Interview by Terry Messman
Street Spirit: Gandhi referred to campaigns of nonviolent resistance as “satyagraha” — holding firm to truth. What are the essential steps in building satyagraha campaigns, both in Gandhi’s era and in our time?
Jim Douglass: The most basic thing is the commitment of the people who seek to engage in such a campaign. There would have never been satyagraha campaigns in Gandhi’s life if he hadn’t created communities out of which they could be waged.
The ashrams in South Africa and later in India were the bases of his work. And even though the number of people living in community and taking vows of nonviolence was small, those people were totally freed to work together and to respond to the specific evils they focused on. As Gandhi always taught, you can’t take on everything in the world, so you focus by identifying a social evil, as for example we did in the Trident campaign.
That’s a following of truth in one’s own life and then in one’s community, wherever a group of people join together. We joined together in a community called Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action. Gandhi created ashrams in South Africa and India, and then out of those bases, they constructed campaigns.
The first step in a campaign is knowledge. It’s research and understanding. So whether it’s racism in South Africa, or a nuclear submarine base near Seattle, Washington, you study and you try to understand. In our case, it meant understanding a nuclear submarine that could destroy the world. How did we educate ourselves? Through a man named Robert Aldridge who helped design the weapon.
So you go to the sources and you understand the problem, and then you open yourself to the people on the other side of the issue. In our case, when Robert Aldridge came to support our campaign in Honolulu, Hawaii, and when we learned that his occupation was designing the Trident missile, he educated us on that — and resigned his job.
So that’s the way a campaign works, across all lines. If you start denouncing the other side from day one, you’re never going to hear what the perspective is from the other side. You won’t learn from a Bob Aldridge what the nature of the problem is.
Then, you need to be in the heart of it. You can’t deal with it from the outside, as we were doing when the Trident campaign began. Shelley and I were living in Canada. Well, the Trident base was located across from Seattle, Washington, so we moved there. As Thomas Merton teaches, and as Gandhi taught, you can’t do things from the outside. You have to do it from within, both spiritually from within and communally from within.
You can’t come in from liberal enclaves and go to the Kitsap County area where the Trident base is located, and hold big demonstrations, and then go back to your liberal homes and relax. You have to live with the people who are economically dependent on Trident and experience their pressures in order to disarm a submarine base that involves thousands of workers. So we moved down and found that house next to the base.
This is a step-by-step process that Gandhi lived out, and we were trying to follow in his footsteps. And then you have to accept responsibility. Rather than denouncing Trident workers for doing the wrong thing, we have to say, “We who are involved in silence and as passive witnesses to the arms build-ups in our country, we have to take responsibility for it.”
So that means carrying out actions that, under international law, are necessary, but the courts send us to jail for committing. In other words, “Walk the talk. Live the verse you’re citing from Jesus or Gandhi.”
Spirit: Gandhi was already of central significance in your theology of nonviolence in your first book. Two of the most important chapters were “From Bonhoeffer to Gandhi” and “From Gandhi to Christ.” Why was Gandhi such a key inspiration in the works of a Christian theologian?
Douglass: There are two reasons that come immediately to mind as to why Gandhi is especially important to me. Number one, he is my way of understanding the life of Jesus. He is the lens through which I see Jesus, because I believe Gandhi is Jesus’s greatest follower in history, bar none.
Number two, he has given all of us a way in our lives to carry out the message of Jesus and of whomever else would be in the pantheon of people we wish to follow. That method he described as his “experiments with truth.”
Spirit: Gandhi even titled his autobiography, “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.” What did he mean by experiments?
Douglass: An experiment with truth simply means doing, step by step, what one has come to believe most deeply. In other words, there is no such thing in Gandhi’s understanding of truth as an abstract truth. Truth in the abstract doesn’t exist as satyagraha, or truth-force. The only way it becomes satyagraha, truth-force, is if it is experimented with, and practiced in the most powerful ways that each of us can discover.
Spirit: How did his experiments in truth lead to a vision of love and reverence for life?
Douglass: He put truth and love as two sides of the same coin. On one side of the coin — and on one side of our being — is the process of discovering more deeply what we believe as we experiment with truth.
