The Hidden Power of Truth and Harmlessness

December 9, 2007

Celebration's Church
Santa Fe, NM

One of the most famous monuments in the world is the Parthenon in Athens. It stands elegant and gleaming white above the ancient city; was completed in 432 BC and was built to rally the people of Athens in their war against Sparta. Within the sanctuary of the Parthenon was the monumental statue of Athena, the virgin, to tell the Athenians how their women were different than the women of Sparta and whereupon the strength of the Athenian patriarchy was based. On the four outside surfaces, or metopes, of this gorgeous building were depicted four wars by which patriarchy was established: one against the Amazon women, one against the Centaurs, one against the Trojans and one against the Giants, or Titans. This was to be a glorious monument to remind the people of Athens how they were first in history, militarily and culturally.

At the same time in Athens a teacher sat under an olive tree and taught the method of seeking truth through questions. He questioned the tales about the gods and about the values of Greek religion and about immortality and politics. He questioned nearly everything and his method was to cross examine, not to tell, his students the answers to his questions. His name of course was Socrates and this was the Socratic method a method by which I was still trained 2,500 years later when I was in law school.

Now, it came to pass that the majority leadership in Athens was sorely displeased with Socrates questions and he was brought to trial for impiety and the corruption of youth. He was the most famous teacher in Athens but leadership did not like questions, or cross examination as a method of teaching. They threatened Socrates with death but gave him the means to flee. He said that he would not flee. Nor would he admit that his method was impious, nor bend from searching for truth with the youth, nor stop seeking truth at all, even under threat of death. He said:

I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person.

I am not going to argue for my sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you.

I am a gadfly which God has attached to the State, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.

They sentenced him to death. He said:

And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer the penalty of death, —they too [he said of those who condemned him] go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong; and I must abide by my award—let them abide by theirs.

Now here is a remarkable fact: The monument of the Parthenon was constructed to sanctify a military state, to glorify its wars and solidify its power, thereby to secure the Athenian empire. The method of Socrates was intended to inform learning and education and thereby to secure the spread of information, truth, morality and justice.

Which do you know more about today, the Socratic method, asking questions as the pathway to learning, or the Titans, the Centaurs and the Amazons enshrined on the metopes of the Parthenon? Which has lasted longer in history, has had a greater impact? The violent method of the Athenian state or the non-violent method of the teacher? The peaceful death of Socrates or the violent deaths of the thousands of Athenians who fought against Sparta? Which was a more effective way to change history?

Can you remember the names of the rulers of India who lived at the time of the Buddha? Is any of their military conquests as lasting as the teaching about the 8-fold path?

Which has lasted longer, the Roman Empire, or the traces of the Roman Civil Code? Or which has lasted longer, the domination imposed by Caesar’s wars, or the power of the parables of Jesus?

And as you ponder these results of non violence vs. violence as a means to change the world, then ponder whether George Bush’s attempt to conquer the unwilling Iranians and Iraqis is as likely to succeed as some method informed by questions, parables, information and compassion.

Non violence, the methods of the teacher and the learner, are not strange in history. Let me refresh your memory of another famous example:

In 1894 the General Staff of the French Army framed a captain by the name of Alfred Dreyfus and convicted him of passing secrets to the dreaded enemy, the Germans. Dreyfus was sentenced to life in exile on Devil’s Island. Subsequent investigation, however, by Dreyfus’ brother and others, revealed indisputable information leading to another officer, a Hungarian-born man of shady reputation. It was this man Esterhazy who had been the author of the seditious document for which Dreyfus had been convicted. Dreyfus was innocent.

When, however, the General Staff was secretly confronted with the truth that they had convicted and exiled for life the wrong man, they refused to correct the matter. They preferred to imprison the wrong man than to admit error, which would have been to admit a flawed military, which would have meant a loss of military morale and national defense, or that is, the truth was up against the unified defense of those who would protect the homeland and they would not suffer the truth if it meant to weaken their weapons and walls and guns and tanks.

