“Gandhi’s gigantic blunder”? As we read or watch our daily news of peaceful protesters mingled with rioting looters in cities across the USA, shouldn’t we be learning from Mohandas Gandhi’s pioneering example? Absolutely, but he learned most from what he called his “Himalayan miscalculation” and so can you and I.
I read the Mahatma’s autobiography, My Experiments With Truth, in the 90s. It was wonderful to see his disarming humility, his accounts of his search for reality, inner struggles, and discussions with Christians of all stripes. I found myself in constant dialogue with him, page after page, wishing I could have met him face to face.
In 1918, some peaceful protests that he had organised against the British colonial regime had turned into riots:
…I had begun to have a dim perception of my mistake. But when I reached Nadiad and saw the actual state of things there and heard reports about a large number of people from Kheda district having been arrested, it suddenly dawned upon me that I had committed a grave error in calling upon [them…] to launch upon civil disobedience prematurely…
Before one can be fit for the practice of civil disobedience one must have rendered a willing and respectful obedience to the state laws.1
He could see that as soon as the protesters became lawless, their cause was obscured. He taught that to succeed, every protester must…:
…obey the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just and which are unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him of the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances.
In other words, we can’t call for unjust laws to be changed if we ourselves break just laws e.g. by harming innocent bystanders or destroying their property. If we do that, we’re showing that we don’t recognise any laws, just or unjust.
My error lay in my failure to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had thus qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seemed to me [of] Himalayan magnitude.[/note]Ibid.[/note]
New Zealand, 1869-1881
Gandhi could have learned from New Zealand’s Tohu Kakahi and Te Whiti O Rongomai because these amazing Maori leaders knew better. In 1869, the year that Gandhi was born, they began teaching the 2,500 people of their village at Parihaka how to peacefully protest against New Zealand’s colonial government’s illegal confiscation of their land.
In 1879, Parihaka’s warriors were sent out to assert their ownership of the confiscated land by simply ploughing it. In Isaiah’s famous phrase, they beat their swords into ploughshares.2 They were trained to put into action the words of Jesus: they were not to fight, despite any provocation, turning the other cheek if struck,3 and not even responding with insults.4
Nevertheless, on 5th November, 1881, the government sent in an overwhelming force of almost 2,000 men to destroy their protest. One of the British commanders, Colonel William Messenger, recorded for us what happened when he led them in:
Their attitude of passive resistance and patient obedience to Te Whiti’s orders was extraordinary. There was a line of children across the entrance to the big village, a kind of singing class directed by an old man with a stick. The children sat there unmoving, droning away, and even when a mounted officer galloped up and pulled his horse up so short that the dirt from its forefeet spattered the children they still went on chanting, perfectly oblivious, apparently, to the pakeha, and the old man calmly continued his monotonous drone.
I was the first to enter the Maori town with my company. I found my only obstacle was the youthful feminine element. There were skipping-parties of girls on the road. When I came to the first set of girls I asked them to move, but they took no notice. I took hold of one end of the skipping-rope, and the girl at the other end pulled it away so quickly that it burnt my hands.
At last, to make a way for my men, I tackled one of the rope-holders. She was a fat, substantial young woman, and it was all I could do to lift her up and carry her to one side of road. She made not the slightest resistance, but I was glad to drop the buxom wench. My men were all grinning at the spectacle of their captain carrying the big girl off. I marched them in at once through the gap and we were in the village. There were six hundred women and children there, and our reception was perfectly peaceful.5
The people of Parihaka didn’t make Gandhi’s gigantic blunder. Neither did the US’s Civil Rights Movement, spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr, sixty years later, but I’ll leave it to our American friends to tell their story.
Anti-Vietnam War Protests
In early 1968, I was 17 and a university student, eager to protest with my friends on the streets of Wellington. The previous year, a similar march had ended with some protesters arrested for trespassing on the roof of a public convenience at the end of Courtenay Place. Our leaders this year therefore decided that we should have a ‘pro-police’ demonstration.
They reasoned that we could mock the police by expressing over-the-top support for them and how could they then arrest anyone? Accordingly, we carried signs saying, “Support your local police – bribe them!” When we encountered policemen on point duty, trying to direct traffic around us, we would encircle them and loudly sing, “For they are jolly good fellows”, hand them a chocolate fish or teddy bear, and press on our merry, philanthropic way!
It worked well. No-one was arrested and that night, my long-suffering parents at home in Masterton got see me on national TV in my first protest march. We too had not made Gandhi’s gigantic blunder but then, I don’t think we accomplished anything but student fun.
Seven years later, I was working with a Messianic Jewish believer called Marcus. He had been a major figure in NZ’s protest movement in the 60s as a Maoist sympathiser and he told me of murkiness behind the scenes.
One of his stories illustrated how easily people can be led and misled – all it took was a megaphone.
A large group had gathered in a park and, on an impulse, Marcus picked up a megaphone and, pointing in a direction, called out authoritatively: “Could everyone please move to that side of the park!” To his amazement, everyone moved there. So he did it again. Pointing in the opposite direction, he said, “I’m sorry, there’s been a mistake. Could everyone please move to the other side of the park!” Again, everyone moved to where he was pointing. “It was that easy”, he told me, “and no one asked me why!”
