As the failures of war strategies have become increasingly obvious, the benefits of nonviolent approaches based on the principle of equality have become more obvious.
At the root of every major religious tradition in the world is the belief that all human lives are equally valuable: our neighbors as ourselves. The fundamental equality of persons is also the thesis of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Though declared within a system of vast inequalities, the statement rang true from the beginning as an acknowledgement that equality and freedom are inextricably linked.
In my lifetime, freedom movements have made the strongest gains when they’ve modeled equality through a commitment to nonviolence. By guarding the right of one’s adversary to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, one is holding open the possibility that the adversary could become an ally, and that’s the way a healthy movement grows.
Near the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. was speaking out strongly against the violence of war.
Near the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. was speaking out strongly against the violence of war. The devaluation of human life in the propaganda, training, and prosecution of the war in Indochina was antithetical to both his Christian and democratic principles. As determined, disciplined activists in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement were proving, equality meant, even in the face of deadly persecution, refusing to threaten death to one’s persecutors.
By upholding the humanity of all persons in the struggle, the movement prevented the kind of carnage that resulted during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, showing that equality is not a goal separate from its means, but rather the engine of its process.
The lessons of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and subsequent freedom movements that have used and built upon nonviolent methods are exports the world is most in need of now. The U.S., in its foreign policy, has abandoned its founding principle of equality by acting as though certain lives are more valuable than others. Arming different factions against others has exacerbated divisions between people and increased proliferation and smuggling of weapons that have become more destructive and more likely to be used in crime.
“Rules of engagement” are murky and contradictory. Soldiers and civilians can be hard to distinguish. Often, civilians are armed and soldiers are youths who are forced or lured into fighting. There are no real boundaries to battlefields, as hospitals, schools and homes have become casualties in missile strikes blamed by different groups on each other.
As the failures of war strategies have become increasingly obvious, the benefits of nonviolent approaches based on the principle of equality have become more obvious, too. Maintaining open channels of communication between all sides in conflict is more effective than arming one side against another; exchanges in the arts emphasize the creative impulse in all people; fair trade is better for local economies than free trade; the health of the planet, on which all people depend, is degraded by the use of toxic weapons and weapons testing, so arms reduction must be a common goal; people power is a strong power, and each of us can play a positive role in ending and preventing war.
Groups of people all over the world are standing together for peace.
Groups of people all over the world are standing together for peace — for example, Israelis and Palestinians who have jointly protested the violence on all sides, and soldiers who have resisted conscription and deployments. Equal press coverage for nonviolent action also makes a difference.
Wars devolve into deepening cycles of chaotic retaliation. It may never be known who was ultimately responsible for shooting or selling or manufacturing the missile that ended the lives of the 298 passengers and crew members aboard commercial flight MH17 as it flew above a war zone. But, surely the tragedy, most likely a terrible mistake, confirmed that self-evident truth: all human lives are infinitely precious and profoundly equal.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values — that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control.” It’s time, and it’s always possible, to go back to our roots and say “stop.” Stop killing our neighbors.