But on the other side of truth is the nature of this process through relationships with other people. Nobody experiments with truth as a solitary individual. We experiment with truth in our relationships with other people, each of whom is the presence of God. And those experiments have to be done if one is going to deepen in truth through nonviolence, through ahimsa, through love.
So in that process, rather than force the other person into following our truth, we must instead respect and deepen in dialogue and understanding with that other person, no matter who he or she may be, but especially if that other person considers us as enemies.
Spirit: Many have questioned whether nonviolence is still relevant given the vast increase in technological weapons and computerized surveillance which vastly increases the repressive power of the state. What does Gandhi have to teach us in today’s world of ever more destructive weaponry?
Douglass: He has to teach that world what another disciple of Jesus named Martin Luther King sums up in three words: nonviolence or non-existence. We need to explore with all these saints and teachers — with Gandhi and Jesus and the Buddha — the depth at the bottom of every great religion, which is the power of nonviolence, of love and of truth.
Gandhi summarized it all by saying, “Truth is God.” And he put “truth” first because it is through the process of discovering the power of truth that we can understand love. Yet, on the other hand, it is only through the process of relationships that are loving that we can deepen in the truth.
Truth and love are two sides of the same coin. It is that process of seeking truth and love in a communal setting that will lead to the new world that Jesus called the reign of God, and that Gandhi called truth-force, love-force and soul-force, and that Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.
Spirit: Gandhi saw nonviolence as a revolutionary force that could overthrow an empire. Yet, some criticize nonviolence as a form of pacifism — too passive to overcome powerful regimes. How do you respond to these criticisms?
Douglass: I don’t like the term “pacifism” because it immediately suggests something passive. And it’s also related specifically to one issue — that of war.
I don’t like the term “passive resistance,” nor did Gandhi. In fact, he replaces it very specifically with the terminology of “satyagraha.” There is nothing — absolutely nothing — that is passive about satyagraha.
My basic understanding of what we, in our context, always refer to as nonviolence is satyagraha, because truth force is not in any way a negative thing. It’s a positive thing. It’s the most powerful force in the universe, literally.
Spirit: Why do you believe it is the most powerful force in the universe?
Douglass: Because truth is God, and God is love. There is no force more powerful in the universe than the force of truth and love. Is that passive? It means the force that overcame the British empire in the hands of a very insignificant young man, who chose to experiment with truth.
Assassinations and Martyrs
Spirit: In writing about the assassinations of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and John and Robert Kennedy, why do you use Thomas Merton’s phrase, “The Unspeakable,” in referring to those political murders?
Douglass: The process that I described as “The Unspeakable” involves killing the person in a covert way that denies the truth of even how the person is being killed in order to destroy his or her vision.
The purpose is not simply to kill that one man or woman, but it’s to destroy the vision. Their vision is destroyed especially by what happens after the killing, and that’s the destruction of the vision through lies, through propaganda, through the distribution of enormous cover-ups.
This second part of the process is, I believe, worse than the murder of the individual person — Gandhi or John F. Kennedy or Malcom X or Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy. The lies about that person and about how he is killed are worse than the actual killing.
Spirit: Why do you say the lies are worse than the assassination itself?
Douglass: Because it is an effort to destroy that person’s communal power, which is our salvation.
As Malcolm X said, two days before his assassination: “It’s a time for martyrs now. And if I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country.” [Editor: Malcolm X said those words on Feb. 19, 1965, two days before he was murdered.]
We have to understand what these martyrs were witnessing to.
Spirit: What were they witnessing to? And how does their martyrdom serve the cause of humanity?
Douglass: They’re witnessing to the power of God, of love, of the transformation of all of humanity. They don’t die by being shot or destroyed. The power of the person is a power that goes way, way, way beyond death. Martyrdom means witness, means testimony.
The testimony of Martin Luther King didn’t end on April 4, 1968, the day he was assassinated. Everybody knows that, even if we don’t understand the depth of his power. And we certainly don’t believe that the power of Jesus ended at the time he died on the cross.
That power of the witness to the truth and love that can save humanity does not end with that person’s death. It deepens.
So the worst kind of act against truth is not the terrible act of inflicting death on the person. It’s the even more terrible act of denying his or her truth — the truth of what they were dying for and how that so threatened the powers that be in their context, that the powers that be took their lives.
