Advancing Nonviolent and Social Transformation
New Perspectives on Nonviolent Theories
The twentieth century has been called the century of total war. The incredible expansion of the devastating power of war, the heretofore unimagined globalization of warfare, and the creation of new weapons of mass destruction have left humanity on the precipice of vulnerability that renders the survival of our species in jeopardy. Many other such expressions of violence continue to undermine human and ecological wellbeing.
On the other hand, one glimmer of hope arises from the reality that the twentieth century also saw the emergence of strategies of self-conscious nonviolent action that imagines overcoming the scourge of this out-of-control violence. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are the two great prophets of nonviolent action and who consistently show up on lists of the world’s most influential people of the last century.
Gandhi famously stated that nonviolence is a very young and immature “science” that can only get stronger and more effective with practice. Erica Chenoweth, a contemporary thinker who researches social change movements argues—based on her data—that nonviolence is noticeably more effective than violence in bringing about change.
Nonetheless, our understanding of nonviolence remains rudimentary. The literature is expanding, as is the broadening sense of the applicability of nonviolence in a widening range of human endeavors—not only with political action but also in education, criminal justice, and many more areas.
We need more work on the meaning and practice of nonviolence. So a book such as this collection of essays, Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation, is welcome and important. This interdisciplinary endeavor, edited by Heather Eaton and Lauren Michelle Levesque, is drawn from papers presented at the May 2014 conference “Nonviolence: A Weapon of the Strong,” held at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.
The strength of this book is how widely it ranges. Thinkers highlighted here include Gandhi, Hannah Arendt, and Pope Francis. Several writers address environmental themes, there is a fascinating set of essays looking at indigenous thought and practices and violence against women and children also gets attention. The conference was hosted in Canada and most of the writers are Canadian, thus this volume offers a welcome perspective on Canadian history and contemporary issues.
The breadth of themes also points to one of the collection’s weaknesses. No topics get in-depth treatment. Unlike some collections of conference papers, the essays included here do not seem to play off one another in a way that adds a sense of depth and coherence when the individual chapters are read together creating the feeling with this book is more of a disparate collection of distinct parts.
Though the stated focus of the book is nonviolence, quite a few of the essays focus their reflection on problems of violence. Without a doubt, this work is a fascinating collection that addresses a number of urgent and important topics with insight. As such, Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation deserves attention for all who recognize that, if the past century of total war—and widespread violence of many sorts—is not followed by an expansion of creative and broadly practiced nonviolence in our current century, we may not have much hope for the century that follows.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University.
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