Tag Archives: Gandhi

Francis and Gandhi: poverty and nonviolence

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every one’s need, but not every one’s greed.”
Gandhi

Today, the birthday of Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi, the Mahatma, in 1869, is the international day of nonviolence.

Gandhi

Though St. Francis never would have used the term “nonviolence,” he was an advocate of all that leads to peace.

In particular, St. Francis saw the relationship between possessions and war, taking seriously the words of Saint James (4:1-2):

Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that make war within your members? You covet but do not possess. You kill and envy but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.

Because of this Francis sought a life of poverty for himself and his companions, a truly shocking proposal in the thirteenth century and even more so now.

The response of the church officials was strong. As G. K. Chesterton notes in Saint Francis of Assisi:

“The good Bishop of Assisi expressed a sort of horror at the hard life which the Little Brothers lived at the Portiuncula, without comforts, without possessions, eating anything they could get and sleeping anyhow on the ground. St. Francis answered him with that curious and almost stunning shrewdness which the unworldly can sometimes wield like a club of stone. He said, ‘If we had any possessions, we should need weapons and laws to defend them.”

There are few of us who have the courage and the trust in God to give up all, but we can start by trying to live lives of austerity.

I am not talking of the mandatory austerity that has often been imposed on countries since such austerity measures most often affect the poor.

I refer to the voluntary austerity that we see in Francis, in Gandhi, and in many who accompany the poor. This is what Pope Francis writes about in Gaudete et Exsultate, ¶70, commenting on the Beatitudes in Saint Luke’s Gospel :

Luke does not speak of poverty “of spirit” but simply of those who are “poor” (cf. Lk 6:20). In this way, he too invites us to live a plain and austere life. He calls us to share in the life of those most in need, the life lived by the Apostles, and ultimately to configure ourselves to Jesus who, though rich, “made himself poor” (2 Cor 8:9).

I believe that developing a spirituality of austerity, trying to live “a plain and austere life” is what will help us work to peace. Austerity, “sufficiency for all as the first priority,” is a personal commitment to the poor and can be,  in the words of Denis Goulet, “the economic expression of a society’s commitment to placing the needs of all above the wants of the few” (The Uncertain Promise,  p. 164).

When we learn to live austerely – as persons, as communities, as nations – we begin to live nonviolently, in the spirit of Francis and Gandhi.

DSC04739


The sculptures are found in a park south of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Saint Francis and poverty

Saint Francis is often called “Il Poverello,” the Little Poor Man of Assisi – and rightly so. He sought to be poor as Christ was poor and, slightly modifying the word of Lawrence Cunningham, the poor Christ was “the hermeneutic lens through which he read the Gospel.”

For Francis, possessions keep us from responding to Christ and to the poor. If we have possessions, he said, we will seek arms to defend them.

This radical approach is a major challenge to me and to many in the Church. But it first of all means that we realize that we cannot be self-sufficient. Autonomy is a temptation of the devil.

What we need to develop is a real poverty of spirit and then respond in our lives to the call of the poor Christ. It is to become small, the minor, the lesser one.

André Vauchez, in Francis of Assisi: The life and afterlife of a medieval saint, puts it plainly:

But the more one is minor (small, humble), the more one is a brother of others and, first of all, of those with whom one lives. The ideal is thus not to seek to be sufficient unto oneself but to share what one receives and to accept that one needs others in the smallest details of daily life. The absolute poverty desired by Francis set up a new type of relationship— to goods, but also between persons, founded on genuine solidarity. The care of the other was indeed fundamental in the early community…

Openness to the other, putting oneself and all one has available for all – that’s a challenge.

But Vauchez sees Francis’s life as more than just a call to personal poverty, or at least a radical generosity. As he writes:

the project of Francis… was to give birth in the heart of the world a society without money and without goods, where an “economy of poverty” would prevail, characterized by liberality and the redistribution to disadvantaged persons of all that was not strictly indispensable to the survival of the community.

How can we build an “economy of poverty” in the midst of a world that glorifies wealth and power? How can we build a “civilization of poverty” (in the word of the martyred Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría) in a civilization of consumption and accumulation?

francis leperThe first step, I think, is to do what Francis did and that St. Paul urged the Romans, “make friends with the poor – associate with the lowly” (Romans 12:16).

Do we know people who are impoverished by name?

Do we let ourselves be taught by the poor?

Do we look at life through the hermeneutical lens of the poor?

In the last century, a Hindu holy man, Mahatma Gandhi, left us a message that will help us recover and live the poverty of Francis.

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test.
Recall the face of the poorest and weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore the person to a control over his or her own life and destiny? On other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

Love awakened

In this is love: not that we have loved God,
but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.
1 John 4:10

Love is essentially God’s gift. Our love is a response to that gift and should reflect God’s love.

