These are currently the existing assumptions that we make about violence, assumptions that pose significant threats to our continuing survival. This is what makes the Commitment to Nonviolence an absolute essential first step – the sine qua non - in beginning to reclaim an organizational culture and radically alter existing group norms.
The practice of nonviolence is particularly vital to human service organizations because their exposure to violence and the risks involved with caring for chronically traumatized, often violent people, is so high. Individual workers and entire organizations are frequently exposed to collective trauma when tragedy strike, as when a suicide occurs in an inpatient unit or a child dies who has been connected with child protective services. All too frequently, the response to such events is a “silencing response” and a chronically “blaming” culture which helps no one but hurts everyone involved. Trust is necessary for any social relationships to be effective so we see the maintenance of trustworthy environments and the repair of broken trust as an essential part of creating a safety culture. Violent environments tend to create a pervasive mistrust of the organization. The result is that in many helping organizations, neither the staff nor the administrators feel particularly safe with their clients or even with each other – and in many cases there is a good deal to fear because of the rate of assaults in human service organizations. Cultural safety does not just happen. To create, maintain and sustain a safe environment we must understand violence as a group phenomenon and learn how to collectively keep our “social immune system” healthy.
What Do We Mean By Nonviolence?
The struggle to understand the concept of “nonviolence” has been going on for a very long time, but many of the people who command the most respect – and awe – are those who have actively practiced nonviolence – Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama. But the very awe that these men evoke can be off-putting to “regular” people who deny their own nonviolent practice in the face of these mighty religious figures.
But practicing nonviolence actually isn’t difficult for most of us, except under particular circumstances which we will describe in a minute. Actually, if you are reading this, you are practicing nonviolence. When you are playing with your kids, working on a project, dining with friends, repairing something in your house (if it’s going well), doing your laundry, typing your email – doing most of the tasks of your daily life, every day and month and year of your life – you are practicing nonviolence. That’s what gets missed in the discourse of nonviolence when it gets raised to a religious motif and that is – most people are nonviolent most of the time. Nonviolence is the norm of our existence, at least if we live in a relatively safe home, community, and country.
But because you are nonviolent today, does not necessarily mean that you won’t engage in violence tomorrow. To be truly committed to nonviolence means objecting to violence in principle, not just in today’s practice, even though you may have the reason, means, courage, and physical and emotional strength to be violent. Gandhi called this the “nonviolence of the strong” 
The Religious Roots of Nonviolence
The thinking on nonviolence spans thousands of years and many different cultures. Nonviolence has roots in Judaism as well, going back at least to Palestinian Talmudic sources of the middle third century. Truth, justice, and peace are the three tools, according to Jewish thought, for the preservation of the world. “While Judaism does not appear to require a commitment to nonviolence in order to fulfill its precepts, it so sharply curtails the use of violence that nonviolence becomes more often than not the only meaningful way to fulfill a life dedicated to truth, justice and peace” (p.153-154) .
Christianity was understood by the earlier followers of Jesus as a definitively nonviolent practice. In three brief centuries, by its witness of love and sacrifice, Christianity grew from a tiny Jewish sect to become a religion professed by the majority in the most populous areas of mankind. In the words of K. S. Latourette, a leading historian of the period, “Never in so short a time has any other religious faith or, for that matter, any other set of ideas, religious, political or economic, without the aid of physical force or of social or cultural prestige, achieved so commanding a position in such an important culture” (p.27). In the United States, the nonviolence preached by Jesus has been most consistently displayed by groups like the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Quakers.
Islamic scholars have an active discourse around nonviolence and according to Chaiwat Satha-Anand (Qader Mohideen) co-editor of a book addressing Islam and nonviolence,
“a practicing Muslim should possess the potential for disobedience, discipline, social concern and action, patience and willingness to suffer for a cause, and the idea of unity—all of which are crucial for successful nonviolent action.33 It remains to be seen how Muslim intellectuals will attempt to tap the fertile resources of nonviolent thought within their own tradition and resolve the paradox of living as a true Muslim in the contemporary world” (p.22).
Buddhism is fundamentally nonviolent. According to Buddhism, for a man to be perfect there are two qualities that he should develop equally: compassion and wisdom. Right Action aims at promoting moral, honorable and peaceful conduct, admonishing us to abstain from destroying life, stealing, dealing dishonestly with each other, engaging in illegitimate intercourse, and encouraging us to lead a peaceful life in every way .
