Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.

— The Dalai Lama

Peace Through Peaceful Means

by Betsy Crites

I dimly remember that day in late August, 1963, when my parents and I walked across Memorial Bridge to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. We had just moved to the Northern Virginia suburbs the year before. I was 12 and still homesick for the farm in Colorado where I’d grown up, so more than anything I remember the crowds — I’d never seen so many people together. I later learned, neither had anyone else.

Now in my 60s, I look back and marvel at how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement set the direction for my life. Not only did they bring together 250,000 people — the largest peaceful gathering the country had seen up to that time — but more importantly, their nonviolent methods and example allowed all of us working for a more just and peaceful society to expand what we thought possible. We know now that large-scale social progress can be accomplished through peaceful means. In fact, it is the only way to achieve such progress.

As I plumb the depths of nonviolence, I’ve also learned that its power goes beyond effective strategy for social movements. It can also effect profound changes at the individual level. The discoveries of Dr. King, Mohandas Gandhi, and many others going back to the Buddha and Jesus have shaped my journey as a peace activist and guided my aspirations to be a person of peace.

The seeds of my activism planted that day on the Washington Mall grew in the direction of U.S. international relations, peace, and nonviolence. I was a student in Peru in 1970 and later joined the Peace Corps in Honduras. A few years later my husband and I returned to Guatemala where I worked as a health educator. These were particularly volatile times in Central America. Witnessing the impact of U.S. economic and military intervention became the frame for my understanding of the violence that consumed the region for the next decade and beyond.

We returned to the U.S. in 1981 so that I could pursue my Master’s in public health. As soon as I finished my degree, however, my attention turned back to Central America.

The rising tide of violence during the 1980s that swept the very countries where we’d lived tore at my heart. President Reagan thought he saw the specter of communism spreading from Central America all the way to Texas. His response was to direct the CIA to arm and train the Nicaraguan contras and to send military aid to the brutal military regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala.

There was some truth in the CIA’s intelligence. Many of the revolutionaries in Central America were influenced by Marx; some believed in a collective economy, some were armed, and some went to Cuba for training. But most people fighting in Central America, with or without guns, were responding to the extreme disparities in wealth, the oppression of poverty, and worst of all, the violent repression of military dictatorships. For the vast majority, the poles of communism and capitalism were meaningless abstractions.

Unfortunately, the President greatly oversimplified the problems and exaggerated the threat to the U.S. Consequently, U.S. military and economic policies caused immense unnecessary suffering and death.

As with most public discourse in America, this conflict in Central America became polarized. I know that I avoided ever mentioning the presence of Marxist revolutionaries, so as not to trigger the fears and distortions that were endemic to the Cold War period. Some discourse was just too emotionally charged to touch.

In hindsight, I know I might have approached this challenge with a spirit of truth seeking, spoken out of my own experience, and acknowledged dispassionately whatever piece of the truth emerged from the opposition. This is no easy task; our media thrives on controversy, and the system is set up as a competition between adversaries. As a society we value winning above truth and perception above reality. Our painful divisions leave us immersed in a battle of wills and all too often, in the international arena, in a battle of militaries.

One of the most difficult things seems to be to hold one’s point of view lightly, remain open to new information and to all points of view, and be rigorous in the search for truth. My contribution in the 80s would have been much more valuable had I fully appreciated this aspect of nonviolence.

When possible, nonviolent movements employ traditional methods with patience and persuasion. For most successful movements, however, there eventually comes a moment, a tide when “taken at the flood” leads to a major shift in collective perception. It may be that historical conditions create the moment or the nonviolent actors may stimulate the conditions or a combination of both. Ideally, those actors will recognize the moment and step up their game.

In a highly charged and sometimes dangerous situation, nonviolent activists have an opportunity to draw upon their inner resources to call up voluntary sacrifices in hopes of pulling the parties into another level of “conversation.” Gandhi described it this way: “Things of fundamental importance to the people are not secured by reason alone but have to be purchased with their suffering… if you want something really important to be done you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also.”

