Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Nonviolence beyond the symbolism of the pure leader

On August 27, the American media organization PBS aired on television an excellent documentary The March, which details "the compelling and dramatic story of the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his stirring 'I Have a Dream' speech". The full documentary can be viewed for free on the PBS website (I hope that is true for those outside of North America too).

I was moved to see Jawaharlal Nehru appear briefly in the documentary. He was not mentioned by name in the narrative, but I felt he symbolically represented so many things: the fact that mass nonviolence first emerged not among the global core but among the periphery; that he was bearing witness to these political struggles on behalf of hundreds of millions of brown people who had been colonized for centuries; that like Pres. Kennedy, he was born into immense wealth and privilege, while the people who needed equal rights and freedom the most were the very poor, the hungry, and the physically violated;  and that he, Pres. Kennedy, King and Bayard Rustin were men whose lives public and private cannot be understood as somehow separate from their sexual lives. I cannot help but think of an Indian friend who proudly told me of Nehru's alleged affair with Edwina Mountbatten. Perhaps in my friend's mind at that moment Mountbatten, herself symbolic of the elite white woman's power, was reduced into a mere object of the brown man's sexual conquest.

I mention this because although all these men are symbols of various kinds, and rightly so, they like Gandhi and so many other leaders were complex, multidimensional people, as are we. Among the great nonviolent leaders, we almost always see not preordained purity but spiritual struggle, all-too-real failings and the attempt to harness powerful human drives for good. We cannot understand their lives and how they are understood by their admirers and detractors without understanding this complexity and how they dealt with it. There is the integrity and dignity of nonviolence that most of us aspire so fervently for, and there is the reality of our lives, which are typically colored by countless struggles personal and public. We cannot conceptualize one without the other. While I often reflect on how miraculous a life like that of Abdul Ghaffar Khan was, at this moment I am moved to reflect that it is a miracle that nonviolence is more often practiced by all-too-real people whose lives are our lives too, no matter their station in life.