Does the Course advocate total nonviolence?

Question: What is the Course's stance on physical violence? Does the Course advocate total nonviolence?

Short answer: The Course does not advocate total nonviolence as a behavioral injunction. The Course's goal is nonviolent thought, from which nonviolent behavior would naturally follow. While the Course clearly implies that a person with a totally healed mind would be extraordinarily nonviolent in behavior (as Jesus was), it does not follow that the Course advocates total nonviolence as a behavioral injunction for those with unhealed minds. Our behavior should be guided by the Holy Spirit, Who will guide us to do the most loving thing we are currently capable of doing, given our level of development. Because He adjusts His guidance to our level of development, what we are guided to do may well fall short of total nonviolence.


The Course's goal is nonviolent thought, from which nonviolent behavior would naturally follow.

The Course states unequivocally that its program is aimed at changing our minds, rather than our behavior:

You must change your mind, not your behavior…You do not need guidance except at the mind level. Correction belongs only at the level where change is possible. Change does not mean anything at the symptom level [behavior], where it cannot work. (T-2.VI.3:4-7)

Applying this to the question of nonviolence, it is clear that the Course's aim is nonviolent thought. Workbook Lesson 23 says that "I can escape from the world I see by giving up attack thoughts" (W-pI.23.Heading, my emphasis), and goes on to say that "nothing else will work" (W-pI.23.1:2). The mind is cause; behavior is effect. "You cannot behave appropriately unless you perceive correctly" (T-1.III.6:5). Turning this around, if you do perceive correctly, you will behave appropriately. nonviolent behavior will naturally flow from nonviolent thought.

The Course clearly implies that a person with a totally healed mind will be extraordinarily nonviolent in behavior.

In keeping with the idea that nonviolent behavior will naturally flow from nonviolent thought, the advanced teacher of God, as described in Section 4 of the Manual ("What Are the Characteristics of God's Teachers?"), is an extraordinarily nonviolent person. The advanced teacher of God is the epitome of harmlessness in thought, word, and deed:

Harm is impossible for God's teachers. They can neither harm nor be harmed. Harm is the outcome of judgment. It is the dishonest act that follows a dishonest thought….No teacher of God but must ! learn,—and fairly early in his training,—that harmfulness completely obliterates his function from his awareness. (M-4.IV.1:1-4,8)

In short, "God's teachers are wholly gentle" (M-4.IV.2:1).

Jesus, of course, was himself the epitome of harmlessness. He tells us that in his earthly life he "had not harmed anyone and had healed many" (T-6.I.9:3). He submitted without resistance to the crucifixion in order to demonstrate the total unreality of attack. And he invites us to take him as our model for thought and behavior, which we can accomplish by accessing the same Mind that he did—the Mind of the Holy Spirit:

I have enjoined you to behave as I behaved, but we must respond to the same Mind to do this. This Mind is the Holy Spirit, Whose Will is for God always. He teaches you how to keep me as the model for your thought, and to behave like me as a result. (T-5.II.12:1-3)

But it does not follow that the Course advocates total nonviolence as a behavioral injunction for those with unhealed minds.

From the above depictions of the advanced teacher of God, one might conclude that the Course is advocating total nonviolence as a behavioral standard for everyone. But this, I think, is a mistaken conclusion based on a faulty logic that goes something like this: "If a totally healed mind is nonviolent, then nonviolence must be a behavioral injunction for those with unhealed minds." The implication is that we must practice nonviolent behavior in order to heal our minds. But this logic essentially puts the cart before the horse. Advanced teachers of God are nonviolent in behavior as a result of being nonviolent in thought; they did not become nonviolent in thought as a result of being nonviolent in behavior. Trying to attain nonviolent thought through practicing nonviolent behavior simply won't work: "You cannot change your mind by changing your behavior" (T-4.IV.2:1).

The characteristics of the advanced teacher of God presented in Section 4 of the Manual are not behavioral injunctions. Rather, as the introduction to that section tells us, they are "special gifts" (M-4.1:4) given by God to help the advanced teacher fulfill his function, gifts that come as a result of the mental healing that makes him an advanced teacher of God in the first place. And though Jesus does invite us to take him as our model for behavior, the passage above (T-5.II.12:1-3) tells us that this depends on our taking him as the model for our thought — only as a result of emulating his thought will we behave like him.

Thus while nonviolent behavior can be a powerful teacher of love when it is the expression of a healed mind, nonviolence is not a behavioral injunction for those with unhealed minds. Simply trying to imitate the nonviolent behavior of an advanced teacher of God while leaving the mind unhealed will not be beneficial; in fact, it will teach the exact opposite of love, "for all behavior teaches the beliefs that motivate it" (T-6.I.16:6). A person whose mind is motivated by fear and anger (as some nonviolent protesters seem to be) will teach fear and anger, regardless how how "nonviolent" her acts may be on the surface. Nonviolent behavior will only teach love if it is the expression of a truly nonviolent mind.

