SATYAGRAHA – Christianity and Gandhi’s Philosophy Of Non-Violent Direct Action

Open hands held out

Satyagraha, loosely translated “truth & firmness” or “holding firmly to truth”, is the non-violent method of direct action developed by Mahatma Gandhi.

As a Christian I find so much truth in the model of Satyagraha. This is unsurprising as Gandhi was heavily influenced by LeoTolstoy, himself a follower of Christ (Gandhi corresponded with Tolstoy via letter and read his works) and by Jesus (Gandhi regularly read the Gospels, particularly the sermon on the mount). It also explains why people like Dr Martin Luther King Jr were so inspired by Gandhi's work.

The philosophy of Satyagraha holds to two different distinctions with regards to force, these are physical force (violence) and soul force (non-violenct direct action).

The basic principle is that each person is inherently good. This inherent goodness becomes marred through life experiences and choices that shape us and this goodness becomes less and less, but a small piece of this goodness always resides.

The principle of soul force is of us calling forth this goodness from within the individual and helping them to find it within themselves amongst all that is corrupted.

Goodness

In Christianity we see this idea right from the beginning. In Genesis God looks upon all that he has made and sees that it is good. God creates humanity in his image.

We are good and we are made in the image of God, who is good.

We see the corruption played out in the narrative of the fall, illustrating the marring of ourselves and the corruption of our nature.

Thus we are introduced to the two selves – found in almost every cultural narrative (or as 3 selves, illustrated, for example, in Freud’s the id, ego, super-ego). This can be complicated further by the acknowledgement that this duality rests more on an overlapping spectrum than as pure dualities, showing much more grey than black and white, but the division of two selves can be found somewhere within there.

We are made in the image of God. Each time we are involved in something that dehumanises others or ourselves then we bury that image deeper and deeper. The job of the Satyagrahi is to call this forth from the individuals.

Sacrifice

One of the key points of Satyagraha is the element of sacrifice

With physical force, violence is inflicted upon the other person. Whereas with soul force, the violence is instead inflicted upon us

It is in our refusal to respond violently, and in our forebearance of such violence, that we begin to wear away at the corruption and call forth the goodness within the attacker – even at the cost of our own lives.

This is consistent with our Christian narrative.

Christ was crucified, even though, according the Gospel of Matthew, he could call down an army of angels at any point to defend him.

The disciples were executed and did not fight back.

The persecution of the Church has been well documented.

Laying down our lives for the sake of our enemies is something that is expected of us.

But why?

Love

At the heart of the message of Jesus is love.

God is love.

Christ gave his life because of love.

The disciples and the wider Church continued to proclaim their message in the face of persecution and death because of love.

Hope

Central to the Gospel is the idea of hope. Paul writes that three things remain, faith, hope, and love. We believe that Christ went through death to conquer death. We have hope that all things will be remade. That when reality encounters God fully that corruption will cease to exist. Therefore we are not afraid of death or hardship.

Satyagraha in practice

Satyagraha vs pacisfism

Gandhi wanted to create a distinction between satyagraha and pacifism. For Gandhi pacifism represented doing nothing, being passive. Whereas Gandhi believed that Satyagraha is not about being passive, but about being active.

We can see this unfold in the salt march, the demonstrations, the boycotts, the petitions, the civil rights marches, the sit ins, the freedom rides and a whole host of other ways.

I am not necessarily saying that physical force should never be used, but instead that physical force has become our go-to option, whereas our go to option should be non-violent resistance.

What can you do

It is quite hard for us to put this into practice in the west. We are not in fear of death or torture, we have a great many freedoms, so how is this practical for us now? let us look at 3 ways:

1. Calling out the goodness

One way is to look at our interactions with people and ask “am I calling out the goodness from within this person?”. Are your words building them up or tearing them down? Does the way that you treat help them to see the person that they can be?

2. Solidarity

Even though there might not be much that we are facing in terms of persecution within our own county (especially if like me you happen to be a white male) then standing in solidarity with and lending our strength to those that are facing persecution and hardship is extremely important.

3. Providing a counter-narrative

I have two young children. When they are young their tv programs, books and movies are about finding solutions through teamwork and creativity. Then there hits an age where suddenly, every problem has to be solved using violence (aka power rangers and pretty much all super heroes) – there are no other solutions presented – and it pretty much carries on this way for their entire growth into adulthood.

We, however, can provide a counter-narrative, can help people to see that there are other solutions to the worlds problems than physical force.

May we stand in solidarity with all people under persecution and oppression, may we provide counter-narratives that build a better world, and may we call forth the goodness within others.

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