Then Emile Zola, the great French novelist, wrote a famous letter accusing them all, the General Staff, the government, the prosecutors, of a cover up. Oh, they were angry! Zola—the messenger—was therefore prosecuted for libeling the government. The General Staff and the state brought the action, they said, to defend the honor of the army and the republic.

“Oh no, you did not bring this action, the state did not bring this action,” Zola told the jury. “I brought this case into the open knowing that the army would surely sue me for libel and knowing that in that way I would have a public trial through which to bring the evidence to the attention of the world. Jurors!” He cried out to the twelve who sat in judgment of him, “Do your duty! Defend the truth; defend the honor of France, defend our country which was the first to author the rights of man; first to honor liberty for the common man. Do your duty, jurors, and uphold the idea of justice and courts as the hallways of truth!”

And if you do not, Emile Zola said, if you condemn me, then this will become the most famous trial in French history, the nadir of French history, to be talked about through the generations and in that case the truth will win out on its own. Fear not; you will either decide for the truth yourselves or history will decide for the truth and you shall live in infamy.

This was non-violent, affirmative, courageous action and Zola was right. He was himself convicted of libel —the jurors did not heed his call—but within a few years the truth did emerge, the sentence against Dreyfus was cancelled, Zola completely vindicated, and Dreyfus freed to become a general in the First World War. When Zola died, 30,000 people attended his funeral.

Now you will think that the world of violence and power and wealth can only be resisted by violence and power and wealth. But that is not an accurate reading of history. Zola used the courts to bring truth to the surface, and Socrates used his trial to bring the Socratic method to the attention of 2,000 years of students and each of these was more powerful by far, than the forces of Periclean Athens or the French General Staff. The truth, the search for truth, the search for fairness and justice, has been more the leaven of civilization, more the inspiration of civilization than the search for dominion or wealth.

Now we begin to see what Gandhi was doing on his salt march to the sea. He was not just going to pick up salt in violation of the rules of the empire; he was spreading the truth about the inhumanity of the empire to the world, and the world was watching, and the more that he spread the truth, the more the empire unraveled. The world-wide press covered this humble little man walking to the sea with a thousand followers to pick up salt, the most harmless act imaginable. No one was hurt by picking up salt. He went to jail, with thousands of others, and then wrote from jail to the world: “We are people here!”

We are people, here. The little man in baggy trousers and a cane was more elegant in speech, more refined in compassion, more loving in his manner than any of his oppressors and the world could not help but notice and the empire came down without a shot.

There is a phrase in the teachings of Jesus: “resist not evil.” “You have heard it said,” he says, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say unto you, resist not evil.”

What can this possibly mean? Does it mean accept evil? Does it mean there is no such thing as evil? Does it mean lie down, like a rabbit in front of the truck, sacrifice your life to the forces of power and wealth and property?

I think that ‘Resist not evil’ is the core of the Jesus teaching, and is very much like the Buddha’s teaching about non resistance, Resistance is the cause of the suffering, as the Buddha would say.

If we are talking political strategy, resistance alone is an ineffective strategy, Jesus and Gandhi would both say. It simply does not work to try to overturn superior power with lesser power.

So how to overturn superior power at all? Their answer has repeatedly been: with truth and harmlessness. Add to that Socrates’ answer: with questions and knowledge. Add to that Zola’s answer: with an appeal to the law and justice. Add to that Martin Luther King’s answer: with eloquence and dignity. Put all these together and then you have a formula for social change, a formula that has brought down empires, changed cultures of racism and eroded monuments of patriarchy.

The genius of non-violence is to see that power lies in the publicity of the truth, the spreading of the truth, not in overcoming evil. In a thousand years Gandhi could not have deposed the British viceroy by force. In 2,500 years no one has been able to determine who shall rule the Middle East by force.

