Commemorations bring out my ambivalence. In the public sphere, most holidays and anniversaries make one of two statements: “We won and we’ll never let you forget it”; or “We lost and we’ll never forgive you.” Neither message describes a state of mind that seems worth cultivating: between triumphal belligerence and wounded bellicosity, my choice is to change the subject.
There are many options available. After all, a zillion different things happen every day of every year. All hail and give thanks for the thousands who were born on September 11th, including the following writers and musicians: D.H. Lawrence, Theodor Adorno, Mickey Hart and Moby. And for the legions, who passed away some September 11th, including these notable humans: Salvador Allende, Peter Tosh and Jessica Tandy.
For this September 11th, I’d like to focus on one commemoration that might insert a little breathing space into the ultra-compressed meaning with which the numbers 9 and 11 have recently been burdened. My thanks to the friend who sent me this news of a centennial that honors the human spirit at its most noble.
One hundred years ago on September 11th, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi launched the movement for nonviolent resistance. After studying in London, Gandhi moved to South Africa in 1893 to practice law on behalf of an Indian company. There he learned about injustice by experiencing racism directed against himself and his fellow Indians. He worked for years to bring attention to discrimination against Indians in South Africa. In 1906, the government adopted a law compelling Indians to register, an apartheid forerunner. At a mass protest meeting in Johannesburg on September 11th of that year, Gandhi persuaded the assembled to nonviolently resist the proposed law, willingly accepting the consequences.
That day is recognized as marking the birth of Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagraha (truth plus struggle in Sanskrit, nonviolent resistance in English). During a seven-year campaign, thousands of Indians were arrested, beaten or shot for striking and refusing to comply with the registration law. They burned their registration cards, just as draft resisters were to do during the Vietnam War. They sustained tremendous suffering, touching enough hearts to eventually force the government to negotiate. This campaign was the precursor for Gandhi’s leadership of massive nonviolent resistance opposing the salt tax and eventually expelling the British and gaining independence in India; and of Martin Luther King’s leadership of an enormous and holy nonviolent campaign against Jim Crow laws in the American South.
I am in awe of Gandhi’s vision and endurance. Try to imagine yourself guided by these rules for nonviolent resisters proposed by Gandhi:
1. A civil resister (or satyagrahi) will harbour no anger.
2. He will suffer the anger of the opponent.
3. In so doing he will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but he will not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger.
4. When any person in authority seeks to arrest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.
5. If a civil resister has any property in his possession as a trustee, he will refuse to surrender it, even though in defending it he might lose his life. He will, however, never retaliate.
6. Retaliation includes swearing and cursing.
7. Therefore a civil resister will never insult his opponent, and therefore also not take part in many of the newly coined cries which are contrary to the spirit of ahimsa [avoidance of injury in Sanskrit].
8. A civil resister will not salute the Union Jack, nor will he insult it or officials, English or Indian.
9. In the course of the struggle if anyone insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or attack even at the risk of his life.
I doubt I would have been brave and strong enough to abide by these stringent directives. I honor the thousands who were: from the teens to the 1940s in India, and in the deep South for a decade beginning in the late fifties, masses of people abided by these principles, generating a moral force that changed each society more than all the blood that has been spilled in the decades since.
My goal on this September 11th will be to meditate on the following assertion from Gandhi until its truth saturates my awareness: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall—think of it, always.”
That would be a commemoration sufficient unto the day.