After his death, the government found ways to keep secret the incredible power of Martin Luther King’s vision and the fact that the United States government killed him in order to destroy that vision.
Middle East Peace Actions
Spirit: In recent years, where have your travels taken you in seeking peace in the Middle East?
Douglass: I’ve been to Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Iraq. The first trip I took to the Middle East was within a month of our arrival in Birmingham.
Spirit: What led you to take that trip?
Douglass: A picture in the newspaper. I was writing a book called The Nonviolent Coming of God and trying to understand Jesus’s life and death, and I saw a picture in the Birmingham newspaper of women walking together through the streets of a town identified as Beit Sahour, next to Bethlehem.
They all had their hands held high making the peace sign, their faces smiling. They were celebrating their resistance to the Israeli Defense Forces which had surrounded their town for a month because the members of the town refused to pay their taxes.
That town, Beit Sahour, which is the traditional site of the shepherds’ field in Luke’s Gospel, had become an example to people across the globe of the refusal to cooperate with their own oppression.
They said, “We do not want to pay for the weapons that kill our children.” So they stopped paying taxes. I looked at that picture of these radiantly smiling women, and I thought, “What a story, coming right out of the context of where Jesus was.”
Spirit: After seeing this photo in the newspaper, how long was it until you traveled there?
Douglass: I learned that Scott Kennedy from the Santa Cruz Resource Center for Nonviolence was going to Beit Sahour and he asked me if I would like to come. So within a couple weeks, I was walking into Beit Sahour with Scott Kennedy and about 10 peace activists with Palestinian guides who were helping us around the Israeli blockade.
We then went to the West Bank and Gaza, smuggled into these areas by Palestinians who wanted us to see and experience what was going on.
That was my first journey into the Gospels via the analogous experience of people today in those areas. One member of our group was an American rabbi, Mike Robinson, and we met with Israeli peace leaders. We were meeting with people on both sides of the green line which divided the occupation of Palestine from the State of Israel. We met with Jewish leaders as well as Palestinian leaders in the struggle against that occupation.
Spirit: What kind of impact did your first trip to the Middle East have on your life?
Douglass: Well, in terms of my book, The Nonviolent Coming of God, it became the final chapter of the book. It was the story brought up to date of the new kind of humanity embodied by Jesus, who identified himself as “the human being.”
I saw a nonviolent vision of people across borders, whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian, that was envisioned actually by some of the people in Israel who saw a bi-national state, instead of this terrible division and war. We didn’t have to go down the track that we did go down, which resulted in the partition of that area. That was not necessary — and is profoundly wrong.
So as a result of going repeatedly to the different countries there, I would say that a critical issue that is ignored in its larger dimension is nuclear disarmament for all of the countries of the Middle East. And when I say all, I mean ALL.
If one can engage in a disarmament treaty in the Middle East that will include Israel and Iran and Iraq and Syria and everybody else in that area — reflecting the commitment of the entire world, as already represented by the Non-Proliferation Treaty — then we’re going to have peace across the boards. Of course, the ignored party in all of this is Israel, which has been the nuclear power in the Middle East for decades.
Spirit: You’re saying that the U.S. government keeps threatening Iran and demanding that other countries in the Middle East disarm, but doesn’t say anything about nuclear disarmament to its ally Israel?
Douglass: It’s total hypocrisy for the United States, the most powerful nuclear country in the world, to threaten and impose huge sanctions on Iran when we’re not obeying the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That treaty was written as a trade-off between countries that do not have nuclear weapons not to develop them and countries that do have nuclear weapons to disarm.
Spirit: Yet the U.S. is not disarming itself and it’s not asking Israel to disarm.
Douglass: Oh, absolutely not. Israel’s disarmament is key to that of Iran’s and our disarmament is key to that of everyone. And that’s a treaty! We’re not obeying the law, in other words. We have signed a treaty saying we would do that so long as other countries didn’t develop nuclear weapons. Any student of current American history needs to know the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the terms of it — which oblige us to do what we say.
So that’s the main issue. I would encourage people to understand this and to see this from the eyes of the Iraqis or the Jordanians or the Palestinians or, for that matter, the people who raise questions in Israel and who are loyal citizens of that country.
