Some Distinctions Among Concepts or Terms

The words peace and peace-making may mean different things to different people. To some people, it means a habitual inner gentleness, and/or living in harmonious communality, or in “the tranquility of order,” as St. Augustine of Hippo put it in De civitate dei. To others, it means the absence of war. But as Thomas Merton (1961) said:

To some people peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference. To others peace means the freedom to rob others without interruption. To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of the earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving. And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure. (pp. 1, 7)

Indeed, there are people who are outright cynical in invoking peace-making rhetoric. For instance, left-wing elements have often engaged in peace talk in order to cover up their nonpeaceful purposes or activities. Similarly, one can be taken aback to see “peacemaker awards” being handed out by bodies that advocate in support of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia (e.g., French, 2006). One can be reminded of Jeremiah (6:13–14, 8:10–11) lamenting that the “prophets and priests” go about saying “Peace! Peace! Where there is no peace.”

As regards nonviolence, a great many people would assume that it is similar to, or the same as, peace-making, but that is not necessarily so unless one arbitrarily defined the terms the same way.

We also have to be clear that people often equate violence against physical objects—such as hammering on a weapon or blowing up a rail line to the concentration camps at Auschwitz in a way that entails no loss of life—with violence against humans. And people often vastly enlarge the concept of violence against humans to include merely making someone else feel bad, or “offending” them, as so many people claim these days. Rather, violence against humans refers to doing something to physically prevail over people, and usually in a way that inflicts physical pain, bodily loss, or even death.

Although making a truce is not the same as making peace, we also have the problem that peace-making so often involves the arrangement of truces between contesting parties who, however, do not resolve their deep differences, and are not prepared to give up violence in the future. As meritorious as a truce may be, it can be very problematic, as brought out by the fact that so many truces end up with even greater conflict and bloodshed than if they had never been arranged. The truce in Rwanda ended in genocide; and in Northern Ireland, there have been several major episodes of so-called peace-making while the underlying differences and conflicts keep smoldering, and then keep breaking out in renewed violence. In fact, repeatedly when former US President Carter has shown up somewhere to make peace—including in Northern Ireland and the Holy Land—things soon got worse.

Nonviolence has both an inner mental and an outer behavioral dimension. The mental one is the most important. It starts with the conviction that regardless of whether some forms of violence are morally permissible—as in self defense—a higher and more perfect morality is to abjure all violence, for any purpose whatever, against any human party whatever, and by any means whatever. So first of all, there has to be a moral ideology to which one then struggles to conform one's behavior.

One other potential difference between nonviolence and peace-making is this: nonviolence has to be embraced on a personal level, person-by-person, and cannot be imposed by decree from above, as a collective policy, and on a collectivity. In contrast, peace-making could be pursued by policy even on a national or higher level, the way Switzerland or the UN have sometimes tried to do—though revealingly, the UN often does so with the use of armed force.

Also, when people use the word pacifism, it does not necessarily mean the same as nonviolence. To many people, pacifism refers only or primarily to opposition to war. In that sense, not all pacifists abjure, or are opposed to, all violence.

Nonviolence can take multiple forms. For instance, some forms of nonviolence are nonresistant, whereas resistant ones can take confrontative, even wrenching, forms from which some peace-makers would shrink, because such confrontation can bring out very starkly the differences between the contesting parties, and perhaps the evil of an oppressing party.

A special form of nonviolence is the absorption of violence: one not only strives not to inflict violence on others, but one is also prepared to suffer the violence of others, as perhaps by stepping between two warring parties. Again, this might be different from pacifism that may eschew the infliction of violence, but that does not necessarily entail a commitment to absorption of violence. I will return later to this concept and its special relevance vis-à-vis wounded people.

Finally, in the culture of nonviolence, it is well-understood that the presence of nonviolent people can sometimes bring violent people to peace, so that on a close interpersonal level, people who have embraced nonviolence may actually turn out to be the more successful peace-makers than would-be peace-makers who have not embraced nonviolence. For instance, this is often the case when one person shows willingness to absorb another's violence. However, this is not the first and primary rationale for embracing nonviolence, which is to bring oneself to peace, and to overcome the hostility and violence in oneself. If it also makes others peaceful, that would be one of the fruits of one's nonviolence, but not the primary rationale. Conceivably, some would-be peace-makers are more concerned with peace among others than within themselves.

