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On July Fourth many of us attend parades that, in addition to the local chamber of commerce float, include men, boys and sometimes girls dressed in soldier costumes reminiscent of the war that brought the colonies independence from the British. Reading about this war we know that it was brutal, horrifying and left serious deprivation for both sides but especially the nascent Americans. On this July Fourth I am wondering what America as a nation might have become had we gained our independence from England through means of non-violent resistance instead of war?
The question was brought home to me by my recent trip to India where ahimsa (the principle of no-harm) is honored in this country which gained its freedom from British rule not through war but through a popular uprising using the principles of non-violent resistance.
This idea of a non-violent American revolution seems, at first blush, to be sentimental, academic or even heretical. Yet the question of violent vs. non-violent revolutionary movements is very real for those countries currently attempting to gain their freedom from oppressive occupying forces. It is very real for the people of Tibet, for example. Recently a group of students and I were able to meet with the Dailai Lama and with Prof. Rinpoche Sandhong, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan People in exile. When we asked Prof. Rinpoche about Buddhism and the principle of Ahimsa he spoke of Gandhi. “Gandhi did not invent non-violent resistance, but what he did was bring the principle of non-violence to an entire people to create change.”
Gandhi led the Indian people to a non-violent attainment of complete freedom from a much more powerful occupying force; Martin Luther King, Jr, was inspired to use these same techniques in the American civil rights movement; and Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu did the same in South Africa. Today the people of Tibet, led by the Dalai Lama, have halted violent means of securing their freedom and in so doing have shown the Chinese invasion for the travesty that it is while providing spiritual inspiration for people of all nations.
What if the practice of non-violence resistance had extended further back and had been employed in the Americas? Would the French revolution have followed suit and been less bloody? Would a non-violent American revolution changed our understanding of conquest and freedom and altered our interactions with native American populations and with our neighbors to the south and north?
I am not a complete pacifist. But the powerful freedom struggles of India and Tibet that did not rely on force but on spiritual principles have inspired me to re-consider our Independence day parades and to remember that there are other models of getting freedom in the world – ones that don’t involve violence. Let us celebrate our independence but reflect upon other means that true and lasting freedom are attained. Happy Fourth of July.