WASHINGTON — By almost any measure, the 20th century has been the most violent century on earth - with two world wars, weapons of mass destruction, and ethnic conflicts that collapsed into mass grave sites.
But there's another story to this century that is often obscured in classrooms and newsrooms: the power of nonviolent resistance to check tyranny and injustice.
That's the theme of a thoughtful new documentary that magnifies the moral victories of the 20th century, especially evidence of the effectiveness of nonviolent strategies. "A Force More Powerful" screens this month in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.
"There exists a force more powerful to rectify injustice. The underdog has a viable strategy, which is nonviolent, capable of putting enormous pressure on tyrants," says Peter Ackerman, the film's coproducer and principal content adviser. "Overlooking this fact is utterly amazing, considering how many countries became democratic through nonviolent resistance in the last 30 years." (Poland 1981, the Philippines 1986, Chile 1988, Czechoslovakia 1989.)
The film focuses on three cases: Mohandas Gandhi's fight for the rights of Indian laborers in South Africa (1905-14) and later leadership of the Indian independence movement (1917-47), the American civil rights movement (1960), and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa (1985).
What's striking about this documentary is its refusal to understand these movements as merely the result of a powerful personality, such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela. It focuses on names most people haven't heard of - and the discipline of preparing people to use nonviolent protest.
Director and coproducer Steve York pulls together remarkable archival footage showing the careful run-up to big protests. (Teachers take note: There are no fictional characters or trumped up dialogue here. The filmmakers let participants speak in their own voices.)
Viewers see Nashville Methodist minister James Lawson prep students for the lunch-counter sit-ins that will end segregation in that city: "Turn the other cheek, but look him in the eye. Your fight is to win that person over," he says.
In South Africa, activist Mkhuseli Jack persuades reluctant township youths to hold the moral high ground instead of fighting with police: D-Day in the apartheid fight begins not with a bomb but with refusal to buy "even a box of matches" from white businesses, he says.
The usual accounts of this method reduce it to enduring a beating without flinching. But Gandhi insisted that the heart of this method is its spiritual dimension, especially the conviction that enemies can be converted to good. "If we remain nonviolent, hatred will die as everything does, from disuse," he said.
Coproducer Ackerman insists that this strategy is still relevant. Burmese pro-democracy activists are drawing on the inspiration of nonviolent movements, he says. And the costs of violent solutions to ethnic conflicts are all too evident.
"There is still such limited thinking about how to prevent deadly conflict," Ackerman says. "Often, a violent insurrection is a bad choice."
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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society