All of this is not meant to imply that nonviolence is the opposite of violence. Violence is one of many expressions of death-making, and the opposite of that is life-giving, life-transmission, and life-enhancement, though of course the latter must not be interpreted in mere material terms.

The Unnaturalness of Nonviolence, and People's Incoherency on Nonviolence and Peace-Making

The practice of nonviolence, and especially the absorption of the violence of others, is incredibly difficult, because violent impulses, and defense of our bodily integrity, and of our loved ones, are deeply embedded in our human nature. Accordingly, it is unnatural to us to be prepared to be victimized by others, to suffer, and to potentially incur grievous damage or even death rather than to employ violence so as to forestall all this.

As to incoherency, there are many people of a relatively peaceable disposition who would gladly see peace in the world and would be prepared to function as peace-makers between contending parties; but for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of these people do not believe in nonviolence. Some of them believe in minimization of violence, or in reducing certain kinds, or merely in stopping warfare in order to get what they want. For instance, almost all the people who have received the Nobel Peace Prize have either defended, promoted, or even commanded violence under all sorts of conditions, including in recent years President Jimmy Carter, Yasir Arafat, Menachem Begin, even Elie Wiesel, and most recently, Shirin Ebadi. This speaks not only to the mindsets of the Peace Prize recipients, but also to the mentality of the people who award the prize: namely, the concept of “peace” has an extremely limited meaning to them when they award the prize even to people who are prepared to use nuclear weapons under certain circumstances (as in the case of President Carter) and/ or who wish that they had them if they do not already (exemplified by Menachem Begin).

Relatedly, one reason why some people seek to make peace is less for ideological reasons than because of their personality styles. They shrink from conflict, but they do not believe categorically in nonviolence. Their presence can be soothing, but they are also apt to repress unpleasant conflictful realities, including that violence is, in fact, taking place. For example, International Red Cross inspectors of German concentration camps (e.g., Theresienstadt) during World War II were easily fooled by the Nazis into reporting that no atrocities were taking place. These inspectors were apparently loath to find atrocities because of the actions that would call for, and therefore they did not perceive any.

In contrast to some of these forms of peace-making, it is well-understood by many people in the culture of nonviolence that differences in the positions of different parties need to be clearly explicated, and that those who are committed to violence—and especially to violence in service to oppression—need to have the relevant moral truths declared to them in unmistakable form. Versions of this are now sometimes called “speaking truth to power.” Many peace-makers could never bring themselves to be thusly confrontative, or what they may consider to be unkind or “offensive.”

The Relevance of Violence, Peace-Making, and Nonviolence to Our Work

There are a number of reasons why the issues of violence, peace-making, and nonviolence are very relevant to our work and to relations with impaired people.

One of these reasons is that in human services, one will encounter violence by the people served, violence by individual servers, and institutional or systemic violence by the human service system that, at its endpoints, gets transacted by service functionaries. However, our field—and, in fact, the entire human service sector—has been engaged in a huge campaign of deception, in trying to convey the impression that it is primarily the clients who are prone to commit violence, when in fact, service workers and the service system have been responsible for the bulk of violence between clients and workers—my guess is for as much as 95% of it.

Several things have obscured this reality. One is that client violence is almost always unsophisticated, primitive, raw, direct, public, illegal, and easily identifiable. In contrast, violence by human services and their workers is typically disguised, even made to look like a beneficial service; and when it is raw and direct, it is usually transacted in secret. If it comes to the attention of co-workers or administrative authorities, they often cover it up. Some of them may even be the kind of peace-makers noted earlier who want to avoid the unpleasantness of reporting such incidences and of trying to remove violent workers from their positions of trust. They may also be afraid of being interpreted as false accusers and the conflict that would bring.

Also, we need to be very clear that we are not talking only about illegal violence, because many forms of violence in and by human services are quite legal, including several forms of death-making. On top of that, some of these forms of death-making are very gruesome and/or cruel, such as deliberately dehydrating and starving people to death over a period of weeks even though they are able to assimilate nourishment and fluids, or literally ripping babies piece-by-piece out of their mothers' wombs. Ironically, promoters or defenders of such gruesome forms of death-making may represent themselves as peace-loving—and even nonviolent—people. (I know: some people will be “offended” by these facts being stated, and call for my head, or for the editor's for printing this).

That violence should be obscured, covered-up, re-interpreted, denied, etc., should not be surprising, because one of the most basic wisdoms taught in the nonviolence culture, and by many sages, is that violence is always attended by deception.