Another protest leader told me of how this phenomenon can be exploited by any radical group. You pick a moral cause that appeals to the most people – the cause itself is immaterial – because all you want is a large crowd of people. As they gather around your core group of activists, they provide a peaceful front to camouflage your real intent.
You trumpet the moral cause and the peaceful protest and agree with the police on the route the protest will take. It’s especially good if the assembling crowd includes peaceful-looking individuals like older ladies, vicars in dog-collars, mums with children in strollers. “Useful idiots”, they call them. The march sets off in an orderly fashion with marshals guiding any stragglers but at a pre-arranged place, the leaders suddenly veer away from the agreed route, leaving the police further ahead looking at empty streets.
In the ensuing confusion, as the police struggle to reassign their staff, your core of activists can quietly slip away to achieve your real goal of bringing chaos, breaking windows, etc. while your “useful idiots” are left wondering how it all went wrong.
NZ’s 1981 Springbok Tour
I got to see this for myself when the South African rugby team came to New Zealand in 1981. Thousands of New Zealanders marched to protest SA’s hateful policy of apartheid, or racial segregation.
Marcus and I watched on television on 15th August as the protesters marched through our home city of Christchurch.6 Now that I knew what to watch for, I wasn’t as surprised as the police and the marching innocents when, sure enough, the leaders suddenly took a wrong turn. In the ensuing confusion, a small group slipped away through the gasworks and broke into the rugby grounds but, happily, the police were able to regroup and keep the fighting between the protesters and enraged fans to a minimum.
Since the cause was such a good one, I wasn’t particularly concerned that day but earlier in the week, Marcus and I had come across a shop-owner cleaning up the aftermath of another tour protest. Above his street-level furniture shop was the office of a local MP and protesters had decided to throw bottles filled with paint at the office. Unfortunately, they weren’t strong or accurate enough so only a few of their projectiles hit their target and the furniture shop below copped it instead.
To make matters worse, the owner was a gracious white South African who hated apartheid and had tried to make a fresh start in NZ. He’d tried to tell them he supported the protest but when the crowd heard his accent, they decided he must be pro-apartheid and deserved what he got. Satisfied with their job well done, the protesters had marched off again.
A One-Man Protest
This lack of concern for innocent bystanders angered me and I decided to stage a one-man protest to make that point to the next planned march. I painted a placard which said something like, “If you’re marching with hate in your heart, you’re part of the problem!”
l then joined the assembling protesters in Cathedral Square and, standing on a bench, I spoke to them about Jesus’ exhortation that we need to clean the inside of the dish and not just the outside. As they marched off, I stood facing them with my sign. I don’t know how many even noticed me, a lone voice in a large enthusiastic crowd, but a television reporter did, Gordon Dryden. He was curious and interviewed me so that night, I think, my parents saw me protesting again on the national news.
Today, I watch the peaceful protesters repeating Gandhi’s gigantic blunder amid the rioting looters and vandals in cities across the USA. The looters find solace in stealing what they can and the vandals, in blind destruction, creating ever more victims of injustice. Many are raging over their lack of opportunity in crime-ridden neighbourhoods and nothing superficial will change that. However, violent revolution is superficial. All it changes is who’s in power and the winners usually become as corrupt as the losers. As the French and Russian, and more recently, the Syrian and Libyan Revolutions have shown, our only hope is changed hearts, from hating to loving hearts that will bring about the right structural change. This is a huge subject which I cover in depth in Staying Free.
And I wonder how many genuine protesters realise they are becoming “useful idiots” whose message is being obscured by activists for the wrong structural change?
I also wonder how long before short-sighted “useful idiots” in the media stop portraying it as an either/or situation: either you’re for justice for George Floyd and every black victim of a racist policeman or you’re for law and order and want to see the riots stopped. It doesn’t occur to them that their flawed presentations are a major part of the problem, that they’ve been carefully steered by activists into what is called the prison of two ideas – “you must accept only one or the other”.
Any reasonable person can choose the third way of both/and, thus following in the way pioneered by Jesus, Tohu and Te Whiti, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. We can peacefully protest against any police brutality or injustice and uphold law and order to prevent even more injustice to innocent bystanders. I did so recently in Wellington’s March for Life,7 to protest our government’s promoting the annual taking of life from thousands of innocent babies. Should we have rioted because our cause is literally life and death and the media virtually ignored us? I still don’t think so.
In conclusion, as Angela King, MLK’s granddaughter, says, George Floyd’s being killed by a dirty cop is not a battle between white and black but between good and evil – that’s exactly right. The only way to make peace, bring healing, and end divisions is for every citizen, especially in the media, to help identify and remove both bad cops and bad protestors and laud and encourage good cops and good protestors.
By Solundir – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30814064
By Elliott & Fry (see ) – http://philogalichet.fr/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Gandhi_Photo-Alamy.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76882768
By Mark L – Flickr: _IGP6666, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16040681
By Auckland Museum, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64784378
By Loaves of bread – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34803387
- Isa 2:4
- Matt 5:39
- 1 Pet 3:9