Michael Nagler came to UC Berkeley as a graduate student in comparative literature and, after earning his Ph.D. in 1966, joined the faculty. His life took a spiritual turn the following year when he met Sri Eknath Easwaran, a visiting scholar who was teaching meditation and who became Michael’s mentor. I was introduced to Michael’s work 25 years ago, when I read his 1982 book America Without Violence. I was so impressed with his knowledge, spiritually based focus and intensity that I traveled from my home in Davis to Berkeley twice a week over the following year to attend his course on nonviolence. Now professor emeritus, he is the founder and chairperson of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at Berkeley.
David Kupfer: What is spiritual activism?
Michael Nagler: Spiritual activism is a breath of fresh air. That’s why 1,300 people showed up last July when Michael Lerner and I put on the first Spiritual Activism Conference here at Berkeley. More and more of us are realizing that a spiritual component is the heart of the progressive movement. It has taken some time for us to realize, naturally enough, that the old Marxist model (of purely political power struggle) is not enough. We need far deeper changes, a 500-year paradigm shift. Western civilization has gone on far too long with the model . . . that the universe consists of matter, period, and we are bodies, period.
We must rediscover our spirituality, our minds and the higher consciousness of which they are a small reflection. The mass media have prolonged the agony, postponed the necessary change, by artificially propping up the old materialist idea. So we must find ways around them, which is not easy. . . . Talking about it is not enough; we must, of course, live it. Thus grounded, we can use that vision, that energy, in innumerable ways to help the shift happen. It is clear that this great change has to take place more consciously than other similar changes of which we have some historical record. If nothing else, the shocking deterioration of the planet as a life-support system demands that, but I also think that the general pressures of human misery demand it.
What is the status of nonviolent philosophy application in the world today?
It’s improving. . . . One could urgently wish it were happening more quickly–because the need is so dire–but it is happening. I think the biggest lever for a more dramatic development right now lies in the area of understanding. Nonviolence simply makes no sense in the prevailing paradigm, which [is], in a word, materialist. [Nonviolence] is actually the link between spiritual development and social change. I think we could reach a tipping point if key people around the world knew what it is and how it works.
You say that nonviolence is the moral equivalent of war–
Nonviolence is an extremely powerful force, which can be harnessed and institutionalized to give people an inspiring goal, bring peace and economic justice everywhere, and utterly do away with the war system. That’s its potential. I am not exaggerating. But we cannot leap from our present state to there, nor do we have to. There are many ways to bring about gradual, stepwise changes.
You have distinguished between a restorative form of justice and a retributive form of justice. Can you elaborate?
This is a case where the names are not misleading. In the movement called restorative justice–which alone has any justice to it in my view–you’re trying to restore the offender to social health, to reunite him or her with the rest of society. Conceivably, if you were committed to that view, you might even start to look at the reasons so many are taking to a criminal way and do something to change it. I’ve said that restorative justice is the only one that’s really just; it’s also the only way that’s really secure. Our present system is part and parcel of our violence-based system: there are “bad” people, so you punish them and you’ve fixed the problem. That is violent logic. By contrast, restorative justice is one way of institutionalizing nonviolence.
What do you reconceptualize terrorists into?
People without any awareness of nonviolence, who have been pushed–or believe they have been pushed–to desperation are, in the case we’re most interested in, the extremist element in entire populations of very angry, often quite desperate people. . . . In reality, there is no hard and fast line between a “terrorist” and anyone else, just as you’d be hard pressed to understand any real difference, as an Afghan man said recently, between someone who flies a plane into a building and someone who uses a plane to bomb a building.
Can we live without enemies?
No. Because we have an eternal enemy, which is our ego. The tragic mistake is to identify that enemy with other people–that we can certainly live without.