Educational Materials

Study Guide



The concept of non-violence had been important to Thurman since his student days as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international pacifist organization. Later, his encounter with Gandhi and with Gandhi’s use of creative non-violence as a technique against oppression further cemented Thurman’s belief in the use of non-violence as a means of social change. Gandhi’s example revealed to Thurman that non-violence could and should have religious foundations, and Thurman later encouraged Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other American civil rights leaders to ensure that nonviolent social activism was founded upon spiritual principles. For Thurman, nonviolence was both a spiritual discipline and a way of life.

Questions to Consider

  1. Do you consider non-violence to be a practical alternative in the face of violent oppression? Does it have the possibility of influencing or changing the aggressor/oppressor, as Thurman suggests it does?


  1. For Thurman, non-violence is not just a tactic in opposing injustice, but also a spiritual discipline. How does considering non-violence as a spiritual discipline affect your thinking about it? Consider what “spiritual discipline” means to you, and whether you can envision a process for practicing non-violence as such.


  1. What should be the Christian approach to non-violence? Can it be legitimately considered as a way of life? What would that look like?


  1. In what kinds of scenarios do you imagine non-violence to be inappropriate or ineffective? Is it an “absolute” value (i.e. the right choice in every circumstance)? Do you think it was such for Howard Thurman? (Consider Thurman’s thought and action regarding the Second World War.)


  1. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, are well-known for their historic embrace of pacifism, often refusing to serve in the military or to support any kind of warfare. Can you see their influence in Thurman’s own embrace of non-violence as a way of life?


  1. Is it possible for a person to practice non-violence apart from a spiritual or religious commitment?

Related Thurman Quotes

The disinherited man has a sense of gross injury. He finds it impossible to forgive, because his injury is often gratuitous. It is not for something that he has done, an action resulting from a deliberate violation of another, He is penalized for what he IS in the eyes and standards of another. Somehow he must free himself of the will to retaliation that keeps alive his hatred. (Jesus and the Disinherited, 107)

 . . . hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater. While it lasts, burning in white heat, its effect seems positive and dynamic. But at last it turns to ash, for it guarantees a final isolation from one’s fellows. . . . The logic of the development of hatred is death to the spirit and disintegration of ethical and moral values. (Jesus and the Disinherited, 76-77)

[Grandma Nancy Ambrose said] ‘No one ever wins a fight.’ This suggests that there is always some other way; or does it mean that man can always choose the weapons he shall use? Not to fight at all is to choose a weapon by which one fights. Perhaps the authentic moral stature of a man is determined by his choice of weapons which he uses in his fight against the adversary. Of all weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating, and few there be who dare trust their fate in its hands. (Deep is the Hunger, 10-11)

. . . nonviolence is not merely a mood or climate, or even an attitude. It is a technique and, in and of itself, a discipline. In the first place, it is a rejection of physical force, a renunciation of the tools of physical violence. . . . But the psychological tools of nonviolence are of another order. Their purpose is to open the door of the heart so that what another is feeling and experiencing can find its way within. They assume that it is possible for a man to get real insight into the meaning of his deeds, attitudes, or way of life as they affect the life of his fellows. A man faced with nonviolence is forced to deal with himself, finally; every way of escape is ultimately cut off. This is why there can be no possible limit as to time or duration of nonviolent acts. Their purpose is not merely to change an odious situation, but, further, to make it urgent for a man to face himself in his action. Finally all must face the same basic question: Is what I am doing an expression of my fundamental intent toward any man when I am most myself? . . . . The purpose of [the] use of nonviolence as a collective device is to awaken conscience and an awareness of the evil of a violent system, and to make available the experience of the collective destiny in which all people in the system are participating. . . . this is, at last, the work of reconciliation. The discipline for all who are involved has the same aim—to find a way to honor what is deepest in one person and to have that person honor what is deepest in the other. (Disciplines of the Spirit, 114-15, 115-16, 119, 120-21; Essential Writings, 125-127)

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