Teaching nonviolent regime change

Peace, like freedom, is one of those things that everybody is “for.” That’s why when it comes to freedom, discerning wisdom requires that we ask: Freedom for whom (as in “free market” economics and “free trade” policy)?

It’s the same with peace. Peace under what circumstances? And who will bear the brunt of the burden?

Given that noncombatants pay a disproportionate price in modern war, characterized as it is by escalating levels of terrorism, pure power moves wrapped in a veil of public relations and state propaganda, and a deepening sense of hopelessness, I take some comfort in the fact that nonviolent social change shines forth, even in these dark times.

I’m speaking of recent developments in Georgia (not the Georgia down South but the Georgia that was once part of the Soviet Union, a.k.a. the “evil empire”), which led to the resignation of President Eduard Sheverdnadze.

“Shevardnadze had vowed not to resign after protesters chased him out of Parliament, three weeks after disrupted legislative elections. But by yesterday evening the army and police had deserted him and his closest aides had defected,” the Washington Post reports.

The 75-year-old former Soviet foreign minister said he chose to step down from power to avoid bloodshed. But knowing what we all know about power and human nature, I suspect Shevardnadze’s resignation had something to do with the fact that he lost the ability to coerce the rabble into accepting his legitimacy.

Critics of this column have written me in the past to say that nonviolence is all well and good, but it only works on people who have a conscience and a sense of shame. But I think that misses the point, as illustrated by the nonviolent regime change in Georgia.

A central insight into the machinations of power – as exemplified by Jesus, Gandhi, Badshah Khan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama in our own times – is this: the root of all political power is obedience.

Even conscienceless, shameless dictators cannot rule without the obedience of the ruled and, therefore, the implicit consent of the people. It’s a fact as real as any claim made by “realists” like Henry Kissinger. Without legitimacy, even dictatorial authority disappears.

Gandhi realized this and essentially posed the question: What if massive civil disobedience could be organized in such a way as to uncover the illegitimacy of rulers who don’t follow the path of true democracy? He found that when nonviolent social action is carried out with the discipline and commitment of a military campaign, even the mightiest of empires can be brought to its knees.

Force to constrain and apprehend murderous lawbreakers is one thing. But people who are committed to peace are a people who marshal the intellectual and spiritual energy required for war and apply it to the study and practice of nonviolence. So if we are a peaceful nation, why don’t we require all school children to study nonviolent political movements?

Given the prominence of “regime change” in international relations today, how come we don’t have our best minds examining bloodless transfers of power, as in Shevardnadze’s case, or in the case of the Mandela-led struggle against apartheid in South Africa, or the ousting of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986?

Can’t we replicate similar movements in the world’s troubled spots? Why aren ‘t U.S. diplomats submitting U.N. resolutions seeking the establishment of civil defense armies, who are trained in the nonviolent resistance of coercive military tyranny?

Why is there no Peace Pentagon full of political scientists and war strategists well versed in nonviolent tactics?

In the 19th chapter of Luke, Gandhi and King’s Guiding Light prophesied concerning the future of Jerusalem. “If you only knew the things which make for peace but are now hid from your eyes. For the days shall come that your enemies will cast a trench about you, and surround you on every side, and shall lay you in the ground, and your children with you;…because you knew not the time of your visitation.”

Whatever your religion, it’s hard to deny the relevance of Jesus’ words for modern-day “Christian” America.

ZNet commentator Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com

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