Imagine we’re sitting in a theatre watching Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After the lights go down—and the Danish Prince first meets his father’s regal, but forlorn ghost on the grounds of Elsinore—the rest of the world gradually and imperceptibly begins to fade away. For the moment, we forget the hassles at work, the hurried dinner, the nerve-wracking traffic on the way to the playhouse, the second mortgage. Almost against our will, we’ve entered the playwright’s world of betrayal, revenge and existential quandary.

Human life is often a series of dramas with its scripts, props, directions, troupe of players, and entrances and exits.

As this world enfolds us, we begin to forget that these are actors standing before us and that they’re declaiming speeches written by a dramatist who died nearly 400 years ago. We’re drawn into the experience of this performance so that, for example, when Hamlet feigns insanity or when Ophelia actually crosses from the province of coherence to the realm of madness, for the briefest span of time this world becomes the real world.

This experience of believing, even for only an instant, that the play is reality—and that everything else is either forgotten or is an illusion—is an important key to our general behaviour as human beings. The theatre is a mirror that helps us see human life as a series of dramas. And like our experience of watching Hamlet, we’re often convinced that the “everyday plays” in which we participate are reality.

The dramatic nature of our lives is key to the transformation of the world in which we live. Active nonviolence—embodied by individuals, groups, religious communities and social movements—will play a role in this cultural change. One fruitful way to understand the structure of nonviolent transformation is to use the metaphor of dramatic performance.

Using the theatre as a lens helps us to see patterns of violence, domination and injustice as social and personal “scripts.” These scripts have ancient plot-lines that play out in a ceaseless spiral of retaliatory violence. Roles are assigned, people are typecast, and the action of the play inexorably moves towards a bad ending with the whole cycle starting over again the next performance.

When the world is a theatre of violence, the roles are strictly limited. There is the Aggressor. There is the Accommodator. There is the Avoider. There is the Counter-Aggressor. The scripts for each of these roles keep the conflicts of our lives from ever being genuinely resolved. Smothered—perhaps. Escalated—quite likely. Out of balance—without a doubt.  When we choose to play one of these parts in the grand theatrical production of violent conflict—the emotional, verbal or physical violence in our own homes, in our workplaces, in the streets, or on the national and international scenes—we march in step on the treadmill of suffering and dehumanization.

Why do we continue to play these limited roles in this second-rate play of personal and social violence? Because we think that this is reality. How many times have we thought to ourselves that nonviolence is a nice idea, but it doesn’t work in the real world? How many times have we mumbled to ourselves that the vision of compassion is just that: a pretty, shiny vision, but one that is impractical and even delusory? We catch ourselves thinking that power politics, coercion, threat and brute force are the “bottom line.” Everything else is a fairy tale.

More typically still, we don’t think about it at all. It’s the world in which we live and move. It’s “the way things are.” These patterns of behaviour, through their pervasiveness and force, make a fundamental metaphysical claim to be the ultimate reality. In a subtle but relentless way, violence asserts that it’s the horizon of meaning and the ground of being, that it’s the beginning and end of things, and that there’s no escaping its reach.

Yet, however convincing this assertion appears to be given the facts we face daily, it’s an idolatrous illusion. The violence system—with its cultural and personal scenarios and styles of behaviour—is a highly sophisticated construction that we reinforce and render allegiance to every time we address conflict by means of aggression, accommodation, avoidance or counter-aggression. It’s a deadly melodrama with no exit: only a repetition, again and again, of the grim script of death.

In their pivotal book, The Social Construction of Reality, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann outlined how social systems are not metaphysical givens but are constructed, reinforced and defended. While this is true of political and economic systems—feudalism and the divine right of kings were cultural artifacts rather than ahistorical “God given” realities—it’s also true of the more basic orientations towards violence and nonviolence.

Our ideas about violence and nonviolence are culturally conditioned and constructed. Scripts of violence, though enshrined at the heart of a culture, can be rewritten. Though scenarios of violence get reinforced endlessly until they form well-grooved neural pathways, they can be transformed.

Nonviolent transformation requires that we interrupt the tired theatrical performance of violence—being played out in our own lives and in the life of the world—and provoke the creation of a new script. This new script is truly novel and transformative in every way when it’s not a socially-produced and sanctioned code or scenario—imposed from the outside even though it may be internalized—but the fruit of an inner metanoia or conversion. In short, it’s a dramatized and embodied experience of transformative love.

This agapeic drama—this creative and improvisational script of love, engendered by and rooted in God’s love dwelling in our deepest selves and pouring outward into the world in concrete acts—subverts and surpasses the “old scripts” of violence and domination.

For example, when a group of women I know living in East Los Angeles decided to begin what they termed “love walks” in the middle of a gang battleground, they rejected the traditional script that told them to stay behind their bolted doors while the young men of the community killed one another.

They broke the rules of war—an ancient script with innumerable variations—and set in motion a new dynamic that has borne much fruit in the barrio. Their presence—with guitars and prayer books, salsa and chips—upset expectations and opened space for discussion and trust-building. This led to a new bond between the women and the members of the gangs, which in turn resulted in the creation of a series of projects aimed at developing jobs, building skills, and resolving conflicts.

True nonviolence enacts a new script. Using the most powerful symbols we have at our disposal—our own vulnerable, creaky, resilient bodies energized by the spirit of reconciling love —nonviolence embodies an alternative to the traditional “software programs” on which our culture operates. It challenges us to dramatize possibilities where none existed before. It calls us to take initiatives and to jar ourselves and others loose from the “spell” of violence, thus breaking the typical action/reaction cycle.

Just as we can take these steps in our personal lives, we can also join with others to confront patterns of violence and injustice at the social or cultural level in this way. Every successful nonviolent social movement has accomplished the task of exposing the offending script of violence or domination it was struggling against and then rewriting that script, enacting a drama that forgoes the typical bad ending for one that is more human and just. Active nonviolence is this process of revision and re-enactment.

We are again in the theatre, watching Hamlet. Suppose that just before the machinery of the bloody ending begins to gather its relentless momentum, the Prince unexpectedly tosses out the four-century-old script that Shakespeare gave him and finds a dramatic and satisfying way to help bring the woundedness and pain of all parties—including his own—to the surface.

This process of recounting their deep suffering proves to be enormously cathartic, and all gradually agree to create together a resolution to their deep-seated conflict, one that honours each person’s partial truth and pinpoint of sacredness.

We may not be able to rewrite Shakespeare, but active nonviolence challenges us to see and transform the deadly cultural and personal scripts that we blindly rehearse and perform. If all the world’s a stage, it is a stage where we can produce a drama that’s unexpectedly, creatively, lovingly human.

This essay by Ken Butigan was published in Peter Ediger, ed., Living with the Wolf: Walking the Way of Nonviolence (Pace e Bene Press, 2009) and reprinted with kind permission of Pace e Bene. Visit their website

image: Janus Sandsgaard via Compfight CC