Another legitimized infliction of violence in human service is the massive mind- drugging of service clients. Even the least client problem is apt to precipitate a prescription of a psychiatric drug, even though all of these drugs are health-damaging toxins, especially in high doses and in combination. Yet some people get up to seven of them, and in heavy doses. Even babies are now being put on these drugs, not to mention millions of older misbehaved children. Tens of thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—of premature deaths are caused this way every year in the United States alone. The few people who speak the truth about this mass assault are made war against by the drug firms, the mental field, the medical prescribers, and their allies which, ironically, includes many of the victims. Another contributor to the deception is that there is a vastly larger literature on client violence than on violence by workers toward clients.

Furthermore, for the last 20 years or so, there has existed a huge, and growing, training culture concerned with containing and subduing aggressive clients. In fact, training in how to handle potential or actual violent situations and service recipients has become one of the single most common and most mandated kinds of training in many sectors of human service and for literally millions of service workers. This training is not limited to, but typically includes, learning certain physical restraints, “holds” and “take-down” techniques. Further, it is usually given early on in a service worker's employment—sometimes before they are even deployed. Its prominence implies that violence prevention and management is one of the most core competencies required of human service workers. In fact, primary care workers may get this kind of training when they have and get no, or virtually no, training in basic human service pedagogies. There are now armies of people employed in clinical contact roles whose knowledge of service pedagogies is no greater, or no more accurate, than that of a comparable citizen in a nonservice occupation; but the one thing the service worker will know a lot about is how to physically disable an aggravated client.

One firm gives 4-day workshops on this topic (somewhat euphemistically called “crisis intervention”) in virtually every major city in North America, and even in up to 4 such cities simultaneously. This firm alone claimed to have trained 5 million “professionals” as of 2005!

The message of all of this to workers, clients, and the public is “these service recipients are dangerous people.” All of this is also almost like the clients being cast as al-Qaeda sleeper cells, service staff as their target, and the violence trainers as Homeland Security.

Inhibitors and Disinhibitors of Violence in Human Services

As to what is likely to release or inhibit interpersonal violence, including by servers towards service recipients, a great deal is known. One of the universal disinhibitors (i.e., releasers) of violence is holding power over people. If one loves the people over whom one holds power, one may be able to control one's violent tendencies; but if one dislikes such people, then that is a classical set-up for violence by the powerful against those in their grasp. And in human services, it is the servers who have the de facto power over the served, all the recent rhetoric about self-determination notwithstanding.

Another and related classical set-up for violence is when competency-limited dependent people whom one is taking care of repay one's efforts with verbal combativeness, which is not uncommon. Common sense tells us, and some research has shown, that these are the people who are among the most likely ones to be abused or assaulted by their caretakers.

In addition, we know that there are certain cultural forces that, in any society, are likely to either release or inhibit violence. For instance, we know that people of our culture of modernism have been becoming more and more utilitarian, and that they no longer derive their morality from overarching transcendent belief systems and enduring and absolute values. They resolve virtually all moral issues on utilitarian (“practical”) grounds. Not only that, but such utilitarian judgments are almost invariably rendered within a framework of thinking that is both short-term and segmentizing of reality, in that it fails to connect things together that are, in fact, connected. What this implies in turn is that not only behavioral nonviolence, but even peace-making, are only likely to be practiced—if at all—where they are seen to have short-term utilitarian benefits, and that is an extremely inadequate and nonfunctional foundation for either. After all, even habitually violent felons might dampen down violence and controversies in their environment if they think that this would have a good fall-out for them. However, nonviolence especially is unsustainable in the long run by utilitarianism because utilitarianism does not furnish it with a moral premise, nor does nonviolence often promise calculable and clearly derivable personal benefits. In fact, it is the practitioner of nonviolence who is apt to get hurt.

We have also seen a weakening of other violence inhibitors in our culture, and a growth in violence disinhibitors, and therefore a rise in violence by children, adults, and both clients and workers. Many dynamics in our culture either engender adversariality among humans or are disinhibitive of the violence that always lurks in human nature. For instance, there has been a rise of an entitlement mentality, of a radical individualism, and of an idolatry of self-determination, all of which are decommunitizing. Also, by every conceivable index, children are much less well-socialized than they used to be, and more of them grow up as poorly socialized adults who are more prone to rage and violence. Some of these children become service workers, and some become service recipients. As service recipients, they are more likely to be confrontational, belligerent, and violent. Even the recent rise in foul-mouthedness alone disposes other people to lash out at the ill-behaved foul-mouthed.

