Our Nonviolent Practice
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Striving to adhere to a nonviolent practice is a guiding principle of our organization. We want to be transparent with you on what we mean by violence, nonviolence, and creating a practice of nonviolence.
Soulforce originally hewed to the philosophy of nonviolence as gleaned through the studies by our founding members of the legacies of several practitioners, including the Catholic Workers Movement, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement, Mahatma Gandhi and the struggle for Indian independence, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for civil rights in the U.S.
We as an organization chose the theory nonviolence as a guiding set of principles because:
It is effective for the kind of work that we do
It is open and accessible in the sense that it provides tools to everyday activists and "pre-activists"
It contains a call to action
And finally, it offers a path of personal transformation. Our goal is always first and foremost the internal healing, reconciliation, strengthening, and transformation of the individual and community.
You can use nonviolence successfully to draw a set of tactics from the application of its ideas, but we’d venture to say that such a method will lack umph because it will be absent of certain level of heart. There’s a kind of strength when you jump into the play of nonviolence with full heart, body, and soul/self and make it less of a tactic and more of a personal journey, philosophy, or practice of spirit.
We appreciate nonviolence for how it guides us like a blueprint into smart, tough activism, and we love that it can open up into a practice of spirit or heart. Soulforce doesn’t hold a hardline on what it ought to be for you; we want to be a place where you can experience nonviolence and decide what it means for yourself.
Nonviolence is many things to many people. Like the idea of divinity or the definition of "queer," we can talk about it best in poetics, feelings, and the fruits of the labor. But we will give our best, most Soulforce-tested explanation here as a place for you to begin defining it for yourself.
We understand that we live in a world constructed and maintained by systems of violence. We join a long stream of elders in this practice who have worked across geographies and issues. Here is what many of them have identified as violence: war, misogyny, private property, poverty, exploitation of (immigrant) labor, joblessness, homelessness, redlining, capitalism, underfunded schools, and exile from religious spaces.
We may not agree on all the same ideas. Our point in sharing that with you is that our work has many ancestors, and we honor and respect those who have come before us as we humbly join the conversation hoping to continue stretching the embodiment of nonviolence.
As such, we believe practice of nonviolence as applied to LGBTQI lives can never be divorced from the history of nonviolence as applied to racial justice, economic justice, and many other movements.
To us, violence feels like the loss of our livelihoods, erasure of our cultures, death of our people, neglect from the institutions that govern our lives, loss of our dignity, and destruction of our communities.
Nonviolence is the work of an imagination set on crafting a world free from these forms of violence.
In the Jewish tradition it is called Tikkun Olam. In Islam, some call it civic jihad. In Buddhist and Hindu traditions, it is often called Ahimsa. We honor the legacies of diverse practitioners, within and without formal faith systems, who have found the application of nonviolence an apt, soulful, and successful means to justice.
Nonviolence on Violence
Our way of thinking about nonviolence does not presuppose that all actions can be neatly divided into violent and nonviolent categories. There is more to being nonviolent than being not-violent. Moreover, we don’t choose a nonviolent practice because we want to stay safely within the confines of incontestable actions or aspire to "clean hands." Why we choose nonviolence is very important because it is a philosophy that demands very insistently upon integrity and honesty.
We choose nonviolence insofar as it preserves and witnesses to our humanity and that of our oppressors.
That leaves some gray area about violence we do not actually function from the purpose defined as "Let me not say or do that violent thing."
Uncomfortable? Good. This is a struggle. If we instead suppose that working at nonviolence is about accessibility, about affirming the sacred worth of self and oppressor, then it's not so cut and dried. Nonviolence is not as simple as being not violent.
It begs a deeper understanding of how violence works in our lives and the world we live in that is conditioned upon violence. For instance, we are not of the mind that violence never changed anything for the better because not all forms of violence are the same.
Just to trouble the waters a little more, if we are being very honest, we have to note that many nonviolent struggles worked knowingly or inevitably in tandem with what many people would, on the surface, call violent struggles.
Some critics may ask, “But aren’t you against all forms of violence? How can you condone _________________?” If you are asking this of a person or a people who are constantly under the boot of multiple forms of oppression, we would respond with, “These are the wrong questions to start the conversation about violence and nonviolence,” because it is foremost our concern to be in solidarity with and prioritize the needs of marginalized people.
We start with considering the actions those with the most power and privilege in this society to understand harm.
Sometimes there is more time spent critiquing the gray areas of activists’ intentions than the systems of violence that remove choice and safety. The more oppression and systemic violence we experience:
The fewer options we tend to have for pursuing action
The less likely we are to pretend that there’s such a thing as a purely not violent action
And the less luxury we have to be limited by notions of perfectly not violent actions
Being able to select the pristine and purely not violent action is often a testament to holding privilege and access that allows for such choices. We are in no position to judge those who do what they must to survive overwhelming state, social, and spiritual violence. It is important to recognize this, even as we as an organization always seek to find revolutionary acts that are nonviolent.
Nonviolence is about getting outside of over/under power dynamics, where we “win” and someone else “loses”. Doing nonviolence includes eschewing acts of violence that destroy our own soul in the process, but it does not stop there. It is pro-active: nonviolent struggle topples power structures, brings about personal transformation, and creates new modes of existence through doing justice.
It is kinetic in its mental, emotional, spiritual or physical labor. It can be loud, assertive, aggressive, disruptive, unapologetic, unnerving, challenging; politeness is not the price we need to pay to be dignified with recognition. Confrontation is not inherently violent, and marginalized people speaking out and disrupting those who carry out violence is not violent.
