We live in a culture where social and economic inequities are expanding, elections are tumultuous and hate-filled, and there is intense and hostile argumentation among us about U.S. and international issues. In another unsettled empire during the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi labored to positively counteract the passivity and accommodation, dependency, hopelessness, isolation, despair and exploitation that paralyzed Indians. He envisioned the people pouring energy into the creation of a new, alternative, life-giving culture. Some of his principles for constructing the new culture may inspire us today:
Seeking the well-being of all: Defining our work for justice and peace in this way clarifies that our goal is meeting everyone's basic needs, including the marginalized and the power holders, the oppressors and the oppressed, our opponents and ourselves. Unifying actions and attitudes are central. Everyone wants to belong, and everyone does.
Self rule, or swaraj: Accepting personal responsibility for our culture of violence and injustice is a first step in changing the status quo. Gandhi declared that the oppressed people of India were complicit in creating their own terrible conditions. Only when we, too, begin to understand how we are complicit by allowing ourselves to be manipulated and exploited, will we be ready to stand up, respect ourselves, throw off racism and materialism, prepare ourselves through education, experimentation, and spiritual practice and work together to create alternatives in the culture. In a democracy where we elect our own government leaders, we should not be surprised when adversaries and critics charge all U.S. citizens with responsibility for the country's actions.
Everyone owns a piece of the truth: Building respectful relationships, especially with adversaries, and valuing their knowledge, experience, and wisdom, increases our understanding and improves our actions. Political opponents, members of other religions, power holders, and military personnel are potential teachers. Instead of self-righteously assuring ourselves that we are the small remnant that knows the true path for justice and peace, we can engage others, listen, and remain open to the possibility of changing our perspective. Rather than stressing individuality and private rights, we can emphasize building community and the movement. Rather than demonizing, ridiculing and name-calling adversaries, we can take a lesson from Desmond Tutu in South Africa. From the very beginning of our encounters with opposition, we can infuse a spirit of reconciliation, envisioning today's adversary as tomorrow's colleague.
Experiments with truth: Trying, failing, reflecting, learning, persisting are the ways Gandhi described the living process of his life's work. He confessed that he was experimenting until the day he died. The ongoing exploration he advocated challenges our own culture's expectations of high productivity, fast results, electronic communication, and instant gratification. It means that the experiments which inform our work never cease, and that we cannot depend on knowing our effectiveness or the results of our efforts. As our context and relationships change and we gain new information and insight, we can revise our perspectives and discover more and more options and alternative solutions to the problems of our culture.
The means must agree with the ends: Conducting ourselves in peaceful and just ways not only contributes but is absolutely necessary to the creation of a peaceful and just world eventually. Just as invading and occupying a country will not lead to peace but to a cycle of revenge and violence, attacking and mocking those who differ with us will not lay the groundwork for cooperation or attract others to join our work. The wisdom of active nonviolence teaches that we must BE the peace we seek in the world; we must live like the culture we want to create.
Gandhi's principles suggest ways we can bypass the status quo with its established institutions, roles and rules and establish a new culture in the midst of the old. Like the work of nonviolent resistance, constructing a nonviolent culture will require courage, risk-taking, and sacrifice; but by taking responsibility and utilizing our power as citizens, we can identify problems and develop solutions. We can create alternative institutions, new relationships and practices. We can plant the seeds of a new culture: cooperative housing, community gardens and community meals, underground schools and seminaries, credit unions and alternative currency, neighborhood organizations and leadership, artists' collectives, independent media and many more.