There are also subcultures in our society in which violence is very much part of the daily atmosphere, is witnessed constantly, and where even affection is expressed by violence, as in pummeling or play-fighting. Members of such a subculture may find it very difficult to inhibit aggression if they are employed in human services.

So we have more and more instances in which both clients and workers are poorly socialized, self-centered, foul-mouthed, raised in a verbally combative and disrespectful environment, and have poor impulse control.

How near the bottom of the barrel many of our service sectors are scraping for employees is brought out by the high percentage of applicants for unskilled or low-skilled direct service positions (and even for janitorial jobs) who have recently begun to be screened out because of criminal records, plus some who have such records either get by the screening, and not a few who have no such records are offenders who have simply not yet been caught, but acquire a record afterwards.

One dynamic that generally works as an inhibitor of violence is positive interpersonal attachment, and yet the high (sometimes astronomic) staff turn-over in human services in recent decades reduces the likelihood that such attachment will form between servers and service recipients. Also, with shorter periods of tenure, workers are less likely to get to know clients well and to learn to deal with their situations, problems, and idiosyncrasies, which might also have reduced temptations to become violent toward them.

Relatedly, many service situations now are comparable in some respects to those of the bad old institutions, where people from the lowest strata of society were hired to perform a task that is humanly virtually undo-able, namely tending to vast numbers and congregations of severely impaired persons. Today, large proportions of workers in certain service sectors are still on the lowest rung of employability; and on top of that, while they no longer have to serve huge congregations of clients, they do get oppressed by seemingly ever-increasing formalization, bureaucratization, and dehumanization by zillions of complex (and often contradictory) laws, regulations, and lawsuit-defensive rules from above that make their work undo-able. This creates much frustration and resentment that tips many such workers (even the more functional ones) over into abuse and violence, especially when clients are, as mentioned, ill-socialized, self-centered, combative and foul-mouthed. In other words, the workers pass on to their recipients the bad stuff that gets dished out to them from above, except that they do it behaviorally and primitively, while the higher-ups do it to them in a very sanitized and civilized fashion.

Most of the above realities obtain not only in paid service situations, but also in unpaid informal relationships between impaired persons and others, including in family settings.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the entire contemporary Western modernist culture being a “culture of death,” though of course, the connections between death and the cultural dynamics that press for it are often extremely well-hidden, and even the unhidden ones are not perceived by many people.

(Other) Sources of Violence by Certain Vulnerable People

Now let us go back and look closer at some of the (other) sources of violence by certain vulnerable people.

People who have been devalued in their societies—and that very much includes mentally retarded people—are likely to have experienced a great deal of rejection, and, in consequence of this rejection, they have suffered many wounds, including the wounds of aggression and bodily abuse. This aggression and abuse may have been of many kinds and come from many sources. Some people have been so badly treated so long, so often, from so early on, and/or so severely, that they are deeply wounded for life. Some of them then develop extremely problematic mental sets and their concomitant behaviors, including the following ones.

One of these is the idea that the bad things that were done to them are all their own fault. They were not what parents or important others expected, they brought disappointment and grief to others, they were worthless, and they deserved the bad things done to them, and maybe they deserve even more of the same. Among other problematic things, people with this mind set are apt to (a) do things that indeed draw yet more abuse and punishment on them, which would be hard to understand if one did not appreciate their mindsets; and (b) they do other self-destructive things to themselves, all the way to suicide.

Another extremely problematic consequence of being deeply wounded can be anger and hatred that is outward-directed. It may be directed toward specific classes of people, whose members are seen as having done bad things to oneself. For instance, some wounded people have developed an animus toward males or females, parent or authority figures, social workers, psychiatrists, the police, another racial group, etc. However, some wounded people are angry in a very diffuse, undifferentiated way. They are, in a sense, angry at privileged people, at the world in general, and/or at God. Some such people are merely nasty, while others engage in destructive acts toward the physical and/or social world. They destroy objects; break, kick, or throw things; engage in vandalism; set fires; and assault people, even randomly, including people whom they have never met before and who did nothing bad to them, and even people who did nothing but good to them. Some such wounded people may destroy their own clothes, habitats, neighborhoods, cities, food, and other vital supplies. The prevailing indoctrination into an entitlement mentality and a mindless radical rights, self-determination, empowerment, assertiveness and “choice” ideology is like pouring gasoline on these fires—and all this in an affluent culture that can no longer even imagine that this affluence is a very short blip in history, and that innumerable things one wants or feels entitled to are not available except during times of great societal affluence.