The genius of non-violence is for the practitioner to take the suffering from his action upon himself and his followers. When Gandhi went to jail, his demeanor, his action, his words did not cause the defenses of the Viceroy to escalate, there was no danger to the military or the self indulgence of the British empire. There was no need for more troops to stop terrorists. Rather, Gandhi just went to jail, and in jail, the whole world saw this harmless man who told the truth and it was the truth that set him free and brought the empire down.

Martin Luther King did the same to undermine institutionalized racism in the South of the US. Writing harmlessly from the Birmingham jail, speaking with both passion and restraint, walking the streets without a gun, taking upon himself the consequences of his own beliefs, maintaining the highest moral purpose: “We are people”; King mustered more power than J. Edgar Hoover with all the weapons of the federal FBI.

Most of us would rather not suffer for our beliefs. Understandably. And yet the old teachings are that suffering is inevitable; it is only a question how we use our suffering to change the world.

When he was announcing the beginning of his movement for non-cooperation with the Empire in India, Gandhi began with these words:

No country has ever risen without being purified through the fire of suffering. Mother suffers that her child may live. The condition of wheat-growing is that the seed grain should perish. Life comes out of death. Will India rise out of her slavery without fulfilling this eternal law of purification through suffering?


English and French histories are replete with instances of men continuing their pursuit of the right, irrespective of the amount of suffering involved. … Why should we expect to write our history differently? It is possible for us, if we would, to learn from the mistakes of our predecessors to do better, but it is impossible to do away with the law of suffering which is the one indispensable condition of our being. The way to do better is to avoid, if we can, violence from our side and thus quicken the rate of progress and to introduce greater purity in the methods of suffering. We can, if we will, refrain, in our impatience from bending the wrong-doer to our will by physical force as Sinn Feiners are doing today,

[Selected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Duncan, Faber, 1951, pp 122-126.]

When this was written, Gandhi of course knew that Sinn Fein was trying through violent means to free the northern Irish from England. The Irish and the English had been fighting since at least the 14th century, and they had not ever resolved their disputes by force of arms. Today, in 2007, still they have not. After 600 years of violent struggle they might learn something from Gandhi who freed his people from the same English in less than 50 years. The good news is that recently both sides have begun to see the value in the non-violent approach, and are making progress.

From the wars reflected in the Biblical records in Kings and Numbers to George Bush’s attempted forceful extirpation of Saddam Hussein’s evil history is replete with examples of the old way. In the Middle East for 2,500 years, one king or another has washed back and forth over the deserts , under the name of one religion or another, seeking to compel adherence or submission by the other. It cannot be said there is any record of success in this attempt to impose, or force, submission of whole peoples, no matter how right or how just the cause has seemed. The sword, the gun, and the tank cannot control emotions or the mind. Gandhi said, and proved, that truth telling, consistency, compassion and self restraint are more persuasive than any of the institutions of property and wealth.

Today, here in Santa Fe, and as a people all across the United States, we may choose to identify with the tradition of Periclean Athens, Alexander the Great, the Caesars, Charlemagne, El Cid, Napoleon and George Patton, or we may choose to join that other line that weaves in and around the lives of Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, coming on down in our times to Emile Zola, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If we choose the latter tradition, we choose to identify with a line that in ancient times was so few in number that the powers could kill one and seem to stop the whole flow. But in recent years the numbers of those who have demonstrated the power of the “civil” in civilization have increased to such an extent that we cannot name them all, they are a global movement. From Desmond Tutu in South Africa, to Adam Micknik in Poland, to Andrei Sakharov in Russia, to the nameless women who put flowers in the rifles of the soldiers in the Philippine revolution, they are planting trees in Guatemala and teaching health in Africa. And in this movement over the last 50 years we have begun to prove that when knowledge, or truth, is combined with harmlessness, caring, organization, courage and compassion, it is more than the sword, it is a tidal wave.

The fall of the English empire, the fall of racism in the South, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and now gradually the decline of confidence for a military solution in Iraq and Iran, are all testament that the age of non violence is barely visible and is yet emerging. Like the pale light of a dawn something is happening to the long night of darkness.

Could this be the morning light of a new civilization? I think it is.

Thank you.