As we look around the world and into our communities, the challenges we face can seem overpowering and impossible. Accelerating climate change, a tragic war of aggression in Ukraine and continued civil war in Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, resurgent authoritarianism in the US and globally, unprecedented economic inequality, rising gun violence, and the militarization of our societies: All these crises are responsible for great human and environmental suffering.
Yet, in the face of darkness, the interconnectedness of humanity shines even more brightly as ordinary people around the world are coming together to resist injustices and oppression in ways that are transforming themselves and the world around them.
These movements are reminders, when our capacity for hope is being severely tested, that there are forces more powerful than violence and tyranny that are shaping the world around us. As a US citizen who is witnessing accelerated attacks on fundamental freedoms and democracy in my own country, leaning into this awareness is a source of strength. Yet what gives me the most hope is that now, in 2022, we have all the necessary nonviolent tools at our disposal to stop violence and dictatorship in their tracks while building societies anchored in love and belonging. One of the most powerful of these tools is nonviolent civil resistance.
Nonviolence is mighty because it is fueled by solidarity and creativity rather than hatred and violence.
Just over two decades ago, when I began graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts, I saw an announcement for a Boston screening of the documentary A Force More Powerful.i The film, which told the stories of six nonviolent struggles that changed the course of human history—the Gandhi-led Indian independence movement, the Danish resistance to the Nazis, the US Civil Rights movement, the South African anti-apartheid struggle, the Polish Solidarity movement, and the Chilean movement that ousted Augusto Pinochet—captured my imagination and inspired me to dive deeper into understanding the power and practical efficacy of this phenomenon.
The idea that nonviolent resistance—a method of waging struggle without violence that involves direct-action tactics like protests, vigils, marches, sit-ins, strikes, boycotts, and other forms of noncooperation and civil disobedience—could be effective against the most brutal forms of oppression was a seed that had been planted earlier in my life. As a child growing up in rural Vermont, my parents occasionally took me and my brother to the Weston Priory, where the Benedictine monks presided. The Priory had a marvelous bookstore featuring writings by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Óscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, John Dear, and other nonviolent revolutionaries, and I absorbed their personal stories like a sponge. From their stories, I observed the powerful fusion of principled nonviolence grounded in a spiritual and personal ethic and practical nonviolence anchored in effective strategies and tactics.
Later, my graduate work took me to Kosovo, East Timor, and Palestine to study the self-determination movements in those places; to Sri Lanka to study civic mobilization to end the civil war; to Russia to work with the Soldiers’ Mothers movement; and to Uganda and Latin America to support activists and peacebuilders working to transition their country away from authoritarianism. I developed a deeper appreciation for the roles of strategic planning, organization, and discipline in successful nonviolent resistance—and how much effort repressive regimes put into undermining all these things to stay in power. Charismatic leaders alone were rarely responsible for achieving transformative changes. Rather, change happened through movements that organized and sequenced nonviolent tactics in ways that invited maximum participation to build maximum power.
After meeting East Timorese activists who had jumped over embassy walls in Jakarta, Indonesia to participate in sit-ins for self-determination in the 1990s, Palestinians who ran underground schools and victory gardens during the first Intifada, and Ugandans who organized a “pigs in Parliament” campaign to shine light on how corruption was stealing from the people, I also observed how wonderfully creative and life-affirming nonviolent resistance could be.
Still, making the case for nonviolence, particularly to skeptics, was challenging without strong empirical evidence. A decade ago, I joined forces with fellow political scientist Erica Chenoweth on a research project that systematically examined whether violent or nonviolent resistance campaigns had been more successful at achieving major political goals. After collecting data on hundreds of campaigns that challenged repressive regimes and military occupations over the past century, and drawing on my qualitative interviews and case studies, we found that the nonviolent resistance campaigns had been twice as effective as armed insurgencies (succeeding 52 percent of the time compared to 28 percent), even in the face of overwhelming state violence.ii
Nonviolent resistance campaigns had been twice as effective as armed insurgencies, even in the face of overwhelming state violence.
Nonviolent campaigns were also significantly more likely to pave the way to peaceful, democratic societies since they relied on building large coalitions, negotiating differences, and wielding power without violence.iii Armed insurgencies, on the other hand, sometimes succeeded but almost never led to more democratic societies after the dictators fell (think Algeria, China, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe).
After running more regressions, Erica discovered that no repressive regime has been able to remain in power when 3.5% of the population was engaged in active nonviolent resistance.iv However, what we found to be decisive in successful nonviolent campaigns was not simply a few mass demonstrations that brought a lot of people out into the streets, but sustained campaigns that drew together diverse groups of people from different parts of society; that were able to expand the repertoire of nonviolent actions beyond symbolic protests and street demonstrations to include sit-ins, boycotts, strikes, and other acts of non-cooperation; that integrated what Gandhi referred to as the “constructive program” of self-governance and community care; and that developed norms and practices to maintain nonviolent discipline in the face of violence.
