Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Richard Gregg

1885 - 1974

Richard Gregg was a Quaker Lawyer, a leading American theorist on non-violence and one of the first people to introduce Gandhi’s teachings on non-violence to the Western world. He described the tactics of non-violence as “moral jiu-jitsu.”

Gregg was the son of a Congregational minister who converted to Quakerism. He trained as a lawyer at Harvard University, Massachusetts and practised law for three years.  Following the First World War, he began working with trade unions, where he acted as an arbitrator for railway workers.

Gregg stumbled on Gandhi’s teachings in the 1920s and in 1925 made the first of several trips to Gandhi’s ashram in Sabarmati.  In 1930, he was an observer in India during Gandhi’s Salt March. Between 1935 and 1936, he served as acting Director of Pendle Hill.

His book, The Power of Non-Violence was first published in 1934. It was revised and republished in 1960 with a foreword by Martin Luther King, who called it one of the five most influential books he had ever read.

The book begins with a number of examples of the successful application of the principles of non-violence, from Hungarian resistance to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph in the 19th Century to the Alabama bus protests at the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the US.

Gregg draws the analogy between non-violence and the practice of jiu-jitsu.

“The victim not only lets his attacker come but, as it were, he pulls him forward by kindness, generosity and voluntary suffering, so that the attacker loses his moral balance.”

Gregg examines the psychology of non-violence – its impact on the attacker, the one resisting and on observers.  He considers the case of both individual, one-on-one violence and that of large-scale conflict.  He does not shirk that fact that non-violent resistance may result in suffering, or even death.

“In this moral jiu-jitsu, the nonviolent person has superior position, poise and power for many reasons… to be willing to suffer and die for a cause in contestable proof of sincere belief.”

Gregg, like Gandhi, makes a clear distinction between a stance of non-violent resistance and the passive acceptance of superior force.  Indeed, he states unambiguously that, “Courageous violence, to try and prevent or stop a wrong, is better than cowardly acquiescence.”

He goes on to describe how it would be possible to train an army of non-violent resisters.  In a conventional army, he says, soldiers are trained to suppress fear but to give vent to their anger.  Someone trained in non-violence would need to learn to control both their fear and their anger – and this would require as much discipline as needed to train a soldier.

Gregg recognises that the true, just settlement of a conflict requires what he calls ‘integration’.  This involves not victory nor submission nor compromise – all of which leave one or both parties dissatisfied and resentful – but “a wholly new solution…which satisfies all or most of the most fundamental desires and needs of both parties.”

Gregg also originated the term “voluntary simplicity.”  In 1936, he wrote a pamphlet, The Value of Voluntary Simplicity, in which he questioned the values of the consumer society created by the new industrial age.

He pointed out that increased technology and materialism, far from simplifying life and giving us greater leisure, had in fact made life “more crowded and hurried.” What is more, the material comforts of the “well-to-do groups among the powerful nations of the world” have been gained at the expense of “undernourishment in their own populations and in the rest of the world.” He criticised a system that “causes wheat to be burnt in the United States while millions are starving in China.”

He recognised that what an individual judges to be acceptable simplicity depends both on the environment from which they come, (“what is simplicity for an American would be far from simple to a Chinese peasant”) and on his or her own wishes and desires.  Simplicity must be voluntary if it is not to be corrosive.

Much of what has been written since by Quakers (and others) about sustainability, global economic justice and the value of simplicity has been influenced, directly or indirectly, by the ideas in this short pamphlet.

Print this article