When are acts of kindness effective responses to anger and cruelty?

Real name
William Berkson

In his remarkable book Across That Bridge, civil rights leader John Lewis describes how he and his fellow protesters were consistently kind, even in the face of cruel opposition, in their demands for change. Having studied Gandhi's methods of non-violent resistance, he says, they understood that hitting back at those who struck them would cause them to be viewed as one party in a fight, and to be dismissed as 'those people', or even as the enemy. His courage in being brutally attacked, and putting himself in harm's way to speak the truth is inspiring, and it worked. 

On the other hand, we have the shocking letter from Gandhi in November of 1938, arguing that Jews in Germany should engage in non-violent protest against the Nazis. Gandhi says that if he were "A Jew born in Germany" he would  "refuse to be expelled" he would "claim Germany as my home, and "challenge [Hitler] to shoot me or cause me in the dungeon. I would refuse to be expelled or submit to discriminating treatment." He goes on to says that the experience of Indians in South Africa is "an exact parallel" to that of Jews in Germany. 

Martin Buber, who fled Germany in 1938, responded in early 1939. He had had great respect for Gandhi, but was horrified by Gandhi's lack of understanding of what was going on, and the complete absurdity of his advice. The situation was not at all parallel, as "Jews are being persecuted, robbed, maltreated, tortured, murdered," unlike what happened in South Africa to discriminated-against Indians. He points out that no Jew in Germany could in public "speak one sentence of a speech such as yours, without being knocked down." Buber says that while in some circumstances people can withstand "unfeeling feeling human beings" and "gradually bring them to their senses, ...a diabolical universal steam-roller cannot be thus withstood." This article has an extensive account of the letters.

The effectiveness of Lewis's heroic actions, and the fact that they wouldn't work in Hitler's Germany raises a broader question. When are acts of kindness a good way to deal with anger, and even cruelty? When are they not the best way? 



Real name
Dov P Elkins

Dov P Elkins replied 2 months 2 weeks ago

Ghandi's reply is absurd. Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe knew that if they made one wrong move the Nazis would put a bullet through their head.

Ghandi is talking like an imbecile despite his distinguished reputation. Ghandi's views are also colored by his anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.


Dov Peretz Elkins

Real name
William Berkson

William Berkson replied 2 months 2 weeks ago

Yes, I'm shocked to read also about Gandhi's anti-Black bigotry during in his many years in South Africa. I guess if you want a very positive view of human nature, it is best not to read history!

Aside from the questions over Gandhi's character, I am interested in the issue of how much acts of kindness can turn around a social situation, and when it will fail. Our tradition says both "Keep far from a bad neighbor" and "Who is a hero? He who makes of an enemy, a friend." One way of putting the question, is: when does each apply? When should we engage in non-violent resistance to those who may wish us ill, and when stay away, or fight?