In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Sacrificial and Nonsacrificial Mass Nonviolence
  • John Roedel (bio)

Have been awake since 2 a.m. God’s grace alone is sustaining me. I can see there is some grave defect in me somewhere which is the cause of all this. All round me is utter darkness.

—M. K. Gandhi, diary entry, dated January 2, 1947.1

During the last few years of Gandhi’s life, massive rioting verging on civil war tore India apart, despite Gandhi’s best efforts to calm the situation and despite repeated, widespread, politically successful mass nonviolent actions by large segments of the Indian populace in the previous decades. There have been many analyses of the violent births of India and Pakistan, but none that I know of have taken seriously Gandhi’s intuitions of his own responsibility. At most, intuitions such as these have been taken as further evidence of the Mahatma’s profound humility.

I will not suggest that Gandhi bore some moral responsibility for this violence, but I will suggest that his (and others’) ignorance of what I will term the sacrificial aspects of mass nonviolence did have a role to play. I will model my distinction between sacrificial and nonsacrificial nonviolence on Girard’s [End Page 221] distinction between sacrificial and nonsacrificial Christianity as presented in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, and will attempt to use this distinction to suggest how violence might arise out of the practice of mass nonviolence, using the example of the nonviolent movement for Indian independence as an example. I hope that my speculations may also shed light on other puzzling aspects of mass nonviolence, such as the reason why, despite the many political successes of nonviolence, nonviolent movements have never become more widely established, and have for the most part been limited to ad hoc movements.2

In Girard’s view, sacrificial practices such as I am proposing as part of mass nonviolence are ubiquitous, destructive, and mostly invisible. Girard writes, “every negation of the other leads . . . towards expulsion and murder. The basis for all of this lies in the fundamental human situation of a mimetic rivalry that leads to a destructive escalation.”3 That is, every negation of the other contributes to widening cycles of escalation that would lead to the extinction of humanity, were it not for sacrifice, which allows the rivalries to be discharged without consequences onto an individual outside the community—a scapegoat.

There is not much agreement about how nonviolence functions or even about what the word “nonviolence” refers to. It will be defined here as a refusal to submit to or inflict violence, where “violence” includes not just physical violence but also verbal and structural violence, such as imperialism and poverty. Within such a definition, fleeing physically or otherwise from violence is a form of submission to the violence, and allows violence the last word, so to speak. Nonviolence is perhaps clearest in a face-to-face encounter with physical violence, as in the many civil disobedience actions of Gandhi’s career. But like violence, nonviolence also occurs in common, even subtle, situations, as in a conversation between friends.

Beginning with Gandhi, a distinction has often been made between “strategic” and “principled” nonviolence. Strategic nonviolence is the contingent embrace of nonviolence as a tactic. Principled nonviolence is the unconditional embrace of nonviolence, on the basis of a moral or religious commitment. Gandhi spoke of principled nonviolence as a refusal to submit to or inflict violence out of unselfish love for the opponent. He spoke of strategic nonviolence as a means for achieving one’s goals; in his opinion, this was not really nonviolence at all, but a simulacrum of it. An individual may even sometimes be unable to distinguish the extent to which his own nonviolence is strategic or principled.

To distinguish between strategic and principled nonviolence, according to Gandhi, it is necessary to explore the motivations and character formation of the nonviolent practitioner in question. For Gandhi, principled nonviolence [End Page 222] arises out of one’s “relationship to God” and a “deep sense of the intercon-nectedness of all beings.” Gandhi believed that in defense of truth, or in defense of the honor of oneself...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 221-236
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.