Fighting the Good Fight: An Exploration of Gandhi’s Approach to Conflict

Mahatma Gandhi, one of the greatest advocates for nonviolence in
history, once said, “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.” And so this morning
we are thinking with Gandhi about the way of truth and love. Perhaps
this morning we come with despair in our hearts as we consider the
many hurts of our world. And yet there is that thing which Gandhi
would have us remember and go back to, again and again: the way of
truth and love. Gandhi believed in it and nonviolently fought for
it-he fought the good fight-and today our task is to take a closer
look. How do you nonviolently fight for truth and love? How did he do
it, and how can we do it as well?

And we begin with that word, “truth.” What is
“truth”? Gandhi’s take is this. He first of all admits
something that Unitarian Universalists and some others appreciate:
that there is such a thing as Truth with a capital T, but Truth is
always more than or greater than what we can know at any given time.
There is an abundance to ultimate truth, in other words; and all our
human traditions and laws and ideas are like thimbles which can
capture only a piece of the ocean. Ultimate truth is like the
proverbial elephant, and we are always in the position of the blind
men in that ancient parable, grasping hold of an ear, or a tail, or a
trunk-never the elephant in its entirety. And so, with regard to
social and political laws, Gandhi respected them for the truthfulness
that they hold; and yet he would not hesitate to disobey them if he
perceived their truth to be too small, too partial, obstructive to the
path towards greater truth. As for religion: Someone once asked Gandhi
if he was a Hindu, and he replied, “Yes I am. I am also a
Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” Each, he believed,
has something positive to contribute, even as each is limited in what
it knows.

There is a gap between ultimate truth and human truth; and so Gandhi
saw himself as a truth fighter, fighting to bridge the gap as far as
possible, fighting to separate out the truth and the falsehood in his
own views and those of others. He saw the good fight as one of growing
in the truth and resisting the complacency of believing that his
preferred tradition or perspective has absolute validity. And even if
he honestly thought

that his view did had more validity than the other (as he did in the
case of the British), still, he insisted on believing that the other
side had its share of the truth as well, however small. Thus he once
said, “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is
healthy to be reminded that even the strongest might weaken and the
wisest might err.”

Gandhi was a truth fighter, fighting to grow towards a more complete
view of things. And he, like ourselves, would look for signs and
evidences that indicated growth in the right direction. One of them is
immediate luminosity: an idea jumps out at us and we directly intuit
its truth, or it resonates with personal experience. Another sign is
consistency with what else in known to be true in traditions of
science and spirituality and law and ethics.

Yet another sign of growth towards truth is a positive recommendation
by a community of knowledgeable experts, or people we trust. Then
there is the sign of perennialism, as when an idea keeps on popping up
in one form or fashion in all cultures and throughout all time. All of
these: signs that we are growing towards a greater grasp of the truth.
Yet for Gandhi, the greatest and most definitive sign of all-the
“clincher”-was this: life affirmed and enhanced. We can see
this clearly by taking a look at the world Gandhi used for truth:
“satya.” “Satya” is based on the Sanskrit verb
meaning “to be,” and this points to an unbreakable
connection between truth and existence or, rather, quality of life.
The litmus test of an idea is how it impacts quality of life. Truth
allows life to flourish and brings people and planet together in
harmony; whereas falsehood denigrates life, violates our
relationships, destroys our world.

The sign of life affirmation-that was the key truth indicator for
Gandhi. All the other signs are helpful, but life affirmation is
fundamental. Does this ring a bell for you, as you consider the ways
in which you distinguish between truth and falsehood in your own life?
Truth is not so much a matter of where something comes from as where
it takes you-the consequences it works in the world. There was a time
when Unitarianism and Univeralism were strictly Bible-based religions;
and yet we have moved beyond this to draw from Six Sources of faith
which include the Bible but go beyond it exactly because we believe
that truth is not so much about roots as it is about fruits.
Doesn’t matter where an idea comes from, just so long as it helps
me become a better person.

