New thinking on nonviolence: A review of Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation: New Perspectives on Nonviolent Theories

Heather Eaton and Lauren Michelle Levesque, eds. Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation: New Perspectives on Nonviolent Theories. Equinox Publishing, 2016. Xiii + 364pp. 

The 20th century has been called the century of total war. The incredible expansion of the devastating power of war, the heretofore unimagined globalization of warfare, and the creation of new weapons of mass destruction have left humanity on a precipice of vulnerability that renders the survival of our species in jeopardy. Many other expressions of violence have also continued to undermine human and ecological wellbeing.

On the other hand, one glimmer of hope arises from the reality that the 20th century also saw the emergence of strategies of self-conscious nonviolent action that provides ways to imagine overcoming the scourge of out of control violence. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are the two great prophets of nonviolent action who consistently show up on lists of the world’s most influential people of the 20th century.

Gandhi famously stated that nonviolence is a very young and immature “science” that can only get stronger and more effective with practice. Erica Chenoweth is a more recent thinker who has researched social change movements and argues, based on her data, that nonviolence is noticeably more effective than violence for bringing about change.

Nonetheless, our understanding of nonviolence remains rudimentary. The literature is expanding, as is the broadening sense of the applicability of nonviolence to a wide range of human endeavors—not only with political action but also education, criminal justice, and many more areas.

We need more work on the meaning and practice of nonviolence. So a book such as this collection of essays, Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation, is welcome and important. This is an interdisciplinary endeavor drawn from papers presented at the conference, “Nonviolence: A Weapon of the Strong,” held at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.

The strength of the book is how widely it ranges. Thinkers who are highlighted include Gandhi, Hannah Arendt, and Pope Francis. Several writers address environmental themes. A fascinating set of essays look at indigenous thought and practices. Violence against women and children gets attention. As the conference was set in Canada and most of the writers are Canadian, the volume offers a welcome perspective on Canadian history and contemporary issues.

The breadth of themes also points to one of the collection’s weaknesses. No topics get in-depth treatment. Unlike some collections of conference papers, the papers here do not seem to play off one another in a way that adds a sense of depth and coherence when the individual chapters are read together. The feeling with this book is more that of a disparate collection of distinct parts.

Though the stated focus of the book is nonviolence, quite a few of the essays mainly reflect on problems of violence. Without a doubt, this is a fascinating collection that addresses numerous important topics of an urgent character with insight. As such, it deserves attention for all who recognize that if the past century of total war (and widespread violence of many sorts) is not followed by an expansion of creative and broadly practiced nonviolence in our current century, we may not have much hope for the century that follows.

[This review will be published in Reading Religion]

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