We’ve got to disarm the whole works, in terms of nuclear weapons, and then progressively through the whole range of weapons. And we can’t do it in just one country. It has to be everybody. That’s obvious to everybody except us.
Spirit: Did you take part in nonviolent actions against the U.S. wars on Iraq?
Douglass: Yeah, I was arrested for resisting both the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and the more recent incursion on Iraq in 2003. I was also arrested in Israel and Palestine for walking for peace repeatedly through those areas in the early 1990s. I took part in several peace walks through Israel and Palestine and into Jordan.
In all of those areas, we walked for weeks. Kathy Kelly was one of our leaders. You have interviewed Kathy for Street Spirit and I was following Kathy’s lead. [See “Seeking Peace in a World of Imprisoned Beauty,” Street Spirit Interview with Kathy Kelly, May 2014.]
Spirit: Was that as part of Voices in the Wilderness?
Douglass: No, the first time I was over there walking with Kathy, Voices hadn’t been created yet. But on a later trip, I was one of the co-founders with her of Voices in the Wilderness. Shelley and I both went on trips with Kathy as part of Voices in the Wilderness. We made five trips to Iraq at different times, and I was arrested repeatedly in Palestine.
Spirit: What were those arrests like? Civil disobedience must be a very different proposition in that war-torn region.
Douglass: One of our nonviolent actions in Israel and Palestine was called Walk for a Peaceful Future. We walked up through northern Israel and then across into Palestine and then down through Jericho, and then across the bridge into Jordan. All the way along the walk, we were being arrested by the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, and then taken back to Jerusalem, always with the warning: “We’re going to let you out here. Stop doing this!”
Then we’d go back to the site where we were arrested and continue our walk. Finally, we were able to walk across the bridge into Jordan, but we had been arrested many times by then.
We were going to go all the way to Iraq by taking vehicles into Iraq. This was within a couple months after the Persian Gulf War. When we got to Amman, the capital of Jordan, we waited to be given visas by the Iraqi government, and they weren’t coming through. So I decided to go back to Israel and I took a bus with a group of Palestinian refugees who were trying to get in to see their families on the West Bank — and I was barred from Israel! [laughing]
It was very interesting because when I came to the gate, an official was examining the documents and passports of people who wanted to go in there — including a number of Palestinians who were barred.
When he came to me, he said, “Oh, Mr. Douglass.” I realized he had been my jailer in Jericho — the same man! He said, “Well, I will call Jersualem, but I don’t think you’re going to be allowed to go back in.” He did call, and I was barred. [laughing]
But we were then given permission to go to Iraq by the Iraqi government, and I was able for the first time to visit Baghdad with Kathy and the group.
Spirit: Were you also delivering medical supplies to the victims of war?
Douglass: We had a big vehicle filled with medical supplies in the initial challenge to the sanctions. It was the spring of the year after the Persian Gulf War had ended, but sanctions were still in effect.
A year later, we were arrested on a second trip in northern Israel and Galilee, and I was in jail in Galilee for several days on that walk. I didn’t think I would get into the country because I had already been barred.
We had an international group from about 15 countries on that second walk, and we had come together to support a vision of peace between all the people in that area, a Walk for a Peaceful Future. It included Israelis and Palestinians who were taking part in that. It was illegal to walk across the green line without permission of the Israeli government.
Of course, we weren’t asking anyone’s permission and they weren’t giving it. We were arrested as we took part in that walk. The key point of the arrests in that incident, because we had a much bigger group and represented many countries, was when we crossed the green line, we weren’t just a dozen or so, but a much larger number.
Spirit: When you crossed the green line, what country were you arrested in? And where were you jailed?
Douglass: In Galilee. And then we went to jail in a Galilean prison.
Spirit: That’s heavy symbolism! How long were you in jail there?
Douglass: About three days before we were released and kicked out of the country. But we had enough time before we were forced to leave to hold a demonstration in support of Moredchai Vanunu at his prison site. So it was a good group, and we did a lot of things before we were forced out of the country.
[Editor: Vanunu was imprisoned for 18 years for revealing details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program because of his opposition to weapons of extermination. Daniel Ellsberg called him “the preeminent hero of the nuclear era.”]
Spirit: When the U.S. declared war on Iraq, did you protest the U.S. invasion?