Today’s Gospel shows the love of God, Jesus full of compassion, feeling in the depths of his being for the people, without a shepherd. In his love he sought to feed them – but not without the cooperation of the disciples.

ShantiDas

Shantidas

Thirty five years ago today, on January 5, 1981, Lanza del Vasto died. An Italian he studied philosophy but really didn’t find his meaning in life until after going to India and meeting with Gandhi and other holy men. His pilgrimage is related in Return to the Source.

Gandhi gave him the name “Shantidas,” the Servant of Peace. Later, he and his wife Chanterelle, with others founded the Community of the Ark, as a kind of Noah’s Ark in the midst of the violence of the times.

The community eschewed many modern conveniences and sought to live a nonviolent life, finally establishing a community in a beautiful and isolated valley in southwest France. They lived without electricity (except to grind their wheat), families and single people, with a regimen of work and prayer.

But they did not isolate themselves from the world. Lanza del Vasto and the community participated in many nonviolent campaigns in France. He also went to Rome in the early sixties to fast for peace; he was given an advanced copy of Pope John XXIII’s peace encyclical, Pacem in Terris.

When I visited the community in 1973, I participated in the daily life of the community, praying and working in the garden. But the last day and evening I spent with community at a demonstration in the nearby Larzac, where the people were fighting against the militarization of their lands.

Shantidas’ message was not an easy one, but I think it was based in his deep faith in Christ, a faith which opened itself to all faiths.

An example of this is noted in this short description of love from his Principles and Precepts of a Return to the Obvious:

Learn that virile charity that has severe words for those who flatter, serene words for those who fight you, warm words for the weary, strong for the suffering, clear for the blind, measured for the proud, and a bucketful of water and a stick for the sleepers.

Love should wake us up to feel with the compassion of God and be of service to God’s people.

it is not easy – as Dorothy Day reminds us by her citation from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov:

Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thin compared to love in dreams.

May we wake up and love!

 

Nonviolence and courage

gandhi seven deadly social sinsOn October 2, 1869, Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi was born.

We know him better as Mahatma Gandhi, but Mohandas became the Mahatma, the Great-Souled One, only after going through a series of events that purified his soul and moved him to respond in loving nonviolence to the injustices around him.

When I was an undergraduate student, I came across Gandhi and Nonviolence, Thomas Merton’s selection of quotes from Gandhi’s Nonviolence in Peace and War.

What struck me then was Gandhi’s insistence that nonviolence is not passivity. Nonviolence – ahimsa – is an active response to injustice, even to the point of giving one’s life.

Gandhi insisted that it was not nonviolence to give in to injustice. For him it was better to resist violently than to let the violent continue their oppression and death-dealing. Of course, nonviolence is better and preferable.

As he wrote:

A non-violent man or woman will and should die without retaliation, anger or malice, in self-defense or in defending the honor of his women folk. This is the highest form of bravery. If an individual or group of people are unable or unwilling to follow this great law of life, retaliation or resistance unto death is the second best though a long way off from the first. Cowardice is impotence worse than violence. The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him. A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.

This insight has been important for me since I tend to avoid violence and conflict. But Gandhi makes it clear that true nonviolence – ahimsa – is satyagraha, holding on to truth – even at the cost of our lives.

And so today, remembering the birth of Gandhi, I feel called to reflect on courage and resistance to evil – out of love and intent on the truth.

It’s not easy. It’s a continual conversion, a continual letting go, a continual asceticism. It’s, for me as a follower of Christ, a way of following Jesus, who gave himself up even to the Cross – out of love.

Gandhi and the courage we need

On October 2, 1869, Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi was born in India. He is now known as Mohandas – the Great Souled One.

In the late 1960s I read Thomas Merton’s Gandhi on Non-violence which has a marvelous essay by Merton, “Gandhi and the One-Eyed Giant,”  followed by quotations from Gandhi.

What I most remember is Gandhi’s insistence on courage.

Gandhi had more respect for a soldier who risked his life in battle than for a supposedly nonviolent person who fled in the face of violence and conflict. He would rather a person fight with a weapon than flee, especially in the face of injustice.

A coward cannot be trained as a satyagrahi, a nonviolent activist, but a soldier could.

 It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent.

But how to train to become a non-violent person? Gandhi’s response is simple, though not all that easy:

Nonviolent persons will get all their training through nursing the sick, saving those in danger at the risk of their own life, patrolling places which may be in fear of thieves and rioters, and in laying down their lives, in necessary, in dissuading them from their purpose. The first and last shield and buckler of nonviolent persons will be their unwavering faith in God.

This Hindu man may have been one of the few persons in the twentieth century who really knew what the sermon on the mount was about and then lived it – without becoming a Christian.

He, like Dorothy Day, put his life on the line and lived for and with the poor and in the process preached a sermon on nonviolence that we need to hear today.