Religion and Violence panel features Arun Gandhi

By Ritija Gupta

Arun Gandhi, grandson of famed nonviolent activist and leader Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi, joined panelists and fellow activists Jim Lawson and Rabia Harris in a discussion at Swift Hall Wednesday night.

This lecture concluded the Religion and Violence Series, a number of lectures sponsored by Rockefeller Chapel over the year.

“[The event is] part of Rockefeller Chapel’s ongoing mission to lift up religious life and spirituality on campus,” said Ministry intern Micah Jackson. Rockefeller Chapel, along with the Hyde Park Interfaith Council, has had three other panel discussions on the subject of Religion and Violence.

The first lecture focused on spiritual violence, the second was a discussion on violence against women, and the final lecture focused on violence in the context of Islam.

On Wednesday, the overall message was one of unity and understanding between all peoples and all religions. “Religion is like coming up a mountain,” Arun Gandhi said. “Since we’re all going to the same peak, why does it matter which side we go up?”

Arun Gandhi, who established the Mohandas K. Gandhi Institute for Non-Violence, has been an activist in Tennessee, helping to calm potential riots through prayer groups. In describing why his prayer groups may have been successful where others have not, he talked about the importance of treating every religion with respect and humility

When he was 13 years old, Arun Gandhi had lived with his grandfather for a year and a half. During this time, he saw a lot of the elder Gandhi’s work in ashrams and described how he had designed them to encourage unity in diversity.

Arun Gandhi said that his grandfather wanted to create the nucleus of what he wanted the world to be.

According to Arun Gandhi, the elder Gandhi had once said that a friendly study of all the world’s religions is the sacred duty of every individual.

Arun Gandhi added to this idea, claiming that past studies of religion have been divisive rather than unifying. “We have done critical studies [in the past], but not friendly studies,” he said.

Arun Gandhi also believes that his grandfather’s attitude towards religion made it possible for two-thirds of India’s Muslim population to feel comfortable enough to stay in India even after the partitioning of India into Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Arun Gandhi also spoke to hidden forms of violence that can seep into everyday life. He illustrated this by telling a story about his grandfather chastising him for throwing away a pencil.

He explained that this action resulted in violence against nature because it was wasteful as well as violence against humanity because this behavior led to overconsumption. In the same way, he called upon his audience to examine their behavior to eliminate violence. “We have to analyze ourselves and see how much violence we perpetrate every day,” Arun Gandhi explained.

Another panelist, Reverend James Lawson, also emphasized the importance of understanding violence in its many forms.

For 14 years, Lawson was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization that Martin Luther King, Jr., founded to combat racism. In his speech, Lawson explained that many forms of violence are often overlooked.

“Violence in its worst form is systemic,” he said. “[It] kills multiple numbers of people at the same time and is often the invisible violence of the land.”

While Lawson respects the work of religious institutions, he criticizes them for overlooking the problem of violence. “Far too often, religion doesn’t even give a thought to violence, which is contradictory to the best of what religion has to offer.”

To remedy this problem in Christianity, Lawson believes that Jesus Christ should be acknowledged as a non-violent practitioner as well as a holy man. He calls upon Christianity to stress its tenet of loving one’s neighbors “The deep root of spirituality must move us to discover a heart and life that is large enough and illuminated enough to accept your enemy,” Lawson said.

Introducing herself with an Arabic greeting, Rabia Harris also stressed acceptance and love for one’s neighbor.

“Whoever you encounter, you should wish them God’s peace,” she said.

Harris spoke about the role of non-violence in Islam. She converted to Islam in 1978 and is now an Islamic scholar, coordinator of the Muslim Peace Fellowship, and participant in other interfaith peace initiatives.

Harris acknowledged Islam’s reputation in the West, discussing how, while the prophet Muhammad had gotten permission for armed struggle after years of practicing non-violence, his mission was still not one of violence.

“The object of struggle was not to overwhelm the opposition, it was to win their respect,” Harris said. “[Muhammad’s] army was an army that wanted to put its weapons down.”

Harris also pointed out Islamic peace movements that remain unpublicized in the West. Reading a list of names of Islamic peace activists, she claimed that these workers had not been properly acknowledged. “Why haven’t we heard of any of these people?” Harris said. “They are invisible because all these names belong to the enemy.”

Like Lawson, she encouraged accepting even those that have been considered the enemy because we can recognize ourselves mirrored in other people. “Each of us can show some tiny drop of the ocean; no one is expendable,” Harris said. “What we see in other people are inner secrets about ourselves.”

Pastor Daphne Burt, the associate dean of Rockefeller Chapel, was one of the coordinators of the event. She had met Lawson and Arun Gandhi when she had been arrested with them last May in Cleveland. “I was moved by their witness to non-violence,” she said.

After the lectures, audience members surrounded the speakers, still listening to their messages of non-violence. Third-year Marisa Beatley was particularly moved by Harris’ speech.

“I thought she brought out a good point about Islam, that the religion itself doesn’t advocate violence, but governments can distort Islam and use it for their own means,” she said.