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We watched the documentary-style classic The Battle of Algiers for the first time the other night.
After 130 years of being the colonial rulers in Algeria, in 1957 the French became targets of a sudden and violent terrorist uprising among the native Muslim population of the city. It was brutally crushed by French terrorism including quarantine of whole sections of the city, torture, and assassination.
I am not an expert at all on these events. But in the movie we see the terrible violent purposefulness of both the occupiers and the rebels, one of the few things I know for sure about this war. The compulsion to violence, and it’s apparent futility are both apparent. Violence raged for years, and there are still scars in France and in Algeria.
All through these years there was ongoing conflict in other regions of the country. And there was, a couple of years later, another sudden and coordinated uprising in Algiers itself which the movie presents as being non-violent. The French outlasted it too. Still, the rebels “won” in the not-so-long run. In July, 1962 Algeria gained its independence.
We will watch Gandhi in the next few weeks, not for the first time. Gandhi was not just a lawyer and agitator. He was also very much a philosopher, and one who lived his philosophy. He was a man who had deliberately turned away from Christianity, and he was a persistently faithful practitioner of his own religion. He loved India and the people of India.
His philosophy and strategy of non-violent resistance greatly influenced Martin Luther King Jr. But that was a very minor impact compared to the relatively bloodless relinquishing by Britain of control over India. The British centuries-long rule over India was not benevolent or paternal. It was already, by the time of the American revolution, a sorrowful illustration of why one would not want to be a British colony too long.
Here is a short comparison by Walter Wink of these two “revolutions.”
Britain’s Indian colony of three hundred million people was liberated nonviolently at a cost of about eight thousand lives. The British apparently suffered not a single casualty, dead or wounded. It took twenty-seven years (1916-46).
France’s Algerian colony of about ten million was liberated in seven years (1955-61) by violence, but it cost almost one million lives.
The staggering differential in lives lost certainly cannot be ascribed to the French being more barbaric or determined to keep their colony than the British.
Wink quotes a comment from Gandhi about the place of non-violence:
Gandhi continaully reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission.
“Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.”
But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence.
Wink’s main point is not about the relative cost of violence vs non-violence, but the moral and Biblical lissues involved. But he makes similar short comparisons of several other late 20th Century conflicts. Of course these are all very very complex situations, and cannot be analyzed in one page – or one book! But, as Wink says,
[quotations from Walter Wink Jesus and NonViolence: A Third Way, p51-53]
We cannot ignore the implications of these statistics, for the comparative degree of carnage is a moral issue.
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