Non-Violence and International Pacification

By Guido Montani

Speech delivered at the seminar “What is happening in the world today? What role can people play?” – organized by ALGEBAR, a center for dialogue between religions, Genoa, May 17, 2024

Vocation to religion and vocation to politics

Briefly, I will try to illustrate the relationship between vocation to religion and vocation to politics thanks to the relations that existed between Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru during the struggle for India’s independence (svaraj) from colonial rule. Their friendship and collaboration began even before the famous Salt March that ended on March 12, 1930, when the Gandhian principle of non-violence (satyagraha) came to the attention of world public opinion. The method of non-violence makes it possible to affirm a truth that the conscience of the adversaries cannot deny. On the contrary, political struggle involves pursuing goals against other political powers, by means that do not exclude violence.

When, at the end of the Second World War, the British government accepted India’s independence, the various religious components existing in India took on opposite sides, forming real political parties. The Muslims demanded the formation of their own state, Pakistan to the west and Bangladesh to the east. The Sikhs wanted to create Sikhistan. Nehru wanted to maintain the unity of India, but in the end he was forced to accept its partition. Gandhi did everything possible to prevent the various political-religious communities from unleashing bloody conflicts. He didn’t succeed. In the end, he accepted a violent death, in order to remain faithful to his preaching of non-violence. Nehru agreed to rule a state with a majority of Hindu population and a Muslim minority, but was forced to use military force to quell conflicts between Hindus and Muslims.

Every religious faith must face the problem of theodicy: why did a good God create a violent, sinful, and irrational humanity? Gandhi’s teaching is: one must accept the principle of non-violence. But what happens if a part of humanity does not accept this principle?

Ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility

Max Weber tackled this problem by means of an illuminating distinction to understand the relationship between religion and politics. The religious preaches universal love, brotherhood, goodness towards other human beings and animals, non-violence. This is the ethics of conviction (gesinnungsethisch):“one must be saintly in everything; at least in intention, one must live like Jesus, the apostles, St. Francis, and their like. Then this ethic makes sense and expresses a kind of dignity; otherwise it does not.” Political behavior is different. Politicians must aim at power in order to achieve the ends they propose to their followers, and political struggle implies the exploitation of the means – including lies and violence – necessary to achieve the proposed and historically possible goals. This behavior is defined by Weber as the ethics of responsibility (verantwortungsethisch). The ethics of responsibility is concerned with consequences, as opposed to the ethics of conviction. “We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ or to an ‘ethic of responsibility’.”

The professional politician aims at the conquest of power in the state, the institution indispensable to the civil development of a human community. “The modern state,” says Weber, “is an association of domination in the form of an institution, which within a given territory has attained the monopoly on legitimate physical violence as a means of exercising sovereignty.” This definition of the concept of the state is now widely accepted by political scientists. However, there remains a problem that Weber and many political scientists do not clarify: what happens when the legitimate monopoly of physical force, the national army, is used against other states? Within the state, no one disputes the use of force by the police. In a democratic state, the power to govern is based on respect for the laws, and those who break them must be punished. However, is it legitimate to use the force to assert with armies the sovereignty of the state towards other sovereign states? The UN Charter states: “The organization is founded on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members.” War between sovereign states is always possible and considered just, because no court decides who is right and who is wrong. 

War, peace and ecology

Heads of state and government today, in the twenty-first century, continue to conceive of international relations as relations between great and small powers. The great powers are in perpetual competition to assert their primacy on a world scale. This international order led European states to unleash two world wars. Today, there are atomic weapons whose potential can put an end to civilization. In addition, the development of modern technologies allows states to exploit the natural resources of land and space, the Moon and other planets. The universe has no limits, and so does the ambition of heads of state. The man-god can no longer be satisfied with conquering other peoples and founding empires, he wants to conquer and exploit the universe. However, in the 21st century, this hubris must come to terms with the threat of a crisis in the Earth’s ecosystem that could, in turn, put an end to all life on the planet. An irreversible crisis of the biosphere is possible. It can be caused by the continuous postponement of the measures necessary to contain its harmful effects caused by the governments of the planet, which postpone sine die the measures of containment suggested by scientists.

The way to overcome the “fundamental evil” in the organization of social and political relations on an international scale was indicated with great precision by Einstein in 1947: “Mankind must give up war in the atomic era. What is at stake is the life or death of humanity. The only military force which can bring security to the world is a supranational police force, based on world law. To this end we must direct our energies.”

War, peace and pacification

Einstein is right, but his proposal is considered by many to be utopian. Positive utopias, however, are indications of long-term goals, not unachievable fantasies. Today, a first step towards Einstein’s positive utopia can be taken. Gandhi argued that “the doctrine of non-violence remains valid even between states and states.” So far, no one has experimented with this advice of Gandhi on an international scale. To translate this into effective action, an initiative should be launched to ask all citizens of UN member states to sign a petition to include in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948, the right not to kill. On the basis of this right, every citizen of the world could legitimately refuse military service, thus undermining his government’s claim to wage wars against other states.

The decision of France and Germany in 1950 to put an end to their centuries-old rivalry by uniting in the European Community set in motion a process of pacification that spread throughout the continent. The request to the United Nations for the concrete affirmation of the right not to kill can start a process of international pacification.