Let us be clear that people do not ordinarily develop these kinds of mindsets because of one or a few very bad but passing experiences, but because of a pattern of such experiences over a long period of time, and usually in, or since, early life. Even if certain bad experiences were few in number, then they were often still of a kind so traumatic as to cause other long-term bad experiences. For example, although parental abandonment can be a one-time event, it commonly results in many years of subsequent bad experiences.

When it is retarded people specifically who develop such a habitual and undifferentiated anger, then it is usually even more difficult to deal with than in most other kinds of people, because trying to talk or reason with them about it is almost always futile, in that by definition, they are impaired in language and reasoning.

Very wounded people often are or become long-term human service clients—perhaps even career clients; and in the human service system, what they commonly get are clinical human service technologies; and whatever good these may do, they rarely deal with these people's deep wounds. For instance, human services may offer a person all sorts of technologies to “deal with” or “manage” their anger, but that do not actually dissipate that anger. Consequently, anger management is not really very successful. After 40 years of it, we may still have an angry person who still keeps breaking out into destructive behaviors. (To our amusement, we recently learned of an anger management class that ended in a mass brawl, with participants climbing over the furniture to get at each other.)

Let us also look at how the virtually universal violence management training of service workers can appear to service recipients. The universality of this training conveys to them the message, “You (the client) are a danger to us (the workers), a potential menace, a time bomb that might go off at any moment. We need training in how to contain you when you do this.” This sort of training can create in clients an expectancy that they will be violent, and can set in motion a role-expectancy feedback loop in which they actually emit violent behavior.

This training, or its effects on clients, can also set up very negative—and probably self-fulfilling— expectancies in staff, especially when violence training workshops get promoted (as they have been) with pictures of hand grenades, dynamite sticks with lit fuses, and blood-dripping knives. In one instance, the staff of a residential unit for frail elderly retarded people were mandated to undergo violence management training. The residents got wind of it, and had enough intelligence to convey a message to the administrators: “We are not violent people,” though this cut no ice, because this kind of training had been mandated from the top for all clinical staff. (After all, one must not discriminate!) It is easy to see how this sort of thing strikes yet another wound in the already afflicted. (In contrast, a fundamental medieval human service motto was afflicto afflictio non est addenda, that is, the already afflicted are not to be further afflicted.) Also, this kind of training contributes to an adversarial atmosphere between servers and served.

Particularly despicable has been the practice that arose in the late 1970s (to my mortification, sometimes in the name of normalization) of service agencies pressing criminal charges against their mentally retarded service recipients when these lashed out at agency employees. Retarded assailants then end up before an incredulous judge who does not know what to do, and they may be put in jails or prisons where they are the weakest persons in a violent subculture. Right now, jails and prisons are the largest “asylums” in the United States for mentally handicapped people. The Los Angeles County jail alone holds many more mentally handicapped people than any mental facility in the country.

Lest the above be misinterpreted, let it be noted that many mentally retarded people are sweet and peaceful, as I have elaborated on elsewhere (Wolfensberger, 1988); but what is vastly more remarkable, and even mysterious, is that some have these qualities even after having experienced much abuse. In either case, many nonretarded people have remarked on the fact that being around kindly retarded people has been a positive moral force upon them, including making them more peaceful.

Some Measures for Addressing People's Inner Wounds and Tendencies to Violence

People who have been deeply wounded often function as wounded persons for the rest of their lives, even if they manage to escape from the service system (which many desperately want to do), get jobs, and/or get married. Very few things seem to have a chance of bringing a measure of inner healing to such persons. Among these few things are a pattern of experience over several years that embodies three messages in a credible way: (a) You are valuable, and hence esteemed; (b) you are no less valuable than any other humans; (c) you are loved by me/us/the server(s), as the case may be. Of course, all humans can benefit from these messages and should receive them in credible ways, but many wounded people will not respond well to any other measures if they do not receive these messages, and especially the third one.

Many people get these messages routinely and naturally as part of their lives, but this is not the case for many others. Some devalued people get them from no one; and I would say that if wounded people do not get these messages in a credible way, then clinical measures and human service technologies will largely be lost on them.