The Bhagavad-Gita had a major influence on Thoreau and through him, Tolstoy, and King. It also was the single most influential work in forming Gandhi’s thought. Gandhi said “I object to violence, because, when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent” (p. 190) . In his letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote, “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood” (p.69).
Nonviolence and America
The practice of nonviolence of the strong is a significant part of the founding of America, and has been a consistent narrative throughout our history, or as writer Ira Chernus has said, the nonviolence tradition runs quietly, like an underground stream, through U.S. history. It effects have been less visible than the tradition of war and violence. But its effects may someday prove to be more lasting (p.xi) . In fact, according to Chernus who has written extensively about American nonviolence, the heritage of nonviolence in the United States is a world heritage with roots going back to the Quakers and the Anabaptist Protestants leading the world to a new idea: “that society can be permanently improved when people band together in organized groups to work actively and nonviolently for social change” (p.x) .
Nonviolent social and political movements emerged first among the Quakers in colonial North America so it is not a coincidence that the Sanctuary Model traces its roots to the Moral Treatment of the mentally ill, introduced by the Quakers in England and then in the United States in the last part of the 18th and first quarter of the 19th centuries. The founder of the Society of Friends, George Fox, believed that the civil war between good and evil was not external but internal, a spiritual war within every human being and that the only way to overcome the external evils in the world is to overcome inner evil by following the Inner Light, and to act in loving, nonviolent ways. He believed that Truth is in everyone and that we each have a responsibility to listen, attune ourselves and act on that inner Light which he recognized as God [1, 8-9]. It is also interesting that the Sanctuary Model was founded in Philadelphia, where William Penn and the Quakers held their “Holy Experiment” (there being no word for nonviolence at that time) and demonstrated that nonviolence could work in every department of government from defense to criminal justice. The Experiment endured for seventy years until the vision faded and the Quaker party lost its mandate at the ballot box. In seventy years The Holy Experiment in Philadelphia housed a diverse collection of colonists from many parts of Europe and several religions who lived in a relatively high state of harmony under Penn’s “The Great Law”. Penn’s Great Law even abolished war on December 7, 1682 (the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor 259 years later – an interesting historical coincidence) .
The Importance of Nonviolence in Human Services
If you work in a mental health or social service setting you are likely to experience an event you will define as traumatic at some point in your work life. For some, the personal experience of exposure to violence, injury and sudden death are events that are unfortunately common. Murder, suicide, unintentional and intentional injury, or sexual assault – when they occur in an organizational setting - are likely to make the newspaper, but less likely to be thoroughly addressed at an organizational level. Sometimes you may be the person injured; other times you may be responsible for someone who is injured, a witness to the event, a colleague of the person(s) most affected, a supervisor, or administrator in charge. But when an event occurs in an organizational setting like a clinic, hospital, day treatment program, or residential facility, every member of the organization is affected by the events because of our fundamental group nature, our vulnerability to emotional contagion and to dynamic group effects. Trauma is collective.
A significant aspect of job stress is level of risk and it is the high degree of risk and the fear attendant on that risk that has been a significant contributor to why so many individuals and institutions in the mental health system have been reluctant to change established practices of seclusion and restraint and forced medication, even though these practices are so frequently associated with negative - sometimes disastrous - outcomes in the patients and for the staff.
Types of Nonviolent Commitment
People who have studied nonviolence have differentiated between two fundamental kinds of nonviolence. One has been called “tactical nonviolence” and this generally has referred to the prohibition of physical violence alone, even though there may be antagonism and a strong desire to coerce the other party into their way of thinking or doing. A good example of this form on nonviolence would be a labor strike where physically harm someone else or their property is prohibited.
The second fundamental form of nonviolence is Satyagraha (SOT-yah-GRAH-hah), or Gandhian nonviolence. characterized by a prohibition of both physical and psychological violence, active caring toward the opponent, and the intention to convert the opponent to the practice of nonviolence. Commitment to nonviolence is unconditional and is based both on principle and on practical/humanitarian considerations. This was the form of nonviolence that enabled Gandhi and his followers to overthrow British rule in India, that ended racial segregation in the United States, that propelled the Velvet Revolution in what is now the Czech Republic, and that allowed South Africa to end apartheid .
So, Why Is a Nonviolent Commitment so Difficult?
So, if we a naturally nonviolent in most of our daily activities, then why does the commitment to nonviolence feel so challenging? Why do we so rarely hear about a commitment to nonviolence currently, even though our homes, our schools, are hospitals, and are cities are torn apart by violence? There are many reasons. Until recently, nonviolent action has not been recognized as a legitimate method of struggle. Gene Sharp has been studying nonviolence for a substantial part of his life and has formulated a number of reasons for this oversight:
- Rarely have nonviolent actionists been romanticized as heroes. Rather, warriors and terrorists and their dramatic acts of heroism are mythologized for future generations.