I don't think this means that as long as our minds are unhealed, we should just go ahead and physically attack people. I think nonviolent behavior is a good idea for all sorts of reasons. nonviolence is certainly more loving on the world's terms. It contains a glimmer of recognition that there is a better way than attack, and thus it may reinforce whatever healing our minds do have. It keeps situations relatively peaceful while we're in the process of letting our minds be healed. At the very least, it keeps us out of a lot of trouble! My point is simply that adopting nonviolence as a behavioral standard without working on healing the mind will not lead to real healing. Healing the mind is our primary responsibility; adopting a standard of nonviolent behavior is at best a temporary expedient that can keep our lives and our world running relatively smoothly as we work on the crucial business of healing our minds.

Our behavior should be guided by the Holy Spirit (or Jesus), Who will guide us to do the most loving thing we are currently capable of doing, given our level of development.

If nonviolence is not a behavioral injunction, how then should we behave? The Course's answer is simple, if not always so easy in practice: We should let the Holy Spirit (or Jesus) guide our behavior. Our primary task is to work on healing our minds through Course practice, since the quality of our behavior depends on the quality of our thoughts. As our practice deepens, we will come to hear the Holy Spirit's voice with greater clarity, and so more and more we will allow our specific behaviors to be guided by Him. He will tell us "what to do and where to go; to whom to speak and what to say to him, what thoughts to think, what words to give the world" (W-pII.275.2:3).

Given the obvious value of nonviolence, will the Holy Spirit always guide us to behave in a totally nonviolent way? My answer is: Not necessarily. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit's guidance for our behavior will tend toward nonviolence, since His sole purpose for behavior is to communicate love. But I also believe that He will not ask of us more than we are ready to give. The Course tells us that "the Holy Spirit cannot ask more than you are willing to do" (T-2.VI.6:2). It also says that "no response given by Him will ever be one that would increase fear" (T-9.II.3:3). And let's face it, the prospect of responding to all seeming attacks with total nonviolence is terrifying to those of us whose minds are far from totally healed. Jesus offered us an example of extreme nonviolence, but most of us simply aren't ready to follow him all the way just yet. Indeed, he tells us that even his own disciples "were not wholly ready to follow [him] at the time" (T-6.I.16:1).

Therefore, I believe that the Holy Spirit will guide us to do the most loving, nonviolent thing we are currently capable of doing, given our level of development. Just as the Holy Spirit will sometimes guide us to take physical medicine if we are too afraid to accept a deeper healing(see T-2.IV.4-5), so He will sometimes guide us to act in ways which fall short of total nonviolence (but which are expressions of love, within our current limitations) if we are too afraid to practice the more radical nonviolence of the advanced teacher of God.

Strictly speaking, total nonviolence on a form level is impossible anyway, since even the simple act of eating involves doing violence to the body of another living thing. Since Jesus clearly ate and drank during his earthly life, even he was not totally nonviolent on a form level. We need not burden ourselves, then, with the impossible goal of total nonviolence in the world. All we need do is practice the Course, try our best to listen to the Holy Spirit, and act as much as possible from His guidance. Frankly, I think that many times, particularly in the terrifying situations that tend to bring out our violent impulses, we will simply fail to hear Him. I think that most acts of physical violence are egoic responses rooted in fear. But whatever opening we give the Holy Spirit, He will use. And to the extent that we are able to hear Him, our acts will be less violent than they would have been if we hadn't heard Him at all.

Applying this to daily life, I believe that each situation is unique, and that the guidance of the Holy Spirit—assuming we hear it—will be adjusted to our level of development. For instance, if I have a gun and I'm attacked by a mugger, my ego may goad me to kill him, but the Holy Spirit may guide me to injure him so that I can run away and call the police (as well as the paramedics, who can treat the injury I inflicted upon him). Perhaps that's the most loving thing I'm ready to do at that time. Perhaps a more advanced person would have been guided to accept the mugger's beating without resistance in order to teach the mugger a profound lesson in love, but I'm not ready to do that yet.

I personally believe that even some of the wars we've fought, such as the fight against Hitler in World War II, may have been influenced by the Holy Spirit to some extent. Now, there is no doubt in my mind that war is rooted in the ego and that the Course calls us to ultimately relinquish war in all its forms. But perhaps World War II was truly the most loving response to the menace of Hitler that collective humanity was capable of at the time. Perhaps if we had been further along in our development we could have responded to Hitler with nonviolent Gandhi-style resistance, but we weren't ready for that yet. (It is worth noting that even Gandhi contended that armed resistance to oppression was a better option than fearful non-resistance, though he certainly felt that loving, nonviolent resistance was superior to both.) I believe that the Holy Spirit can take anything and use it for His purposes if we will let Him. The Course says that the advanced teacher of God sees only the Holy Spirit's lesson in the events of the past, which must include even the most violent events:

The past…held no mistakes; nothing that did not serve to benefit the world, as well as him to whom it seemed to happen. Perhaps it was not understood at the time. (M-4.VIII.1:6-7)

To summarize, I think the Holy Spirit guides each of us to do the most loving, nonviolent thing we are capable of doing at a given time. He takes into account our level of development, in particular our level of fear, and gears His guidance specifically to our needs. In doing so, He ensures that the best possible outcome will come about, given the limitations of the people involved. To the degree that our actions are truly guided by the Holy Spirit they will teach love, even if they fall short of total nonviolence on a form level. As we listen to His Voice we will advance in our development, and our actions will become increasingly nonviolent until the day that we become advanced teachers of God, shining exemplars of radical nonviolence in thought, word, and deed.

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