For some, nonviolence is a spiritual practice, a way of life, a means to stay safer, a tactic, or all of the above. Your path is valid, and we don’t preach what your level of steeping in nonviolence ought to be.
An important caveat by our understanding: The presence of violence does not necessarily negate the good works that are happening simultaneously. We live in a messy world structured by violence. There is no such thing as working outside the confines of violence.
This is a journey, a struggle in shades of gray to work for change in a way that honors our souls and the souls of our adversaries, while never taking injustice for an answer.
Nonviolence is not the opposite of violence; these are not mutually exclusive opposites, and they are not mirrored in how they funcion. Nonviolence is a process of creation, evolution, and seeking shifts in power, awareness, and heart. This is why we use the term “not violent” as well as “nonviolence.” If “not violent” is the absence of physical, verbal, or spiritual harm, “nonviolence” is the dedicated creation of world in which violence is no longer a currency by which we delineate relationships, borders, and social positioning.
Nonviolence knows that people aren’t the enemy, and that we lose our humanity when we forget or defame the humanity of our adversaries. Nonviolence acknowledges the power dynamics and structures that seek to keep marginalized people in their place, and it knows we must acknowledge this reality to transform the conditions of our world.
Conflict and unrest is needed to challenge violence and achieve justice before true peace is reached. This is struggle, this is uncomfortable, and this is hard work to hold love in tension with non-acceptance of an oppressive status quo.
Love propels this work; we love those who are victimized and suffering under violence and we validate their right to fight for themselves. We extend compassion, understanding, patience and love towards victims of violence, including us, and seek to see livelihoods improved, identities respected, and bodies and souls healed. It is through this self-love that we can both seek justice and extend compassion to our adversaries.
We work to heal our own trauma and center the survivors of violence. In this, nonviolence does the work of empathy, care, and love through action and demands for change. Reclamation and healing is the goal. In this way, it transforms the activist in the struggle. It does not call us to ask for permission to exist as marginalized people, but to actively demand that the world recognize our humanity and adjust to justice.
This mindset, by the way, is the same we apply to understanding and constructing just theologies.
Why We Choose Nonviolence Every Day
We actively choose a nonviolent struggle, but not for the sake of moral superiority or joining the club of acceptable and anointed activists.
It's important that we be critical of what we have learned about the meaning of nonviolence and the choice to practice it, as cultural narratives of nonviolence and the re-telling of its history have been whitewashed and gentrified by dominant culture. They have spun the story of nonviolence to keep the victims of violence from confronting their aggressors in ways that would truly change social structures.
Nonviolence and all its ancestors call Soulforce to study and be active across movements. Violence shows up in our lives in complex and layered ways, so Soulforce must pay attention to how fundamentalism works as a self-righteous violence across issues, including but not limited to sex, sexuality, and gender.
Fundamentalism takes center stage within our theory of change, so our purpose also calls us to be active across many issues and do work that reflects the complexity of our lives as raced, classed, sexed, gendered, embodied beings.
We support activism that doesn’t cause us to destroy our own souls. We choose nonviolence because we seek to be transformed in our collective humanity as we fight for a just world. Soulforce offers support, affirmation, resources, and a place for all who are committed to what is valuable about nonviolent struggle.
A Guide to Embodying Nonviolence
If you have positive, constructive answers to the following questions, you are likely on the right path:
Am I working hard to understand my context, my adversary, and how oppression is unspooling to create suffering?
Am I coming to this work with a joy for what could be and a sense that equitable relationships can be built across divides of power and difference?
Am I approaching this work to create cultural change and restructure power in a way that supports the humanity and dignity of everyone?
Do I believe in my adversary’s ability to enact justice?
Is my work full of energy and creativity and specificity to this place, time, people, and problem?
Am I trying to enact change by animating what other worlds and ways of relating are possible? Am I showing the world an irresistible alternative?
Am I allowing myself to be transformed in the process of deep empathy with suffering, getting in the way of oppression as an act of solidarity, and being brave in the witness of my humanity?
Our Process of Nonviolent Action
1. Experience the nature of the problem and be with the people most affected
2. Research the problem and the adversary; understand the facts and the cultural texture of where we are located
3. Negotiate with the adversary directly on what justice can look like
4. Use direct action to elicit a re-dedication to moving toward justice when negotiation fails
5. Use tools of communication and media to bring more people into the conversation to lean into the strength of social accountability to work towards cultural change
6. Return to negotiation when the adversary is willing; the question is not whether we shall move toward justice but how and how soon
How Nonviolence Has Changed Us
As you might imagine, a commitment of this nature and magnitude influences how we show up as an organization in the world. These are some of the qualities that flow from this commitment:
We work for cultural change, equity, and justice. We don’t work in terms of equality or seek access to the status quo. We question the structures and values of the institutions we engage rather than asking for permission to join them.
At our best, we are thoughtful, researched, and thoughtfully engaged with the problems we challenge. There’s a lot of learning and discussing that takes place before we set an action into motion.
We cannot and will not invoke the history of so many nonviolence practitioners, most of whom were marginalized because of gender, race, class, and/or citizenship, without invoking the legacies and current manifestations of their work. We can’t have the icing without the whole cake because it is dangerous and not right with our souls to invoke ancestors but not join their struggle. This is one of many reasons that we engage in intersectional justice.
We put personal transformation and the soulful quality of our community before objectives and tactics. Without this good stuffing of authenticity, bravery, vulnerability, and having some scratch in the game, our work would not be the transformative process of self, community, and culture that it is.
Interested in a training in nonviolence, nonviolent communication, or nonviolent direct action?
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