Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

Civil disobedience

or passive resistance

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), imprisoned
for violating British colonial laws

Principles of civil disobedience or passive resistance:

  • Individual or group must decide whether to obey “law of the state” or “higher law.”

  • If "higher law," individual or group maintains moral high ground by not using violence.

  • Often involves lifestyle of voluntary simplicity as means of reducing social pressure.

  • Sometimes involves willingness to be jailed as form of social protest [or willingness to suffer otherwise, as with hunger strikes]

Historical & intellectual heritage:

Ancient China: Mencius (Meng-Tzu)

Classical Greece: Sophocles, Antigone; Aristophanes, Lysistrata (women of Athens use sexual abstinence to force men to end warfare)

New Testament era: Jesus of Nazareth: “Turn the other cheek”; “Forgive your enemies”; "Return love."

Mid-19th century: Henry David Thoreau, "Resistance to Civil Government"

Late 19th-early 20th century: Count Leo Tolstoy—Russian novelist (War and Peace); voluntary simplicity

Twentieth Century

  • Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (India)—satyagraha; nonviolent disobedience and resistance to English rule; jail and hunger strikes against violence

  • Martin Luther King Jr. (USA)—nonviolent Civil Rights campaigns; sit-ins; “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

  • Nelson Mandela (South Africa )--decades in prison for resistance to apartheid, forgiveness of (or no vengeance against) oppressors after release (+ other South African resistance leaders)

Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

  • Aung San Suu Kyii (Burma or Myanmar; elected president of Burma in early 1990s; election overturned by military; under house arrest or other repression but refuses to leave, even to join children or dying husband in England

  • Kim Dae Jung (South Korea)--South Korean President & Nobel Peace laureate 2000, but earlier jailed by authoritarian governments

"Folk" examples

  • Worker slowdowns as protests against management

  • "Shuffling," etc. by African Americans during slavery

  • Rosa Parks refuses to give up bus seat to white man, Birmingham, 1960s

  • Sixties civil rights and antiwar demonstrations, sit-ins, be-ins

  • Abortion clinic blockades

  • Students in a classroom, when overworked, sometimes do less than in a less demanding class.

  • Wives saying "Yes, dear" without consenting. ("Double language")

Advantages of nonviolent resistance:

  • Moral high ground gained by not using or returning violence.

  • Non-violence enables dialogue instead of physical fighting.

  • Working from position of relative physical weakness without self-seeking may establish a moral claim against dominant culture's unjust strengths.

  • Appeal of underdog; also craftiness or cleverness of using others' powers against them, with potential for humor.

  • King and Gandhi sometimes claimed an effort to improve or convert their opponents. Their moral superiority would model or inspire mirroring behavior.


  • Dominant culture’s words may be are used against them (Declaration, Constitution, Scripture)

  • Compare Japanese martial art of jujutsu: manipulate opponent's force against himself rather than confronting with one's own force ("ju" = flexible, yielding; "jutsu" = technique)

  • Passive resistance may develop naturally in any given culture, but political uses may require training and discipline.

  • Charismatic leadership helps. (Models.)


  • Intellectual and moral development, contrasted with brutalization of soldiers and civilians in downward spiral resulting from habitual violence.

  • Moral development: self-sacrifice for community improvement; redemption of loving instead of hating enemies; seeking enemies' good rather than destruction.


  • Results may be long-term rather than immediate. If results aren't forthcoming, backers may turn to violence (Civil Rights militancy, Antiwar bombings, Pro-Life murders).

  • What if you’re in power? At what point does Romantic appeal to rebellion or underdog prove counter-productive (parenthood? government leadership?)

  • Civil disobedience may concede partial responsibility and share blame with the parties it opposes.

  • Civil disobedience must assume minimal civility on the part of its opponents. Observers of Gandhi's satyagraha remarked his good fortune to be resisting Brits rather than Nazis. (Therefore, civil disobedience must pick its fights carefully.)

  • Passive resistance may appear as "negative" action: withdrawal of support, boycotts, creation and glorification of victims

Teaching risks in literature / history:

  • Curriculum becomes "feminized," prohibiting boys' preferences for action, physical challenge, combat, destruction rather than co-opting of enemies.

  • Religious background and inspiration for some civil disobedience threatens church-state divisions in public schools. (Thoreau's Unitarian background offers secular-sounding reasoning.)

Teaching upsides:

  • If resistance is moral, passivity may curb righteousness.

Provisional bibliography

Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic

John H. Redekop, The Christian and Civil Disobedience

Richard Gregg, The Power of Nonviolence

D. R. Grover, Civil Disobedience Movement in the Punjab, 1930-34

Lalan Tiwari, Democracy and Dissent (A Case Study of the Bihar Movement 1974-75) 

H. A. Bedau, Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice

Robert Tom Hall, The Morality of Civil Disobedience

Ernest Van den Haag, Political Violence and Civil Disobedience

Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict

Norton Critical Edition of Civil Disobedience

Roland Bleiker, Popular Dissent, Human Agency and Global Politics

Edmound R. Brown, ed. Modern Essays: Civil Disobedience, The Religion of the Future, on Going to Church

Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas

Richard Vogler, Reading the Riot Act

Hugo Adam Bedau, ed. Civil Disobedience in Focus

S. Jonathan Bass, Blessed are the Peacemakers

Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975)

Nelson Mandela, Jennifer Crwys-Williams (ed.) In the Words of Nelson Mandela Birch Lane Pr., 1559724927

Desmond Mpilo Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness Doubleday, 0385496907

Mohanda Karamchand Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Dover, 0486245934)

Mohanda Karamchand Gandhi, Thomas Merton (ed.), Gandhi on Non-Violence (1965)

Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You

---, The Gospel in Brief

---, Confession

John Ruskin, Unto this Last

John Woolman (1720-1772), Journal