanity, organic gardening, offering complementary medicine, sister cities projects, independent media and bookstores, consensus decision-making and shared leadership in organizations, water and energy conservation, community arts and events, community meals, block watch, group spiritual practice and meditation, peace education and training in conflict transformation.

Can we articulate a broad vision that incorporates our shared values and help us feel that we are all working for the same end, even if not on the same projects or in the same location? Are there symbols comparable to the spinning wheel that might call us to common daily actions and could create a sense of solidarity? Or do we already have these, need to recognize them and to raise them up? Gandhi's Constructive Program provokes reflection about parallels for our own culture.

Fellowship Magazine Sep/Oct 2004; Rev Apr 2008

 

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