The risk comes because there is usually no way to predict the full range of the consequences. It is the willingness to expose oneself to harm — rather than inflict harm — that can change hearts. Many remember videoed scenes of police attacking Civil Rights activists with fire hoses and dogs. People were beaten and jailed, and the sight of this abuse shook the national conscience.

A young demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in
Birmingham, AL, in May 1963. Scenes like these helped
usher in the nation’s landmark civil rights law,
the 1965 Voting Rights Act. © Bill Hudson/AP

The effort which I became deeply involved in — Witness for Peace — was an experiment in this same tradition; personal risk and sacrifice were a way to awaken the awareness of wrongdoing.

In 1983, three dozen people of faith from North Carolina traveled to the Honduran/Nicaraguan border to witness personally the impact of U.S. policy. Within weeks of their return they organized a second, larger group of 150 people from 32 states, to return to that border and continue providing a peaceful presence as a deterrent to violence. A few months later, Witness for Peace (WFP) was launched as a continuous presence that stood in defiance of the violence funded by our government.

For the next decade, I dedicated myself to that effort, coordinating the delegation program from the States, leading many delegations to Nicaragua and (after 1987) to Guatemala, and later serving as director of the national organization.

Over the next few years, thousands of U.S. citizens traveled to war-torn countries with all the dangers that entailed. The possibility of encountering violence or being subject to kidnapping was added to the challenges of the unfamiliar language, food, and culture. They returned with personal stories of the Nicaraguans and Guatemalans they had met and the destruction they saw being wrought with our tax dollars. They provided a powerful “witness” to their communities and to their Congressional representatives back home.

The troubled human rights conditions in Honduras continue.
A June 2009 military coup provoked this protest.

Was there a change in policy? Though the Reagan Administration lobbied intensely against our efforts, the pressure from returning WFP delegates and others prompted Congress in 1988 to prohibit future contra aid. By this point, however, the situation had become so polarized that the Administra­tion went outside the law to continue funding the contras. Nevertheless, this is one of the rare occasions when the Congress did not give a President what he wanted in a time of foreign conflict. The strategy to provide a nonviolent presence and to convey the stories and testimonies of those people on the other end of U.S. policies won a significant advance.

Why did so many people volunteer to travel to a poverty-stricken region that had been ignored by the U.S. government and travel agents alike? Why I was doing it was clear. I had lived in Central America, had friends in danger, had a better than average understanding of the history and culture of the region, and had very deep sympathy for the people who were suffering extreme violence as a result of U.S. military and CIA interventions. I spoke Spanish and knew my way around these countries. Going into war zones added some risk, and I did have to face my fears about the uncertainties; but I knew I had competencies for managing potential problems.

For most people, however, the 2-week “delegation” required genuine courage. The trips to Nicaragua and Guatemala meant entering an unknown hostile environment at considerable expense and risk. WFP made clear in its two-day orientation that this would not be a vacation. We were going into zones of military conflict. In spite of that, people choose to “stand with” the Nicaraguan people suffering the effects of U.S. intervention. It somehow captured the imagination. Many people were outraged by the rhetoric they heard from the White House and inspired by the idealistic goals that the new government of Nicaragua seemed committed to. With this outrage came energy; we provided a constructive channel for that energy — a way for many people to act on their conscience.

In order to create a shift, the nonviolent activists may voluntarily endure hardships, injury, and even death to reopen a path to positive change. The Civil Rights movement, Witness for Peace, and many other organized efforts in nonviolence have broken unjust laws or otherwise exposed themselves to the fury of the opponent. They do this as a way to awaken the conscience of the adversary and interrupt the cycle of violence and/or awaken the public’s awareness of problems.

Nonviolence does not promise quick and easy results; but it usually involves less injury, destruction, and loss of life, and it generally preserves space for constructive solutions.