Since the publication of our book Why Civil Resistance Works, the number of nonviolent campaigns globally has exploded, and nonviolent resistance has become the primary means that groups around the world are using to fight for rights, justice, dignity, and peace. In an increasingly globalized world, more people have become aware of the power and efficacy of this method of struggle and have taken inspiration from movements in other parts of the world.
However, a particularly worrisome trend is that the overall effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns over the past decade has decreased significantly.v Popular protests in places like Syria, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and elsewhere have been violently suppressed. While repressive regimes are certainly learning from each other, and the rapid spread of disinformation has aided their divide-and-rule strategy, weaknesses within the strategies and capabilities of movements may also explain this troubling trajectory.
In this time of intense polarization and lived experiences of harm on many different levels, it can be tempting to dehumanize our opponents and treat the “other” with contempt.
While serving in the US State Department, I witnessed firsthand how a nonviolent uprising against a terrible dictatorship in Syria in 2011 evolved into a horrific civil war. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Syrian revolution that challenged the Assad dictatorship in 2011, before the country was engulfed in civil war, was how Sunni, Shi’a, Druze, Christians, Alawites, and Kurds came together in nonviolent protests to challenge an incredibly brutal regime.vi In a country where sectarian divide-and-rule was the norm, the nonviolent resistance promoted unprecedented cross-sectarian solidarity. But intense regime repression led to Syrians taking up arms, leading to a vicious counter-insurgency campaign that destroyed large parts of the country while the dictator remained in power.
I remember asking myself at that time, what if the international community, both governments and non-governmental actors, had been better poised to assist the nonviolent activists in Syria while mitigating regime repression? That query led to a second book with Erica Chenowethvii on the role of external actors in assisting nonviolent campaigns and movements, and how diplomatic intervention, financial assistance, training and technical assistance, and transnational solidarity had influenced the trajectories and outcomes of nonviolent campaigns in Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Sudan.
At a time when authoritarianism and its underlying logic of violence and “us versus them” is ascendent globally,viii and nonviolent campaigns are experiencing noteworthy setbacks, we need to redouble our efforts to build the skills, capabilities, and commitment to dismantling systems of oppression in ways that center nonviolence and build toward the beloved community.
This might mean calling on our governments, local communities, school districts, and places of worship to prioritize investments in nonviolent tools for waging, resolving, and transforming conflicts. This includes skills building in nonviolent resistance, violence de-escalation, unarmed civilian protection, mediation and conflict resolution, and violence deradicalization programs.
Organizations like the US Institute of Peace, Pax Christi, the International Center on Nonviolent
Conflict, Nonviolence International, Nonviolent Peaceforce, East Point Peace Academy, Pace e Bene, Mediators Beyond Borders, National Association for Community Mediation, Over Zero, Peace Direct, DC Peace Teams, the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Kingian Nonviolence Network, Beyond Conflict, Beautiful Trouble, and Search for Common Ground provide invaluable resources and capacity-building opportunities for activists, organizers, and peacebuilders in the US and around the world.
We need to redouble our efforts to build the skills, capabilities, and commitment to dismantling systems of oppression in ways that center nonviolence and build toward the beloved community.
Meanwhile, faith-based initiatives like the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative are focusing on ways to empower religious institutions and communities with a broad array of nonviolent tools while shifting away from investments in violence and militarism. Media outlets like Waging Nonviolence are helping to shed light on the often-untold stories of civil resistance and nonviolent action for rights, freedom, democracy, and peace around the world.
In this time of intense polarization and lived experiences of harm on many different levels, it can be tempting to dehumanize our opponents and treat the “other” with contempt. Calling people out and shaming them can be easier than calling them in and seeking to forge human connections, which is a precondition for effective nonviolent action. Developing the skills of calling people in,ix having constructive dialogue across differences,x and sequencing dialogue and direct actionxi can help build bridges and build power at a time when we need both.
The great German philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) described the role of loneliness and alienation in enabling authoritarianism and totalitarianism.xii The most powerful antidotes to authoritarianism and tyranny are finding each other, building community, embracing difference and diversity, and drawing on each other’s strengths and talents. Transforming the interconnected crises we face will take a radical reorientation of our movements, away from single-issue compartmentalization and toward powerful interconnection.
Nonviolence is mighty because it is fueled by solidarity and creativity rather than hatred and violence. Let us continue to support one another’s work to make nonviolence an even more powerful force for transforming ourselves, our communities, and the world.
Established in 2013, ONEING is the biannual journal of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Renowned for its diverse and deep exploration of mysticism and culture, ONEING is grounded in Richard Rohr’s teachings and wisdom lineage. Each issue features a themed collection of thoughtfully curated essays and critical perspectives from spiritual teachers, activists, modern mystics, and prophets of all religions.