Violence to Non-violence: Transforming America from the Inside Out | Opinion

From neo-Nazi communities to cars plowing into groups of peaceful protesters to mass shootings becoming a commonplace occurrence, America's problem with violence is growing. And it will continue to grow until we face it for what it is: not just a problem that landed from out of nowhere, but rather a character flaw that's been part of America's psyche from our very beginning. Our enlightened ideals have always been accompanied by a violent streak, like an unholy double helix that is part of America's DNA.

From slavery to genocide of Native Americans to what is now widely recognized as imperialistic military interventions abroad, Americans looking in the mirror recognize a thread of violence that is laced throughout our history. This recognition need not condemn us; rather, it can heal us. Groups have shadow sides just as individuals do, and when a character defect is on full display it's an opportunity to face it, deal with it, heal it and evolve beyond it.

It is not cynicism about this country, but a healthy love for it that requires us to take an honest look at some things from which America routinely looks away. Neither an individual nor a nation can heal that refuses to look at the depth of their wounds. We have to begin with brutal honesty, a willingness to face the various layers of passive as well as aggressive violence that permeate our society.

Institutionalized violence is not just a thing of our past; there are plenty of examples of it that we need to own, and atone for, that are happening right now. Our economic policies are essentially violent to the poor, our military policies are violent even when they don't have to be, our factory farms are violent toward animals, our environmental policies are violent to the earth, our food and chemical policies do violence to our bodies, our criminal justice system is violent particularly to POC, our incarceration system is violent to inmates, and our police are often unnecessarily and even brutally violent to citizens and non-citizens alike. All those things are true before we even get to the blood on the hands of the NRA, the insanity of gratuitous violence in video games and movies and the toxic trash heap of emotional and psychological violence demonstrated daily on social media.

An honest look in the mirror shows us all of those things. Violence now so permeates our society that no simple solutions avail themselves to rid us of what has become a modern scourge. But that does not mean that no solutions exist. We need common sense gun safety laws, we need to eradicate poverty, we need to massively front end our resources into the lives of young children and we need to treat rampant mental illness–all those and much more are now part of mainstream conversation regarding sociological causes of violence. But we're going to have to go still deeper.

We're not going to be able to just "get rid of violence" until we proactively choose peace. And cultivating peace is different than a mere effort to eradicate violence. America's orientation both culturally and politically would look radically different if we as a society choose peace.

We're going to be a violent society until we choose to be non-violent. And non-violence is more than the absence of violent behavior. It is a proactively cultivated state of being, both in terms of personal behavior as well public policy. It is the positive presence of something out of which violence is unlikely to emerge. We cannot end violence by simply trying to suppress violence, for of itself it is a symptom and not a cause. To truly eradicate the violence that plagues us, we must be willing to wage peace.

Non-violence is not just a set of policies, or a political philosophy; it's a commitment to a new way of life among citizens as well as a new kind of problem solving among lawmakers. It means all of us taking responsibility for our words and actions —whether in our personal relationships, the business or governmental policies we support and advocate for, even how we express ourselves on the internet. Every interaction, every circumstance, carries within it the seeds of either harmony or chaos.

Every word and every action, on anyone's part, contribute to either the violence or the healing of the times in which we live; everything we do is infused with the consciousness with which we do it. The only way we will route out violence is if we spend as much time addressing it within ourselves as we spend addressing it in the public realm. One without the other is an incomplete model of societal transformation.

All of us realize hatred is a problem of course, but too many of us limit that to hatred on the part of other people. It's very easy to point our finger at all the haters out there, conveniently avoiding the work of looking at all the hatred in ourselves. America is divided today between all the people who stand for hate, and all the people who hate them for doing that. On the left as well as on the right, people are clearly convinced that other people's hatred is way more problematical than their own.

 An American flag flies at the U.S.
An American flag flies at the U.S. Capitol. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

But we cannot seriously counteract violence without counteracting it within ourselves. And who among us can say that our presence in the world is entirely non-violent? Each of us is responsible for either adding to or subtracting from the violence in the world around us. Any individual action, or business or governmental policy that does not consciously promote peace in some form, is contributing to the perpetuation of violence. There was a saying when I was growing up that if you're not a part of the solution then you are part of the problem. The most powerful mode of peace creation is the decision to devote ourselves to peace.

Being old enough to remember the peace movement of the 1960s and 1970s, I remember important facets of that revolutionary time. Most people I knew read philosopher Alan Watts in the morning and went to Vietnam anti-war rallies in the afternoon. During the sixties there was an interlacing of both inner and outer revolutionary spirit, as people meditated with the Maharishi, did psychedelics and listened to Bob Dylan and participated in the civil rights and anti-war movements. It was a lot of the same people! And something similar seems to be in the air today, a kind of 2.0 version of that era that feels like picking up the thread of a conversation that was dropped several decades ago.

Now it's time for a 21st century peace movement, built on the commitment to creating a non-violent field of energy and action in our time. It recognizes the multidimensional, whole person aspect to genuine societal change. True commitment to peace today involves spiritual as well as material activism, addressing both the realm of our hearts as well as the realm of our politics. It isn't either/or; it's both/and.

Violence begins in the heart long before it hits the street; we must address it in both places. There are myriad circumstances that can lure a person away from their heart, and countless ways on any given day that we ourselves might model peace. Every time we choose love and connection in our dealing with others, we model how someone else can do it too. Whether someone's rage spilled over because they lost their job or because they were bullied on the internet, whether because they feel helpless to survive economically or because they feel socially alone and isolated; all are equally significant factors in causing a person to disconnect from their capacity for empathy.

And that disconnection did not occur randomly. Rare to impossible is the violent criminal who was born with a violent destiny. In the vast majority of cases, some level of violence, from either individuals or society, so traumatized someone that something within them snapped. And that is the source of violence. Long before violence erupts in someone's behavior, it erupts inside their heart.

Politics today is moving beyond just a treatment of symptoms to a deeper, more meaningful discussion of cause. As long as there is violence in our hearts, there will be violence between and among nations. As long as we keep anyone separate from our love, then the forces of racism and bigotry will continue to be fueled. And as long as we keep ourselves at arm's length from the work that needs to be done to heal this, then violence will continue to have its way with us.

Though social and political change is important, purifying our hearts is equally so. Who we are is important as what we do; Gandhi said, "The end is inherent in the means." We must align ourselves with the angels of our better nature, or the chaos and violence of a world gone mad will continue to devour not only our spirits but the very world in which we live. America, and the world, will be transformed from the inside out.

Marianne Williamson is a Newsweek columnist, best-selling author, political activist and spiritual thought leader. She is founder of Project Angel Food and co-founder of the Peace Alliance, and was the first candidate in the 2020 presidential primary to make reparations a pillar of her campaign. She is the author of 13 books, among them Healing the Soul of America and A Politics of Love.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.