Written by Veronica Pelicaric //
Civil disobedience is normally understood as the refusal to follow a law that our consciousness deems unjust, harmful or in a moral sense unacceptable. The big question here is: Shall I obey the law of my state or the law of my conscience? For example, shall I pay taxes that will go to killing others? Shall I obey an order to go to war? And the questions that might immediately follow are: What is obedience? What is the price of disobedience? Am I willing to pay it? Can I live with those consequences (jail, stigmatization, being called a coward)?
The author of the book Allow the Water, Canadian activist Leonard Desroches, points to the meaning of obedience as listening – the deepest possible listening. And in this case, listening to our conscience becomes profound obedience to a higher law, a law that honours the commandment of not hurting, not killing, not cooperating with falsehoods that declare to be acting for the good of the people when in fact they are rooted in self-serving interests or misguided idealism. It is not hard to see how relevant this act of deep listening is in today’s world, where technological disruption and mass media messaging threaten our capacity to think independently – and therefore listen to our inner voice – and lies are served as truth daily. (Climate change, nuclear war, and brain hacking are the greatest dangers we face today, according to historian Yuval Noah Harari).
Throughout the ages, brave men and women have engaged in Civil Disobedience and changed the course of history. For example, Henry David Thoreau is remembered as a naturist and as the author of the essay “Civil Disobedience.” This was the first great declaration of the right and duty to commit civil disobedience, to set the demands of conscience above the demands of the law and the ruling authorities. As he said: “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” People know what is good, he added, but they don’t do it. Thus, it is crucial to change one’s life to move closer to one’s ideals – in other words, one must walk one’s talk. When he refused to pay taxes that would go, in part, to support the U.S. war against Mexico and, in part, to support a judicial system that countenanced slavery, Thoreau refused. He was taken to jail. It was this event that became the basis for his book and inspired countless people to refuse to go to war.
Civil Disobedience and nonviolence have often walked hand in hand. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the front of a bus to a white passenger, she was breaking Alabama law and obeying the law of her conscience. She went to prison for it and she sparked the powerful Civil Rights Movement that abolished segregation in the American South. Needless to say, Martin Luther King, Jr., engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience, as did Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Daniel Berrigan, Stephen Biko in South Africa, and all the people who refused to go to Vietnam to kill or be killed. The list is long.
What would Civil Disobedience look like in present day context? We are no longer forced to enlist in the army – at least in Europe, with the exception of Greece, and the U.S. — but the threat of nuclear proliferation still looms over our heads, though by some standards we in the western world are enjoying the most violence-free society ever. However, for thousands of people in other parts of the world, war is still raging and this affects us all. Sensitive as some of us are to the plight of refugees and immigrants, we are aware that much more could be done as a nation to alleviate their suffering.
Civil Disobedience, in this case, is following the dictates of our humane concerns and not of our comfort. It could be said that what is hurting us globally is the lack of integrity in our politicians, the indifference to environmental issues and the dangers inherent, as mentioned above, in the expansion of artificial intelligence. So how does this relate to Civil Disobedience? I think the field of action is actually our heart/minds. Strange as this might sound, if it is true that all revolutions start in the minds of men; this is perhaps the most important moment in history to apply Civil Disobedience to the rule of the rampant authoritarianism, hierarchy, patriarchy, racism, etc., that we bow down to. Deep listening must be burrowed to see the implications of the pain caused by cutting down social services, promoting hatred of “the other” and denying health care for all. We need to free ourselves from conditioned responses that are harmful to others and inhumane. It is urgent that we educate ourselves and learn to work cooperatively towards a social order that cares for all peoples and their habitat. For that we must muster our courage to say no to what our consciousness says is unacceptable and cruel and dangerous to the lives of our children and the future of the planet. A call to creativity in finding ways to non-cooperate with the status quo is crucial.
There are a great many uncertainties, both inner and outer, facing a person who decides to engage in Civil Disobedience. In the traditional understanding of Civil Disobedience there are a number of decision-making steps a person should follow when contemplating this option. Primarily, mental stability needs to be considered and evaluated. The decision must stem from soul force, not from misguided idealism or personal psychological motivations. Preparation needs to happen in terms of day to day responsibilities to family, jobs, and so forth. Individuals must contact legal counsel for advice and be aware of their legal risks. From the viewpoint of Civil Disobedience as heart/mind decolonization, the path might involve less fear and risk (maybe) but be equally transformative and impactful. Plus, most of us are so busy working, taking care of children and so forth that we do not feel we have the time to implicate ourselves further. But there is a lot that can be done if we decide to care and raise our consciousness. The information is out there — as are the relevant organizations (Campaign Nonviolence/Pace e Bene, World Without War, Training for Change, for example).
Who would have thought twenty years ago that we would end up having multiracial congresswomen in U.S. government? But this phenomenon is the result of a change in perception, social movements, and will-to-power. For example, if enough people organize themselves to create “awareness chains” in their local communities and promote nonviolence training in schools, twenty years down the road bullying will be a thing of the past. As the UNESCO says in its Seville Statement, “just as wars begin in the minds of men, peace also begins in our minds. The same species who invented war is capable of inventing peace. The responsibility lies with each of us.”
We at Pace e Bene/Campaign Nonviolence can offer pathways to advance the needed transformation. In a lifespan stretching thirty years, our organization has developed curricula to teach people the width and breath of the nonviolent life. For the past five years, we have been organizing a yearly week of nonviolent actions that has grown from 250 actions to 3, 300 in 2019. It is clear to us that people need what we are offering: an alternative to the worn out trend of structural, cultural and direct violence. A culture of peace is needed, and it is imperative that we educate ourselves and others in the values, philosophy, and strategies of what that means and how to achieve it. What do we aim? To refuse to silently witness the deterioration of values and to refuse to allow the sacredness of life and human beings to be blown to shreds… to disobey all pressure to conform to injustice. Let’s cooperate to that end. Come join us.
Veronica Pelicaric would like to thank the Fellowship of Reconciliation for information on Civil Disobedience, a cause to which they have always been dedicated.