That’s what Unitarian Universalism says, and that’s what
Gandhi said. Gandhi is right there with us. But now consider the
implications of his insight of truth as life affirmation. One of them
is this: The fight for the truth becomes THE meaning of life, and it
is all-encompassing. Fighting for stronger families is fighting for
the truth. Fighting for environmental sustainability is fighting for
the truth. We fight for the truth whenever we fight to make the world
a better place to live in. Social justice and spiritual growth are two
sides of the same coin. Don’t put them in separate boxes; there is
only one box!

Thus the story is told about Gandhi, who settled in a village and at
once began serving the needs of the villagers who lived there. A
friend enquired if Gandhi’s objectives in serving the poor were
purely humanitarian. Gandhi replied, “Not at all. I am here to
serve no one else but myself, to find my own self-realization through
service to these village folk.” The fight for the truth is all.
In our service, in our relationships, in everything we do, we are
fighting for the truth.

The insight is life changing. Among other things, it means that at
12:30 today, when UUCA’s Peace Network gathers outside our
building along the access road for a half-hour demonstration on behalf
of peace, they are really demonstrating for the truth, and they are
inviting the rest of us to do that as well. Gandhi once said, “An
eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” but he is not just
talking about physical blindness. If that was all he was about, he
could never have galvanized the followers that he did. He is talking
about moral and spiritual blindness. You just can’t get to truth
following an eye for an eye approach. You just can’t get from here
to there. “As the means, so the ends.”

Which leads to the main implication of Gandhi’s view of truth as
life-affirmation: the all-importance of non-violence. If truth is that
which affirms life, then the search for truth-which includes the
struggle towards justice-must be nonviolent. Listen to how Gandhi
applied this in the realm of religion. He said, “As soon as we
lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing
as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be
untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his
side.”

That’s what Gandhi said. You just can’t get to truth through
violent means. You can’t get from here to there.

Nonviolence is the royal road to truth. This was Gandhi’s vision.
And part of what he meant by it was this: that when people are
embroiled in a conflict, the larger truth about what’s happening
and how to resolve it will emerge only if people avoid using coercive
tactics. One side must avoid doing anything that steals away the other
side’s ability to respond in a free and informed way. And clearly,
physical threats do this. A forced victory like this cannot possibly
solve the real problem but rather digs it in even deeper, sets up the
stage for an even more vicious battle in the future. The opportunity
for glimpsing greater truth dies.

But this is also so even where there is no physical violence. Verbal
and emotional violence diminish life as well; the effect is
destructive in its own way when people namecall, or sneer, or with
nonverbal behavior let you know that they think you are an idiot.
That’s why Gandhi once prohibited his followers from even saying,
“Shame, shame, shame” to the British. Even something as
small as this detracted from the dignity and potential of the struggle
for India’s independence, which was a struggle for larger truth
that participants on both sides needed to be able to engage in with
freedom and safety. Every side must experience the conflict as
life-affirming for greater truth to emerge. This is something for all
of us to take to heart, here at UUCA, as we consider ways in which we
might say “shame, shame, shame” to each other in the midst
of our disagreements over spiritual preferences or political
preferences or other kinds of preferences. I hurt and I worry for the
soul of this place when I hear stories about people feeling shamed
because they believe in a living God, or they don’t believe in a
living God, or they happen to vote for a certain political candidate.
Differences about this are fine and good, and Gandhi would encourage
us to fight about them. But fight fair. Fight nonviolently. Fight only
in such a way that the result is more truth emerging.

In fact, fight out of a place of compassion and love. Fight for your
opponent’s best interests, as well as your own. This is ultimate
goal. This is it. Gandhi called it “satyagraha,” which is a
process of looking for the truthful aspects of all sides to a
conflict, trying to find a broad resolution that includes them all,
and then acting to make it real. And this is clearly an unusual kind
of fighting. Usual fighting is about who’s going to be on top.
Usual fighting is about king ego. But Gandhian fights are about
advancing the truth and expanding the spirit and soul of every person
involved. They are about transforming relationships. Nobody wins
unless everybody wins. And so nonviolence ultimately begins with what
is in our hearts. “If you love peace,” Gandhi once said,

“then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed-but hate these
things inside yourself, not in another.” “The only devils in
the world are those running around in our hearts.” This is what
he said. You just can’t scream out a word like peace. You just
can’t. So when we are screaming it, we have to look at what’s
in our hearts. We have to look at the scream that is there and then
heal it, so that we can BE peace in the world and, through this peace,
honestly care for the well-being of our enemies. Jesus was not the
only one who said, Turn the other cheek, and bless those who curse
you. Gandhi did also. And it all starts with the heart. The heart must
be nonviolent, first and foremost.

