For the past 20 years, Japanese-American author Kazu Haga has taught the philosophy of nonviolence in schools, nonprofit organizations and prisons. Now 39, Haga, who was born in Tokyo and moved to the United States at 7, has seen firsthand how applying the principles of nonviolence can change a man’s life — even that of a convicted murderer.
“In my work in prisons,” Haga writes in the introduction of his powerful new book, “Healing Resistance: A Radically Different Response to Harm,” “I’ve had the privilege to witness the transformation of countless people who have committed the most horrific acts of violence — including homicide — into the most compassionate, dedicated peacemakers I know.”
Haga’s understanding of nonviolence — never “non-violence,” as Haga teaches; to him the hyphen creates a whole different meaning — is nothing short of impressive. It is very easy to throw the concept of nonviolence around yet never fully understand it. As Haga so directly puts it, “If nonviolence is simply a set of strategies and tactics that does not use physical violence, then the Ku Klux Klan could argue that they are using nonviolence when they rally.” Very true. And they have.
Haga goes much deeper, believing the only way to have a truly nonviolent world, or, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, a “beloved community,” is to treat the philosophy as a “worldview and a way of being.”
Haga’s own way of being was impacted by his comfortable but turbulent upbringing in Japan. Growing up in Tokyo, Haga, through a “small offshoot of the Shinto religion,” experienced “the value of silence, discipline and sitting (in the) seiza (position) while communing with the sacred.” This near-idyllic childhood changed quickly, when his family, for reasons unclear to him, were “disowned” and pushed out of the country due in part to some “illegal activity” by his father. A few years after that, now in the U.S., Haga lost his father to pancreatic cancer. Financial woes came, homelessness, and soon Haga fell into “drugs and alcohol to drown out the reality of what my life had become.”
After dropping out of high school at 15, Haga sought ways to rectify his traumas by joining organizations built on concepts of peace and social justice. Around the turn of the century, Haga also lived for nearly six months in a monastery in Lumbini, Nepal, finding “liberation” within a strict daily routine. After returning to America, Haga secured a minor job as a temp doing data entry, at the Peace Development Fund, a nonprofit in Massachusetts. For the next decade, Haga worked his way through the foundation, eventually becoming the program director. “It was an education that no college degree could ever give me.”
Books on nonviolence are not hard to find. However, most of them have an academic dryness to them, while others attempt to be too accessible, defaulting into listicle territory as they pander to a reader’s supposed lack of time and attention. On rare occasions does a book come along that acts as a force of nature — Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is one of them.
But Pinker, a Harvard University professor, hasn’t walked the walk like Haga, and it’s here that “Healing Resistance” stands on its own — a mix of personal memoir and instruction based on authentic experiences with people who have either been violent toward others or toward themselves. There are numerous real-life examples throughout the book, such as this:
“A few years ago, I was speaking to someone serving a life sentence for a homicide he committed as a young man. When he was describing his story, he said that every time he pulled the trigger, it felt like he was throwing his pain at his victim. It was a visceral, vivid image that I will never forget. This young man held so much pain inside — a lifetime of poverty on top of generations of oppression suffered by his ancestors — that it had to be released in some way, and it was released on his victim.”
Throughout, Haga’s written voice is considerate and sensible, but there remains under the surface of the text an edginess, a rumbling desire to stamp out systemic corruption. To Haga, it is important for us to not hate the man who pulled the trigger, but to reserve our anger toward the systems that caused this man so much pain to begin with. “Anger,” Haga writes, “can be helpful if it motivates and cultivates a thoughtful response but not if it controls you and causes unskillful reactions.”
Although Haga’s book was published before our current global pandemic, one paragraph near the end of the book feels appropriate, given the state of the world: “We need to acknowledge that the conflicts in our society are at such a heightened, overt level that our nonviolent responses have to match their intensity. We must stop the immediate harm so that we can create space to work on reconciliation. This requires resistance.”
Indeed. In this way, it is the system which is sick — not us.
Patrick Parr is the author of “The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age,” now out in paperback.