Among the several ways that one might be able to convey these three messages are the following.

  • By taking the person seriously and conveying respect for the person. This, however, is not necessarily the same as according what these days is called “self-determination” to the person, and giving people what they say they want. It may even entail saying or doing what they say they do not want.

  • By continuity of relationships, or what we call fidelity of relationship.

  • By security (including continuity) of abode.

  • By the presence of peaceful people, especially those with both a mentality and conduct of nonviolence who will not return a wounded person's aggression with counter-aggression. Some of this may have to take the form of absorption of violence, meaning that one nonviolently endures the violence of the person. Sometimes, that may have to be done by stepping between a person who has become aggressive and that person's intended victim, ready to absorb the violence intended for the latter, and perhaps from both.

In order to understand what the absorption of violence might accomplish, one needs to appreciate the ancient wisdom that violence begets violence. So when we encounter violent people, it is very likely that many of them had previously been badly violated themselves, are passing this violence on to others, and have learned that they can expect to have it passed back to them in turn. Not repaying violence with violence may break that cycle, and could be a moral revelation to the violent wounded person. Someone has likened this process to the circulation of counterfeit money. Nobody wants to absorb the loss, and so the counterfeit gets passed on and on until someone gets caught with it and has to forfeit the value of the coin or bill involuntarily—and is not very happy about doing so. On the other hand, responding peacefully to a person's attack on one is a bit like saying, “OK, now you got it out of your system. I will not pay you back in the same coin. I accept the loss. Maybe now we can address whatever is the problem at hand without further violence.”

What absorption of violence can accomplish in our work specifically, especially in combination with security of abode and continuity of relationships, we have learned mostly from Jean Vanier and the l'Arche movement. This has been a very small, but highly influential, presence in our field.

Formal human services forbid whatever is officially defined to be abusive violence toward clients, but this is done in the absence of an ideology of nonviolence. Again, staff inhibiting their behavioral violence is not the same as their embracing nonviolence. Furthermore, while forbidding some forms of worker violence, services de facto mandate certain other forms of violence, and as mentioned, service workers even get compulsory training to perform certain kinds of legitimized violence.

Difficulties About Absorbing the Violence of Others

As mentioned, self-defense is instinctive and natural to the human, and, therefore, problems arise when one tries to derive a morality of nonviolence from the Golden Rule, as Coulter (2006) has tried to do in his courageous and inspiring 2005 presidential address to our Association. Proponents of so-called natural law theories believe that an awareness that there is good and evil, and that one should do good and eschew evil, is laid into human nature. They generally also believe that at least the broader moral rules of the natural law can be apprehended by reason, without divine revelation, especially if reason is used in disciplined ways by sincere truth-seekers. This is generally held to explain why the Golden Rule—as a first order and relatively easily understandable derivative of natural law—is found in some form worldwide in many higher belief systems and religions (as noted by Coulter, 2006), including Judaism and Christianity.

Natural law is therefore to be distinguished from divinely revealed law, though bodies of moral law believed by various religions to be divinely revealed often reiterate or elaborate natural law moralities. For instance, at least six of the so-called Ten Commandments are corollaries of the Golden Rule, as are many of the 613 specifics of Jewish law. This is why Martin Luther joked that Moses had “come too late,” and that he should be considered a teacher of the law rather than a law-giver, as he is usually interpreted. The vast majority of moral rules in the New Testament are also reiterations of the Golden Rule, and if one believes in natural law, of that law itself.

However, I am not aware of any natural law theorists who would claim that nonviolence is called for by natural law, and that truth-seeking individuals (or collectivities) trying to live according to the Golden Rule would be considered morally culpable, and be held accountable in the eyes of God, if they defended themselves from aggressors. This means that nonviolence must derive from a moral principle higher than the Golden Rule, and therefore also higher than natural law. That seems to explain why the Golden Rule is found so widely in higher belief systems, but a morality of nonviolence is found in very few, and how remarkable it is that it is found in any, Christianity and some forms of Hinduism being the biggest examples. However, even in these, it is generally not considered to be mandatory, but optional for those who would seek greater perfection and is then often linked to other heroic practices also not readily derivable from natural law, such as celibacy, voluntary poverty, restriction of food intake, other severe self-mortifications, and even (mostly in Hinduism) going naked.