A commitment to truth, a willingness to sacrifice, and many other insights and strategies have emerged from the history of nonviolent social change. Activists and scholars have learned some core principles which may overlap and interlock but are worth examining separately for the wisdom each brings forth. As more and more we integrate the principles of nonviolence into our thinking and our lives, the more we can open to the creative possibilities beyond force, and the more successful we activists will become in effecting long-term change.

The student of nonviolence could begin with these:

  • We all have a piece of the truth, but no one has all the truth. As clear cut as things appear from our perspective, our opponents also believe they are right. Genuinely seeking the truth in the opponents’ perspective helps us find some common ground and understand their worldview. This understanding can help us appeal to their higher nature or at least their particular interests.

  • Respect everyone. The principle here is to avoid ever humiliating anyone or accepting humiliation from others. People sometimes change their minds, especially when given the space to do so. When harassed or disrespected, people defend and justify themselves to save face. Gandhi maintained friendly communications with the British Raj throughout his campaign to free India.

    An annual vigil protesting the continued operation of the
    School for the Americas at Fort Benning, GA, where training
    is provided mainly to Latin American military officers,
    has occurred every November since 1990.

  • Never be against persons, be against problems. This is related to the above principle and opens a way to respect the humanity of everyone without endorsing their behavior. We can oppose ideas, policies, and actions. We can deal at the level of problem solving, not name-calling. “The real success in nonviolence, which violence can never achieve, is to heal relationships. Even in a case of extreme violence, Gandhi felt it was possible to ‘hate the sin, not the sinner.’”1

  • Set constructive strategic goals, but do not cling to the outcomes. The vast web of cause and effect is constantly in flux, and it’s impossible to know the full range of outcomes from any action. Dr. King wrote, “The beauty of nonviolence is that in its own way and in its own time it seeks to break the chain reaction of evil.”2 Through nonviolence we are better able to achieve some positive ends though it may not be what we originally envisioned. Our task is to stay grounded in our principles and flexible on nonessential details.

  • Recognize that means are ends in the making. Showing respect, standing firm with the truth as we see it, and at times accepting adverse consequences or abuse without retaliation will stop and even reverse the cycle of violence. The purity of our motives and the skill of our actions are critical and will have unforeseen positive spin-offs. The focus for any encounter is as much on the means as the ends.

  • Be prepared to sacrifice, but never intend to inflict harm. When the adversary is unmoved and an unjust or violent situation persists, the activists need to, as Gandhi said, “not only speak to the head but move the heart also.” The specter of civil rights protesters being attacked with fire hoses and dogs shook the conscience of the nation and, I believe, the attackers themselves.

As my understanding of these principles of nonviolence has grown, they have provided a measure I’ve used to gauge the efforts I want to support. A recent example is the current Forward Together (Moral Mondays) movement in North Carolina.

Moral Mondays emerged in the summer of 2013 in response to extreme measures taken by the N.C. state legislature, which had passed laws refusing federal funding for Medicaid and unemployment insurance; cut public school funding while at the same time expanding private schools; and increased obstacles to voting by the young, elderly, poor, and African American. These and many other policies seemed designed to favor wealthy, white constituents and reduce government by and for the people.

The Moral Mondays protests in Raleigh brought together a
broad coalition of faith groups, civil rights groups, women’s
rights groups, immigration rights groups, and others.

The leadership of the state’s NAACP seized this moment to lead a nonviolent response. Like many of my cohort who came of age in the sixties, I felt compelled to join this effort despite some personal risk and expense. I attended numerous rallies on the grassy mall outside the legislative building where gray heads peppered the crowd, and ultimately I joined those who risked arrest in order to make their voices heard.

As I’ve watched and participated in the Moral Monday process, I’ve been impressed with the leaders’ faithfulness to the principles of nonviolence. They have carefully avoided personal attacks on the governor or legislators, keeping their focus on the harshness of the policies and the hardships they create. They emphasize respect for the police who arrested us. They set constructive goals such as registering voters.