Yet having said this, I need to put my finger on a possible
misunderstanding. Satyagraha-which again is Gandhi’s word for
fighting for the best interests of all people involved in a
conflict-can sometimes devolve into efforts simply to keep the peace
at all costs. We want to live in harmony with others; that’s what
we want. So there can be times of conflict where we think to
ourselves, “Well, fighting’s not worth it. It’ll make
things easier if I just stay silent. It’ll be best for all
concerned. I don’t want to cause trouble. Nothing I do will make a
difference anyhow.” Ever had thoughts like this before?

This is not satyagraha. This is not fighting for the truth. To fight
for the truth, we have to speak up and stand up for our own
convictions. Yes, we are wanting to keep in mind the best interests of
our opponent, but we can’t forget our own stake in things.
Nonviolence can never be confused with fear, or cowardice. To
underscore this, Gandhi once said, “Where there is only a choice
between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” “A
‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a
‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid
trouble.” This is what he said! Staying engaged is key. If we
don’t stay engaged, if we don’t stay committed to our sense of
the truth, then life drains out of us. We deny our own lives.
That’s what happens.

It means that when we take a stand at home, or we take a stand at
work, or we take a stand in the larger world, a significant part of
what is at stake really has nothing to do with anything beyond us.
It’s about ourselves and the simple fragility of our self-worth.

Not to do anything-not to speak up-would violate our personal
integrity. This point comes from activist Derrick Bell, and Gandhi
would agree. “It is the determination to protect our sense of who
we are that leads us to risk criticism, alienation, and serious loss
even as others remain silent. Protest rescues self-esteem.” Even
if taking a stand accomplishes nothing more than this, and nothing
changes in the world, and no one notices, still, our integrity is
intact. We have directly known our courage. Truth force surges within
us. Gandhi would be proud.

Conflict is a given in our world. Once, when Gandhi was asked for his
thoughts about Western civilization, he replied, “I think it
would be a very good idea.” Conflict and chaos are givens. And
when differences collide, sparks fly. But what Gandhi says is this:
Persist in nonviolence, and if you do, have no fear. Conquer your
enemies with love.

Nonviolence can transform conflicts into opportunities to discover the
truth. Let the conflict happen-let the sparks fly-and nonviolence will
render the fire into a transforming flame that burns away falsehood
and reveals more clearly the truth.

Gandhi, in the Salt March from more than 70 years ago, scooped up a
handful of salt and raised it up high, high for all to see, including
the British-and this was his way of saying, We need to talk. We
are not going to back away, hide away. We need to find a solution that
will work for all of us. It may not be clear what that is right now,
but if we can face our conflict honestly and fairly, we will discover
it. We will find a way. You can attack us with blows or with whips,
but we are stronger than you and will never attack back. Because we
are strong, we can forgive you, and we will persist. You can imprison
us, but you can never imprison the truth. We fight nonviolently for a
truth that is as much yours as ours; together, let us find a way.

And eventually they did. India won its independence from England. But
it was the manner of the win that counts most. Both sides with dignity
intact. A win-win solution. And so it was, when Gandhi died in 1948,
the last British Viceroy in India, Lord Admiral Mountbatten, expressed
his hope that Ghandi’s life might “inspire our troubled world
to save itself by following his noble example.” This eulogy is
remarkable considering the fact that Gandhi fought for years against
what Lord Mountbatten’s role as British Viceroy
represented-India’s lack of freedom. Lord Mountbatten turned out
to be the very last British Viceroy exactly because of Ghandi, and yet
he still said what he said. He still offered up those words of hope.
And so we receive them today. We will fight the good fight. In the
end, tyrants and murderers always fall, though for a time they seem
invincible. But they will fall. And larger truth will prevail.