Douglass: When the invasion of Iraq began, I went with a Christian Peacemakers Team to Baghdad. CPT and Voices in the Wilderness joined a larger group called the Iraq Peace Team. Our CPT group went in during the first week of the war, from Amman across the desert to Baghdad. We were between the U.S. Army and the Iraq Army.
Spirit: What was it like to be in Iraq when the war broke out?
Douglass: We were almost killed. The U.S. forces were on a hill at one point. Our cars slowed down and stopped because a car just ahead of us had been hit by gunfire. The car was burning. We were being driven by an Iraqi driver and in a car that had Iraqi license plates. And there were U.S. armored personnel carriers on a hill and they had their weapons pointed at us. And the Iraqi people who were in that other vehicle started coming toward our vehicle as our vehicle was slowing, and our driver realized he had to speed up; otherwise we were going to be caught in the fire from the hill. It was very close to the fire on the hill killing everybody. The situation was very close.
Spirit: Why were people in your group willing to take such heavy risks to be there when the war began in Baghdad?
Douglass: Solidarity. We chose to be in the sights of the weapons of our own troops. For a few days, we were just as vulnerable as the Iraqi people, and that remained the case for the following week when we were in Baghdad. Explosions were occurring all over the city from missile attacks by our fleet in the Gulf. U.S. ships in the Gulf were firing cruise missiles that were exploding all over Baghdad, and U.S. planes were coming in and bombing left and right, with no Iraqi Air Force to counter them.
So we knew what it was like for a defenseless population, and I mean defenseless. The Iraqi Army was a laugh. There were a few artillery pieces at different streets around the city, but it was nothing! Basically it was a defenseless population with a very strident commander in chief named Saddam Hussein who was boasting about his almost nonexistent armed forces, a pretense that was then echoed by the U.S. officials magnifying his threat.
Spirit: Because U.S. officials needed to pretend Iraq was a serious adversary.
Douglass: Yes, the consequence was that a defenseless people was in the midst of this terrible attack by U.S. forces. And we saw it all. We could come back and talk about that, but it was at a time of uproarious militarism and it was very hard to get through. But it changed our lives in many ways, and that experience stays with me.
Spirit: Along with speaking out about what you witnessed in Iraq when you came back to the U.S., did you do any civil disobedience at home to protest the war?
Douglass: I was arrested with many others for vigiling in front of the White House in protest of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. You’re supposed to keep moving at all times, so we would stop to pray and we were arrested. I wrote to the judge saying I would not be coming to my trial.
Spirit: Why did you refuse to go back to D.C. when you were put on trial?
Douglass: Because I did not want to cooperate any further with the process of arresting people for praying in front of the White House. [laughing] It’s no reason to arrest a person in the first place, much less put them on trial.
Spirit: Did they ever come after you for your noncooperation?
Douglass: I was arrested years later in Birmingham for not going to the trial in Washington, D.C. A federal marshal came to my home in Birmingham and arrested me. The judge was planning to sentence me to six months in prison, and he didn’t even understand civil disobedience.
Lynn McKenzie, a Catholic sister who happens to be a lawyer, took it upon herself to go to that judge and tell him what civil disobedience was all about. So they gave me one day instead of six months! I only served a weekend in the local jail for that.
Spirit: She wasn’t even acting as your lawyer? She just went to talk to the judge on her own?
Douglass: No! She wasn’t acting as my lawyer. She just contacted him, and then she did come into the courtroom. But she had already tried to explain to this man who didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. He thought I was just a fugitive from justice. It was only because of that kind Benedictine sister who was a lawyer, that I didn’t serve much time.
Spirit: Well, the lesson for our readers is clear: If you ever get in trouble with the Law, call the Benedictine sisters.
Douglass: There you go! [laughing]
The Benedictine sisters are known for many things. That was really just one act of nonviolence, compassion and understanding from a highly skilled sister.
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Life at Ground Zero of the Nuclear Arms Race
Blockading the ‘White Train of Death’
Street Spirit Interview with Jim Douglass (Part 1)
Street Spirit Interview with Jim Douglass (Part 2)
The Acts of Resistance and the Works of Mercy (Part 3)
Gandhi’s Vision of Nonviolence: Holding Firm to Truth (Part 4)