Satyagraha: How Passive Resistance Ended an Empire

In 1893, a London trained lawyer was thrown off a train to Johannesburg because he was barred by his skin colour from sitting in the first class seat he had paid for. The experience transformed his outlook, and from being content to be a mild middle-class professional, Mahatma Gandhi became instead a political activist, whose ideas helped to transform the history and politics of at least three countries, and led to the total disintegration of the once invincible British Empire.

The strategy Gandhi developed during his early years in South Africa, “Satyagraha”, brought some early modest successes for the South African Natal Indian Congress, and later became one strand in the tactics of the South African resistance movement, and certainly contributed much later to the arrival of full democracy.   Most powerfully, the strategy was a major factor behind the British withdrawal from India, paving the way for the disintegration of the once seemingly invincible British Empire.  In the US, Gandhi’s ideas were adopted and adapted by Martin Luther King, under the English (inexact) translation of “passive resistance”.

I have been thinking a lot recently about this theme of passive resistance, or active non-co-operation, as it is currently occurring spontaneously in the Catholic Church.  This morning, I noticed a headline from Australia, which gives the perfect excuse to pull together some otherwise disconnected observations.   It is now one year since the misguided and unsuccessful attempts of the Australian institutional church to silence one of its most vigorous branches, that of the parish of St Mary’s, South Brisbane, and its priest Fr Patrick Kennedy.  In a classic demonstration of non-co-operation, the parish simply upped sticks and relocated, to a venue outside of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

From ABC News:

‘Our beloved heretic’: Rebel priest going strong

Brisbane’s rogue Catholic community and its rebel priest are still thriving almost one year after controversial practices within the church came to a head and its charismatic leader was threatened with excommunication.

In February Archbishop John Bathersby dismissed Father Peter Kennedy from his role at the eclectic inner city parish, St Mary’s South Brisbane, after he refused to change his ways and conform to traditions of the Catholic Church.

Fr Kennedy initially defied his sacking and continued to conduct weekly masses in which he would contradict core tenets of the faith – he allowed women to preach, blessed gay couples, performed illegitimate baptisms and questioned the divinity of Jesus.

This pattern pretty well repeats the process played out earlier in Minnesota, where similar attempts to rein in a congregation that were implementing fully the liturgically and pastoral reforms proclaimed by Vatican II, similarly backfired.  Instead of meekly falling into tine, the courageous parish of St Stephen’s simply relocated and renamed themselves as the “Spirit of St Stephen’s”, leaving the control freaks of the diocese with a largely empty shell where once had been a vigorous and lively parish – a fitting symbol of where the institutional church could too easily be headed.

Other  instances I can think of where attempts at control by the ecclesiastical mechanism are being simply ignored, are the womenpriests movement, the organised group of married but “discharged” Catholic priests who point out (correctly) that they remain priests, even after leaving the formal priesthood as church employees, and so continue to practice a priestly ministry independently of ecclesiastical control, the response of Maine Catholics to the Bishop’s fund-raising for Proposition 1 by pointed and visible demonstrations of non-compliance and active resistance, proposals in Ireland for “industrial action” protest by plans to withhold contributions to Sunday collections, the simple refusal by some orders of US religious women to co-operate with the unnecesary and unjustifed investigations by the Vatican meddlers, and now reports that otherwise loyal priests are seriously discussing the possibility of simply not implementing the controversial new translation of the liturgy.

Notice that none of these instances (except tangentially, in Maine) have anything to do with sexuality, but are all concerned with abuses of church power, reactions against the excessive and obsessive control which is at the heart of the problems of the modern Church.  But the sexual area is where this non-compliance is already the most widespread:  estimates are that no more than 5% of Catholic adults actually practice, sexually, what the church (officially) preaches.  A substantial, but unknown , proportion of Catholic priests do not in fact preach this officially sanctioned doctrine, and in practice teach (privately) some degree of non-compliance, certainly on contraception, often also on masturbation, pre-marital sexual expression for committed couples – or on “homosexuality”.

Organised and very visible,   “Satyagraha” within half a century brought down an empire.  In the Catholic Church, non-compliance in one form or another is already widespread, but mostly unremarked. Nevertheless, it is surely at least feasible that this passive resistance, especially if more widely spoken of and used as deliberate strategy, can similarly help to limit the present far-reaching attempted control?

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5 Responses to “Satyagraha: How Passive Resistance Ended an Empire”

  1. Jayden Cameron Says:

    A very encouraging, inspiring compilation of examples of very creative forms of resistance, ‘passive’ in name only (as opposed to violent). I think this is going to spread and spread. There is a wonderful comment over at Bilgrimage by ‘Brian’ that “At one point, the interests and commands of the French King were so unreal that people realized that he was unnecessary. Maybe I’m stretching Hegel a bit, but the point is, the hierarchy are approaching irrelevancy.” Amen to that.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      I understand that “Passive Resistance” is a poor translation of Gandhi’s own concept. I no longer know where, but I did once have a better formulation. I ran out of time to track down the exact words, but I think of it as something more like “assertive no-compliance”.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      I haven’t seen Brian’s comment, but it sounds to me pretty much as I experienced it in South Africa. One by one, the laws of so-called “pett” apartheid (which were not petty at all) were simply ignored, until eventually people realised that could in fact do away with the whole structure. It was at that point that the government began to face reality, and in partnership with the resistance movements, managed the transition.

  2. William Lindsey Says:

    Brilliant and inspiring, Terry. What’s interesting in the cases you cite is that they form a powerful narrative that contradicts the claims of apologists for the reactionary church, that only reactionary movements thrive in the church.

    These cases (and you could add the case of the parish in St. Louis headed by Fr. Bozek) suggest that Catholics in many places are hungry for vibrant liturgy, lay involvement in liturgy and ministry, abolition of barriers between clerics and the laity–for the real implementation of Vatican II’s agenda. And when such opportunities arise, people flock to these places.

    And to add an LGBT twist to the argument: today’s Clerical Whispers website contains an article about the dying of both the Anglican and the Catholic church in Quebec. Sunday Mass attendance in Catholic parishes in Quebec us at 6%.

    But friends of mine who live in Montreal tell me that in both the Anglican and Catholic church there, there are one or two largely gay parishes that are bursting at the seams on Sundays. These parishes are overlooked by their bishops, treated as step-children.

    But they demonstrate a surprising hunger of a group of Christians rejected by the institutional church, for community, spirituality, pastoral guidance, liturgy–for all that the church claims to be.

    Maybe the conclusion is that the institutional church doesn’t really want to survive. Not if surviving means that it has to acknowledge the presence of God among those whom it believes it has banished from that presence.

    And conversely, LGBT Christians offer a precious gift to the church, one one which its future may well depend.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I’ve neccer really known too much about St Louis, so its not top of my mind. As with the personal stroies, I hope to develop a collection of these small acts of defiance”. There are many more.


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