Several years ago I was involved in an intensive period of peace campaigning. I protested at Faslane, blockaded an arms factory, disputed with directors at the BAE Systems shareholders' meeting, trespassed at the nuclear submarine base at Barrow, and vigilled outside the DSEi arms fair.
These were exciting and challenging experiences, but I came away from them with growing doubts about the peace groups I had worked with. How did the methods we adopted actually contribute towards achieving our goals? Were we contributing to a more peaceful world or fuelling our own self-righteousness?
Conditions for change
A recent workshop on "Challenging Oppression" by Turning The Tide, a project of Quaker Peace and Social Witness, was an opportunity to look again at the theory and practice of nonviolent action, and to consider my own contribution to the work of peace making.
The trainers, Sophie Reynolds and Steve Whiting, emphasised the tradition of active nonviolence developed by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. This tradition is concerned with actively resisting oppression, not just with rejecting violence, while respecting the humanity of our opponents. It involves seeking out possibilities for dialogue, which preserve the possibility of learning from people we are in conflict with, as well as the potential for eventual reconciliation.
The effectiveness of this approach is built upon an understanding of power as a product of cooperation among many different groups in society, so that all of those involved in a situation of conflict or oppression have a share of power and can contribute to creating social change.
Nonviolent action according to this model is not necessarily direct or predictable. It can be a matter of "inviting the conditions for change" rather than directly producing it, including the work of challenging internalised oppression or prejudices, and changing personal or group relationships in ways that can have wider political effects.
Challenge, not alienate
During the workshop we were also introduced to some simple tools for analysing situations of injustice and identifying areas of potential change, and we used these to explore issues that were close to us, including Iraq, Palestine and nuclear weapons. The participants at the workshop were mostly very committed activists with a wide range of experiences, and one of the most rewarding aspects of the day was the opportunity to explore in small groups some of the dilemmas that we were struggling with. For our group this involved investigating how dialogue with our work colleagues or families about social justice issues is often blocked because it is perceived as "threatening". We shared our thoughts on how to talk about our concerns in ways that can challenge people without alienating them.
The workshop left me with a sense that the scale of violent oppression in the world calls for a response which is much more competent, strategic, and effective than the kind of peace movement that we have at the moment.
There is an urgent need for a more long-term focus to our peace work, especially training and nurturing new generations of activists, and schooling ourselves in the lessons of nonviolent campaigns from around the world. Turning The Tide's work is an important example of the kind of training that needs to be done in order to pass on this learning, but a more effective peace movement might also include centres for the study and practice of active nonviolence, where training and reflection was integrated with practical campaigning.
If we want a peace movement that is able to present a real challenge to violence and oppression, perhaps we should be considering how we can build this kind of infrastructure to develop and sustain new generations of active peacemakers.