Active Nonviolence and the Nickel Mines Tragedy

In his very thoughtful article about the Nickel Mines tragedy, "Forgiveness: An Amish Lesson for the Rest of Us?" (FJ Aug.), Jonathan Kooker focuses on the important lesson of transformative forgiveness, but at the same time he ignores another potential lesson that was lost—that of the transformative power of active nonviolence. He explains that the teacher decided to leave the schoolhouse because she "knew that combating violence with violence would not be her best role in this situation, and that persons trained in dealing with hostage crises were best equipped to deal with [the attacker]." With that statement, he falls into the same false dichotomy trap as the online commentators he quotes, who derided the failure of the Amish teachers and students to attempt to overpower their attacker with force.

The trap is the assumption that the only choices available in that moment were "fight" or "flight"—to strike back or to submit to the gunman’s demand to leave the building. The outcome, as described in this article, clearly challenges the further assumption that the institutional threat of violence or punishment embodied in law enforcement was the best response to this violent situation. The gunman’s panic upon the arrival of the police is what precipitated the rapid killing of the young girls, as well as the gunman’s suicide.

The article provides a powerful telling of the actions of the girls who were left behind, reaching out to the young man in love and with offers of self-sacrifice. We will never know whether their words and actions, given more time, might have touched him and transformed the situation. We also cannot know whether the outcome might have been different had the teachers made different choices, and it is not my intent to condemn them in any way.

Rather, my intent is to challenge the false dichotomy of choice described in the article and apparently underpinning most of the popular debate about this tragic incident. While the lessons contained within the story of communal forgiveness are important, I believe we also need to remember and celebrate other stories that offer a different set of lessons. We need to understand and to believe that another outcome was possible so that we can free ourselves to choose actions outside the "fight or flight" duality.
I still remember being overcome with grief mixed with disbelief on the afternoon when I first heard the news on the radio. "Why did they leave?" I asked myself over and over again. "Why did the adults walk out of that room?" As I am a student of nonviolent action, my reaction was based on a very different set of assumptions than those that prompted the criticism of their lack of violent resistance. My grief arose from the assumption that they must have been unaware of the rich heritage of stories that reveal the potential power of active nonviolence to transform a violent situation.

Those powerful emotions returned one evening last winter as I sat in midweek worship and noticed the small framed painting on a shelf in our meetinghouse. The painting depicts the famous incident in which a Native American war party bursts into a Quaker meeting for worship. The incident is notable because the Quakers remained in worship, completely surprising their would-be attackers and transforming the threat of violence.

My thoughts returned to Nickel Mines. I wondered whether the story in the painting—a part of our heritage as Friends—and its underlying truths are sufficiently embedded in the collective consciousness of our community to instill in each of us a vision for alternative responses to violence or the threat of violence.

Thich Nhat Hanh has been quoted as saying: "If you wait until the time of crisis, it will be too late… Even if you know that nonviolence is better than violence, if your understanding is only intellectual and not in your whole being, you will not act nonviolently. The fear and anger will prevent you." I know the truth of those words in my own life experience—especially when translated into the language of active nonviolence, which is more than simply walking away from or avoiding violence.

We must learn and teach the stories of ordinary people like ourselves tapping into and trusting the power of the Spirit, responding to the threat of violence in unexpected and extraordinary ways. But that collective work is not enough; we each have our own work to do, as well—both practical and spiritual. Acquiring some training in specific skills is helpful, but my experience teaches me that the real learning comes from seeking opportunities to put the knowledge and skills into practice, and stumbling, and trying again.

For most of us, that will involve consciously stepping outside of our comfortable lives and surroundings. The two years that I commuted by public bus provided a number of such opportunities; living in an urban neighborhood "in transition" has provided others; and engaging in various forms of public witness for peace and justice has provided still more. Each opportunity involves the frightening choice to engage, to trust the Spirit’s guidance in that moment. Preparing to make that choice is our spiritual worship.