How Pacifism Works

Pacifism and Nonviolence

One of the most important figures of the 20th century was Mahatma Gandhi, who led a successful movement to free India from British rule and gain independence in 1947. But unlike revolutions in other countries, the massive rebellion wasn't a violent one. Instead, Gandhi's followers staged sit-ins and other protests, and willingly allowed themselves to be arrested by colonial authorities.

Gandhi took religious principles common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, another Indian religion, and turned them into a non-violent strategy for overcoming an adversary. He called it satyagraha, which means "truth force." His brainstorm was that nonviolence eventually would wear down an opponent and convert him to the right point of view.

But Gandhi's nonviolence wasn't exactly the same as pacifism. (Indeed, as we mentioned previously, Gandhi wasn't against the idea of India using force to protect its interests once it gained independence.) Instead, nonviolence was what Gandhi saw as weapon that could equalize a struggle against an oppressor, and which could be used by all — children, women and people of all ages.

That said, Gandhi's "weaponization" of pacifism did include a reverence for life and a respect and empathy for others that fits with pacifist beliefs. He admonished his followers never to insult their opponents, or the British flag, even though to Indians it represented oppression. And if a British official was assaulted, Gandhi told his followers that they should protect him from assault, even at the risk of losing their own lives [source: BBC].