I heard a talk recently in which– it was stated that Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolent resistance to injustice is equivalent to forgiving. The point is that forgiveness is not passive but stands up to evil in a merciful way. While there are some convergences between nonviolent resistance and forgiveness, I think that they are in essence different. Here are at least three ways in which they are not the same:
First, Ghandi’s approach, as well the approach of others who followed, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., is centered on a quest for justice. They want an unfair situation changed. Thus, nonviolent resistance in its essence is a justice strategy, as is the call for negotiation, dialogue, arms limitation, and other approaches of seeking fairness.
In contrast, forgiveness in its essence is a moral virtue centered in mercy and love. The primary goal of forgiveness is not the seeking of fairness, but instead to unconditionally love another or others, not because of what they have done, but in spite of this. To be fair to forgiveness, it is not the case that forgiveness abandons the quest for justice. Instead, people can and should bring justice alongside forgiving. When they do so, we must be clear that the offer of forgiving is different from the request for a fair solution.
Second, when a person or group practices nonviolent resistance, forgiveness likely would aid this strategy because it quells resentment which could spill over to hatred and actions of hatred which would destroy the nonviolent strategy. Forgiveness in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one. Justice-seeking is the primary issue. In contrast, justice-seeking is an aid to forgiving so that the forgiver does not become weak or even abused by others’ continual injustices. Justice in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one. Unconditional love toward an offending person is the primary issue.
Third, while the virtue of love may be at the center of non-violent resistance, and certainly was the case for Martin Luther King, Jr. as seen in his soaring volume, Strength to Love, it need not be at the center for all who practice the nonviolence. Perseverance might be the center for some, justice-seeking no matter what the consequence may be at the center for others, while loving one’s enemy may take center-stage for others. The action itself (nonviolence) and keeping one’s eye on the goal (social change) can lead to different virtues dominating a given person’s thinking and acting. In contrast, the virtue of love is always at the center of forgiving even if the forgiver never reaches this depth of understanding and practicing forgiving.
Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share the following in common:
First, each is unconditional in that, no matter what the other does to thwart the practice, the forgiver and the nonviolent resister stand firm in their decision to either forgive or resist. The others’ blows to the head did not deter Gandhi. The other’s refusal to apologize or make restitution does not deter the forgiver, who may or may not reconcile depending on the degree of unfairness and the extent of any abuse. The forgiver stands unconditionally in the offer of goodness toward those who are not being good to the forgiver.
Second, both have moral virtue at their center.
Third, each can effect social change as the one forgiven, for example, now sees the injustice, feels remorse, repents, and changes. Nonviolent resistance historically has been shown to effect such change as the consciences of the powerful can be deeply affected as they continue their unjust ways in the face of the others’ peace.
Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share commonalities, but they are not the same. We need clarity when engaging in each so that they move forward well and with a deep understanding about what the forgiver or resister actually is doing.