For many who are taking part, whether it’s through civil disobedience or volunteering in other ways, it is an act and leap of faith. We cannot know the outcomes of our efforts. Our faith is in the nonviolent means, which are developed and supported in a community of fellow activists.

In the strong tradition of the Civil Rights movement and Witness for Peace, Rev. William Barber and the other leaders of the Forward Together include prayer, reflection, and singing as a regular part of their gatherings. These are intentionally ecumenical. Though to some they might appear merely religious, they are deep practices that sew optimism and unity.

Time for reflection also tends to draw people back to the wisdom traditions that can inspire our highest motivations and purest intentions. The cultivation of peaceful attitudes such as gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion build the foundation for what Dr. King called the “beloved community,” which can model the very ends it seeks to bring into being.

Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.

— The Dalai Lama

Invitation to Practice

Nonviolence as a means of societal transformation can be far more effective when the practitioners have also undertaken a discipline of personal transformation. By attending to our own mental and emotional states, such as anger, hatred, and aggression, and by working to create peaceful realms in our immediate circles, we simultaneously contribute to a world that supports nonviolence.

Nonviolence scholar, Michael Nagler notes that “Nonviolence begins in inner struggle — specifically, the struggle to keep anger, fear, and greed from having sway over us.”3 And Dr. King reminds us: “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”4

To follow this maxim requires cultivating a spiritual discipline, which ideally includes regular time for reflection and meditation. Reflection on the wisdom of great spiritual leaders who aligned their actions with their high ideals expands our sense of what is possible. Meditation and prayer take us to that place of refuge where we can deepen our insight and strengthen our resolve.

A personal discipline of self-reflection can help us overcome the conditioning that keeps us thinking inside the box and acting reflexively. We are all subject to strong biases from within our culture and modern society. We are taught to think in terms of “we” against “them,” and put our faith in zero-sum contests where the winner takes all. This model permeates our political, economic, and criminal justice systems.

Since we are shown violence at every turn — on TV and in movies, books, or other media — we tend to accept it as the norm. This is a misperception Gandhi frequently addressed:

The fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on force of arms but on the force of truth or love… Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force. Hundreds of nations live in peace. History does not and cannot take note of this fact. History is really a record of the interruption of the even working of the force of love.5

Gandhi was trained as a lawyer. Through his painful experiences of discrimination in South Africa and his profound introspection and reflection, he managed to decondition himself from the elements of this training that picks winners against losers. He wrote about his “experiments in truth,” which were in essence a long process of retraining himself and discovering the principles of nonviolence. It was not about learning the wisdom of others or acquiring intellectual understanding, though he certainly did that as well. What really shifted him and empowered him was the wisdom that arose out of his experience. S.N. Goenka, a Buddhist teacher from India, describes this as “the wisdom that one lives, real wisdom that will bring about a change in one’s life by changing the very nature of the mind.”6

When we peek outside the box of our competitive, violence-prone society, we might discover what Gandhi called, “the most powerful force the world has known,” nonviolence.

Betsy Crites, MPH, co-founded and served as Director of Witness for Peace, a nationwide, faith-based organization committed to nonviolence in support of just U.S. policies in Latin America. She also served with Nonviolent Peaceforce accompanying human rights defenders in Guatemala, with Metta Center on Nonviolence as interim director, and as Director of N.C. Peace Action. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.


2 Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community? (Beacon Press, 1968), p. 65.

3 Michael Nagler, Search for a Nonviolent Future (New World Library, 2004) p. 83. Dr. Nagler is a scholar, educator, and writer on nonviolence and the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, CA.

4 Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream: The Quotations of Martin Luther King, Jr., compiled and edited by Lotte Koskin (Grosset and Dunlap, 1968).

5 Nagler, p. 55.

6 William Hart, The Art of Living, Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka (HarperSanFrancisco, 1982), p. 89.