On July 12 I was driving somewhere in Austin, listening to NPR on KUT. That's when I first heard that the Army Futures Command was coming to Austin. I thought, "That's pretty weird." Maybe it wasn't Willie at the Armadillo weird, or hippies at the University of Texas weird, but weird in its own way.
Two days later, Saturday morning, I was on my way to Ossining, N,Y., for a six-day conference. I bought the American-Statesman in the airport and saw the announcement on the front page — Austin had been chosen as the home of the Army Futures Command. The idea was to keep the U.S. Army competitive by teaming up with UT and the tech industry here. When I got to Ossining, I showed the article to Father John Dear, the leader for the week. With one glance at the headline, he said, "Well, Jim, you've got to resist."
Dear is, as far as I can tell, the most active practitioner of Gandhian-Kingian nonviolence in the U.S. today. A Catholic priest and former Jesuit, he travels the country and the world spreading the word of satyagraha, the approach to social change Gandhi experimented with for 40 years in South Africa and India in the early 20th century. Translated "truth force" or "soul force," satyagraha seeks to point out injustice, to protest in ways that bring out the best in all parties, to take on undeserved suffering, and to usher in what Martin Luther King would come to call the "beloved community" of justice and compassion.
For 25 years I've been teaching four sections a year to 17- and 18-year-olds in a class where, among other things, we watch the film, "Gandhi." I've seen it more than a hundred times. I went to the Ossining workshop to contemplate how to take a more active role as a peacemaker. The Army coming to Austin sharpened my questions. Weren't there more compassionate and effective ways to pursue peace in the world?
The conference was called "Following Jesus on the Path of Nonviolence." Like his mentors including Dan and Phil Berrigan, the Catholic priests and brothers who actively opposed the U.S. war in Vietnam in the late 1960s, Dear has for more than 30 years employed a Gandhian lens in his study of Jesus. Gandhi was a campaigner for India's independence but also a practitioner of interfaith dialogue. His great disappointment in the weeks leading up to his assassination (by a reactionary fellow Hindu), was that in gaining independence from Great Britain, India lost her unity, splitting into Pakistan and India along Muslim-Hindu lines. Gandhi felt he had failed.
Later successes of nonviolent social change in South Africa, the Philippines, and Poland prove that Gandhi was not a failure. In the U.S., we hark back to the Civil Rights Movement as a time when, using satyagraha, we moved closer to being the nation we aspire to be, the one promised in the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation.
Inspired by Dear and my week in Ossining, I came home and, with friends, started Nonviolent Austin. You can find us on Facebook. Our book club begins in November with Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's "Peace is Every Step." We aim to be a home for education and action in Central Texas, enabling soul force to take the place of physical force.
Mid-term elections are here. Beyond them, we know we still have much work to do to build democracy and move past the legislative gridlock of recent years. Satyagraha offers needed promise and hope for grappling with pressing issues: climate change; racism; patriarchy; and the lack of funding for health, education, housing, employment, and global development, while we spend freely on weaponry and dominance.
That would be Nonviolent Austin, weird in a really good way.
Jim Crosby is an Episcopal Third Order Franciscan and serves as theology teacher and lay chaplain at St. Stephen's Episcopal School. Doing Good Together is compiled by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.