- Historians have accepted the dominant culture's view that violence is the only legitimate form of combat.
- Historians conspire with the ruling class to keep the people ignorant of their own power.
- Western civilization is "biased toward violence."
- It requires a "new way of viewing the world." It is a paradigm whose time has not yet come.
- Nonviolence has never been seen as a coherent conceptual system. Consequently, historical examples of nonviolent action are viewed as isolated events rather than as different aspects of the same technique of struggle.
- Nonviolence is unfairly compared to violence. Nonviolence is often used when violence has no chance of success. When nonviolence fails, the method is condemned. But when violence fails, strategy or tactics are blamed—not violence as a method. Nonviolence successes are written off as flukes. Partial successes are seen as total failures .
There is another important reason that we will add to this list – under the influence of threat, practicing nonviolence is astonishingly difficult and requires emotional regulatory powers that many of us simply lack. We are biologically prepared, through hundreds of thousands of years to respond to violent provocation with violence and not just physical violence. There are many ways for human beings to do violence to each other, often motivated by revenge, and when provoked we can be more dangerous than any other species.
Why Is The Commitment To Nonviolence So Important In The Sanctuary Model?
Most of the people we work with in any social service setting have been exposed to adversity of all sorts, and most particularly, to violence. They have adapted to violent environments in a wide variety of ways, but that’s what human beings do – we adapt. The results however, as trauma theory shows, are astonishingly damaging to brain, body, mind, soul, and social relationships. The greater the proportion of people in any community who have exposure to systematic violence, the more violent the community becomes.
We make an assumption in the Sanctuary Model, that violence is a group phenomenon and that when violence has occurred the entire group has failed to prevent it, not just the individuals immediately involved. We see the violent person as the weak link in a complex web of interaction that culminates in violence after a cascade of previous, apparently nonviolent events. This movement away from individualism and toward developing an understanding that every violent event emerges out of a context that can be understood, means that new strategies for intervening in and even preventing the emergence of violence become available to the group. Consequently, every act of violence must be analyzed as a problem for and of the entire community and must be resolved by the individuals involved AND the group.
To create nonviolent environments, it is necessary for us to make some reasoned assumptions about how violence evolves within a group. Since the earliest days of the therapeutic community movement, a decrease in violent acting out has been noted when therapeutic milieu principles are practiced and nonviolent norms are accepted as routine . A team that shares similar assumptions, goals and practices are able to develop “team mind”, a way of working together smoothly and flexibly while providing a strong and certain perimeter of containment and safety within which traumatized and overwhelmed clients can explore the stormy world of the past while changing behavior in the present.
If we have a shared understanding of these ways in which violence evolves in a group, then it becomes possible to create nonviolent environments. Establishing and routinely reiterating nonviolent norms within the entire community is vital. People tend to live up to expectations and when we expect socially responsible behavior on everyone’s part, we tend to get it. If violence emerges and we see this as an erosion of social norms we need to take action to restore our weakened norms. Recognizing the signs of a growing crisis is vital and having enough interpersonal trust established that it is safe for staff members to surface conflict among each other without fear of retribution is necessary if crises are to be averted. Institutional leadership must be willing to recognize the role they play in either creating or resolving collective disturbances and must be willing to surface and address uncomfortable conflicts that may be resting at the level of ethical, not procedural, dilemmas.
Link to Bloom, S. L. (2010) Lack of Basic Safety
Link to Bloom, S. L. (2010) Sanctuary as a Safety Culture
- Chernus, I., American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. 2004, New York: Maryknoll.
- Solomonow, A., Living truth: A Jewish perspective, in Nonviolence in Theory and Practice, R.L. Holmes, Editor. 1990, Wadsworth Publishing: Belmont, CA. p. 153-154.
- Apsey, L.S., How transforming power has been used in the past by early Christians, in Nonviolence in Theory and Practice, R.L. Holmes, Editor. 1990, Wadsorth Publishing: Belmont, CA. p. 27-28.
- Satha-Anand, C., The Nonviolent Crescent: Eight Theses on Muslim Nonviolent Actions, in Islam and Nonviolence, G.D. Paige, C. Satha-Anand, and S. Gilliatt, Editor. 2001, Center for Global Nonviolence, Inc: Honolulu, Hawai'i. p. 7-26.
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