Satyagraha – A forgotten stream of true spirituality

gandhi feet

suffragette

Last week Lois and I watched the film Suffragette: an extremely powerful portrayal of one woman’s part in the non-violent struggle for women’s rights; and, interestingly, a pertinent exploration of the parallel processes of alienation and grooming that accompany any form of radicalisation. The main (fictional) character, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), gradually finds the courage to speak out and act against the violence, abuse and oppression that she and so many of her contemporaries were suffering in early 20th century Britain.

Alongside the grim reality of gross injustice, and the moving, personal story of one family, what struck me most in all of this was the powerful testimony to the courage required of a non-violent struggle against oppression. While the suffragettes may have gone beyond non-violent resistence in some of their methods, the testimony of many of them stands strong. This is a testimony mirrored in the lives of people like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Aung San Suu Kyi, Malala Yousafzai, or the unknown man who, on June 5th, 1989, stood in front of a column of tanks in Tian an Men square.

05 Jun 1989, Beijing, China --- A Beijing demonstrator blocks the path of a tank convoy along the Avenue of Eternal Peace near Tiananmen Square. For weeks, people have been protesting for freedom of speech and of press from the Chinese government. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

 

And in the lives of so many more individuals all over the world who have embraced the truth that ultimately violence can only be defeated, not by violence, but by forgiveness and love.

 

Streams of living water

In his book Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster describes six great traditions of the Christian Faith:

  • The Contemplative Tradition: the prayer-filled life
  • The Holiness Tradition: the virtuous life
  • The Charismatic Tradition: the Spirit-empowered life
  • The Social Justice Tradition: the compassionate life
  • The Evangelical Tradition: the Word-centered life
  • The Incarnational Tradition: the sacramental life

Foster highlights the gifts that each tradition brings to a full spirituality, and the roots of each in the life and teaching of Jesus. Looking back on my own life journey, I can see elements in each that have blessed me and helped to form me. I can also see areas in most where, particularly if given undue prominence to the exclusion of others, they can be distorted and cause harm and disillusion.

 

Non-violence

One stream that isn’t included in Foster’s list, and yet seems as fundamental to a true spirituality as any of those others, is non-violence; particularly that expression of non-violence captured by Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha. It is a stream that is clearly seen in the teaching, life and death of Jesus; that crops up repeatedly in many religions throughout history; and yet, that seems somehow to have got lost from the mainstream teaching of the church. I wonder whether Satyagraha could, somehow, become a much-needed unifying stream that crosses boundaries of faith and culture, and that offers hope to a hurting, violent world?

As I understand it, Satyagraha stems from the Sanskrit words, Satya (‘Truth’) and Agraha (‘holding firmly to’). It can be seen as an outworking of the deeper Sanskrit concept of Ahimsa: ‘non-violence’ or ‘compassion’.

I have also called it love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion.gandhi feet For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.

  • Mahatma Gandhi, Statement to Disorders Inquiry Committee January 5, 1920 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 19, p. 206)

 

The Satyagraha of Jesus

In this light, we can see Satyagraha as a central theme throughout the life and teaching of Jesus. He taught non-violence, most notably in his Sermon on the Mount, in which he calls blessed the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers and where he tells his followers to turn the other cheek:

You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil! Instead, when someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one towards him.

  • Matthew 5: 38,39 (Tom Wright, The New Testament for Everyone)

 

Jesus was neither passive nor weak when it came to standing up to injustice (witness his overturning of the tables of the moneylenders and others in the temple, or his outspoken criticism of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day). But when that injustice and violence was turned against him, he practiced what he preached: telling his disciple, Peter, to put away his sword; not retaliating against his brutal torture and crucifixion; and, even in death, seeking forgiveness for his persecutors.

We can see this principle played out in marginal movements throughout the church’s history: in the life of St Francis of Assisi; in the Mennonite and Moravian churches; in the Quaker movement. And yet, it seems painfully silent in much of the teaching and practice of the church today.

I wonder whether it is time now for all Christians, as followers of Jesus, to embrace the Satyagraha of Jesus[1] as a central, seventh stream of true spirituality? And beyond that, for all those of every faith to reclaim Satyagraha as a core of each of the major world religions?

To do so requires both courage and imagination. Jesus himself warned his followers that, if they truly followed in his footsteps, they, too, would face persecution. And the testimony of all those who have walked in the way of Satyagraha, is one of persecution. But it is, surely, a way that ultimately offers hope: even to such seemingly intractable situations as global terrorism; unjust, oppressive regimes; or the tribal, religious or racial divisions that underlie so many conflicts around the world.

I’m not sure that I have either the courage or imagination to make a difference; indeed, even in starting to think about this, I have been surprised at how slowly and reluctantly I have started to reject the violence of which I am a party. However, I pray for inspirational leaders from all faiths, political ideologies, and positions of influence who will stand up for Satyagraha as the only credible way forward to address the violence and injustice that is so rife in our world. And I pray that, in whatever small ways I can, I will start to practice Satyagraha in my own life.

May you, too.

 

[1] I am grateful, for this concept, to my friend Dave Andrews, whose recent book, The Jihad of Jesus explores in much greater depth the concept of Jihad as non-violent struggle as a way that can unite Muslims and Christians in a deeper move towards peace.

2 thoughts on “Satyagraha – A forgotten stream of true spirituality

  1. Great piece of writing Peter – well done. I’d like to recommend a book I think you’d very much enjoy – ‘Gandhi & Jesus – The Saving Power of Nonviolence’ by Terrence Rynne.

    Peter, what do you make of Jesus’ strange remark in Luke 22:36? is he using ‘sword’ in a metaphorical, symbolic or ‘spiritual’ sense perhaps? Or maybe using a contemporary proverb that is lost to us? Read literally, it’s totally out of sync with all the rest of his teachings (except perhaps Matt 10:34). Have you come across any good explanations of this?

    1. Thanks Kristin. I will look forward to reading Rynne’s book. Like you, I struggle with Luke 22:36-38 and Matt 10:34. Dave Andrews discusses them a bit in the Jihad of Jesus and opts for a ‘nonliteral ironical metaphorical reading’; he also puts it in the context of fulfilling the prophecy that Jesus would be ‘numbered among the lawless’. I think I agree that a nonliteral reading is more helpful, but I’m not sure Dave’s exposition fully helps in that. For me, I think this remains one of those passages that we cannot fully understand, but that we would be very unwise to take out of context of the whole of Jesus’ teaching and example. Perhaps he is using a phrase of speech to highlight that, yes, things are going to get really tough for his disciples, although alongside that, he clearly intends to quench their readiness to resort to arms, by stating ‘that’s enough’ when the disciples say, ‘we’ve got a couple of swords’, either implying, no we don’t need swords, or that’s enough of this conversation, and later, when he tells Peter to put away his sword and heals the servant who was struck by a sword. So I will stick with not fully understanding it, but holding it within a broader context of Jesus’ life and message seeming so clearly to point to non-violence as being at the heart of his kingdom.

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