While Judaism has had historical episodes of nondefense, it has no abhorrence of the slaying of certain offenders, including aggressors. Before about AD 400, Christianity taught nonviolence; thereafter, it has generally taught that while violent individual and collective self-defense is permissible, God's revelation in the New Testament calls upon (invites) “disciples” to rise higher, and to abhor even permissible violence. This is exemplified by (among other things) Christ teaching his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 5), “you have heard it said to your ancestors” (followed by examples of retaliation), set against “but I tell you” (followed by examples of new teachings). One of these teachings deals with anger, another with nonretaliation and even nonresistance, and the sixth one with loving one's enemies. Because these admonitions were not addressed to the world, or to Jews in general, but specifically to Christ's “disciples,” Christians should not consider these proclamations as delegitimizing the Mosaic laws for non-Christian Jews, or the natural law for humans who are neither Jews nor Christians.

Be that as it may, extremely few people embrace an ideology of nonviolence, and because of the naturalness of violence and self-defense, even these few rarely manage to fully live out such an ideology. In other words, even if one embraces nonviolence mentally as a valid moral strategy, one may still fail on the behavioral level. One may lose one's temper and lash out, or one may be seized by fear and begin to defend oneself (and perhaps even more, one's loved ones) by violent means. Even if one manages to abstain from overt violent behavior, one may have dreams during which one is violent. One reason why this is so problematic is because, according to one school of thought, one would not do something in a dream that one might not also do awake, which means that if one is violent in a dream, one is not very far from comparable violence in one's wake state. This can deeply consternate someone who aspires to be nonviolent. Also, even if one manages to inhibit one's behavioral violence, one may not do so in a good or right spirit.

In concluding this reflection on absorption of violence for dealing with violence from wounded people, and as a valid moral act in its own right, we should note several cautions:

  1. As emphasized repeatedly, nonviolence is extremely difficult to practice, and even more difficult to sustain. Absorbing violence takes vastly more courage than does fighting. As one wit put it, “It is easier to fight for one's principles than to either live up to them, or to suffer for them.”

  2. Therefore, in order to undertake the practice of behavioral nonviolence, one needs to become deeply convinced of the underlying moral rationale—and it is hard to see how this could be logical, and sustainable, for a principled materialist, or even only a secularist.

  3. Even beyond becoming convinced, one must prepare oneself. Because nonviolence does not come natural to us, it requires a major overcoming of the self. This is extremely difficult to accomplish and takes years of struggle with the self, especially so in a culture that screams out at one to “be oneself,” to be self-centered and hedonistic, and to be powerful vis-à-vis others. Preparation also includes counting the cost, and being prepared to pay it. As mentioned, this includes the risk of actually being violated. In certain situations, one may even be risking one's life, and particularly so in situations where one is trying to intervene between two or more violent parties. One's station in life may be a complicating factor. For instance, if one has little children, it may be wise to avoid situations where violence absorption is called for, even if one is otherwise committed to not inflicting violence on others.

  4. Although much preparation is mental and spiritual, some may also involve explicit schooling from more experienced practitioners of nonviolence, role-playing, immersion in a subculture of nonviolence, etc.

  5. A genuine practice of nonviolence must be truly voluntary. The absorption of violence cannot be objectified, prescribed, commanded, and technologized into something like “Immediate opening: Violence-absorber, Grade I, Free medical insurance and benefits.” Nor can it be written into a person's individual plan that his or her paid servers must absorb that person's violence. Absorbing violence is something one must freely and individually decide to do, and often in an iterative process.

Despite the rarity and difficulty of nonviolence and violence absorption, people willing to be and do this are badly needed in the world and in our field; some such people actually exist; and they can work miracles with wounded people. However, none of the above is meant to convey that I am particularly good at practicing nonviolence. The quality of my discourse about it far exceeds my competency at practicing it.


D. L.
Presidential address 2005: Peace-making is the answer: Spiritual valorization and the future of our field.
Mental Retardation
L. M.
2006, June 22
A passion for peace.
Syracuse Post-Standard, p. B3
October). The root of war.
The Catholic Worker, 28(3), 1,7
Common assets of mentally retarded people that are commonly not acknowledged.
Mental Retardation

Author notes


Wolf Wolfensberger, Emeritus Professor and Director, Syracuse University Training Institute for Human Service Planning, Leadership and Change Agentry, 800 S. Wilbur Ave., Suite 381, Syracuse, NY 13204