Take the Five Soulforce Vows or Promises

I first learned about taking vows of nonviolence from my friend, John Dear, a Jesuit priest, a nonviolent peace activist and organizer, and the current Executive Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In the Introduction to his first book, Disarming the Heart , John tells this story from his own journey into soulforce.

"On a hot summer day, August 17, 1984, three friends and I climbed a hill in rural Pennsylvania, sat down in a shady place in the middle of four giant pine trees, offered prayers to the God of nonviolence, then each professed a solemn vow of nonviolence. We had prepared for this profession for nearly two years. We were excited as we began our celebration with songs to the God of peace…"

During these last fifteen years, John Dear has proven his commitment to nonviolence as he and friends from his community including Daniel and Philip Berrigan worked with the poor and homeless of many countries, marched and protested against violence and injustice, and prayed and fasted for peace. Often, John and his colleagues risked arrest, imprisonment, suffering and even death.

His book, Peace Behind Bars (A Peacemaking Priest’s Journal from Jail) , is the deeply moving account of John’s eight months in county jails in North Carolina for his part in a 1993 nonviolent protest against nuclear bombs and bombers at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina. John wrote the following "Vow of Nonviolence" for Pax Christi USA and more than ten thousand individuals have signed the pledge and registered their commitment to nonviolence as a way of life.

Now I’m going to ask you to create your own "Soulforce Vows".

As we all know from our own life experience, there is a rather large difference between a CREDO ("…any belief or opinion") and a VOW ("…a solemn promise, pledge, or personal commitment…"). A credo is something we believe; while a vow is our sacred promise to act.

Mahatma Gandhi Gandhi and King helped people to believe in nonviolence but when it came time to act, knowing that a volunteer believed something was not enough. Both men asked marchers to sign a vow or a pledge to act upon their beliefs during every soul force direct action. Here are actual vows signed by volunteers who marched with Gandhi in 1921 and 1939 and with Dr. King in 1963.

Pledge to Nonviolence Taken by Marchers With Gandhi, 1921

  • A civil resister will harbor no anger.
  • He will suffer the anger of the opponent.
  • In so doing, he will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but he will not submit, out of fear of punishment, to any order given in anger.
  • He will voluntarily submit to the arrest and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property.
  • If a civil resister has any property in his possession as a trustee, he will refuse to surrender it, even though in defending it he might lose his life. He will never retaliate.
  • Non-retaliation excludes swearing and cursing.
  • He will never insult his opponent, nor take part in the newly coined cries contrary to the spirit of nonviolence.
  • A civil resister will not salute the Union Jack, nor will he insult it or its officials, English or Indian.
  • If any one insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or assault at the risk of his own life.

Pledge to Nonviolence Taken by Marchers with Gandhi, 1939

  • He must have a living faith in God.
  • He must believe in truth and nonviolence as his creed and, therefore, have faith in the inherent goodness of human nature which he expects to evoke by his truth and love expressed through his suffering.
  • He must be leading a chaste life and be ready and willing for the sake of his cause to give up life and possessions.
  • He must be a habitual khadi-wearer and spinner.
  • He must be a teetotaller and be free from all intoxicants.
  • He must carry out with a willing heart all the rules of discipline as may be laid down from time to time.
  • He should carry out the jail rules unless they are especially devised to hurt his self-respect.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFKPledge to Nonviolence Taken by Marchers with Dr. King, 1963

  • Meditate daily on the life and teachings of Jesus.
  • Remember that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
  • Walk and talk in the manner of love; for God is love.
  • Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men and women might be free.
  • Sacrifice personal wishes that all might be free.
  • Observe with friend & foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  • Perform regular service for others and for the world.
  • Refrain from violence of fist, tongue, and heart.
  • Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  • Follow the directions of the Movement leaders and of the captains on demonstrations.

Pledge to Nonviolence Taken by Soulforce Volunteers, 2003

  • As I prepare for this direct action, I will meditate regularly on the life and teachings of Gandhi and King and other truth-seekers.
  • I will remember that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation-not victory.
  • I will walk and talk in the manner of love and nonviolence.
  • I will contemplate daily what I can do so that all can be free.
  • I will sacrifice my own personal wishes that all might be free.
  • I will observe with friend and foes the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  • I will perform regular service for others and for the world.
  • I will refrain from violence of fist, tongue, and heart.
  • I will strive to be in good spiritl and bodily health.
  • I will follow the directions of the squad leaders and other Soulforce leaders on our nonviolent direct actions.

At the heart of a soul force pledge to nonviolence, are five basic promises. You will find them below. Consider these promises. Could you make these promises to your Creator and to yourself? Study these promises with friends and family. Rewrite them in your own words. Design your own Soulforce Vow of Nonviolence, one that reflects your own faith traditions. Then gather friends together to make your vows in public around a campfire, on a mountain top, or in a service in your synagogue, church, or temple.

Five Soulforce Vows or Promises

  1. Vow to Truth
    I promise to seek the truth, to live by the truth, and to confront untruth wherever I find it.

  2. Vow to Love
    I promise to reject violence (of the fist, tongue, or heart) and to use only the methods of nonviolence in my search for truth or in my confrontation with untruth.

  3. Vow to volunteer suffering
    I promise to take on myself without complaint any suffering that might result from my confrontation with untruth and to do all in my power to help my adversary avoid all suffering, especially that suffering that may result from our confrontation.

  4. Vow to control passions
    I promise to control my appetite for food, sex, intoxicants, entertainment, position, power that my best self might be free to join with my Creator in doing justice (making things fair for all).

  5. Vow to limit possessions
    I promise to limit my possessions to those things I really need to survive and to see myself as a trustee over all my other possessions, using them exclusively to help make things fair for those who suffer.

The Gandhi/King Tradition Behind These Soulforce Vows
A Reminder

Mahatma Gandhi During his early years as an attorney in South Africa, M.K.Gandhi, a Hindu, was deeply moved by the teachings of Jesus. "The Sermon on the Mount," says Gandhi, "went straight to my heart." Determined to reduce ‘principles into practice,’ Gandhi created Satyagraha: a plan of action that developed inner lives while working to transform society. Gandhi refined his "truth force" or "soul force" principles while leading justice movements in South Africa and then India.

While a student at Crozier Theological Seminary, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. discovered Gandhi’s "soul force" principles and used them to shape the nonviolent civil rights movement in the United States. "While the Montgomery boycott was going on," King wrote, "India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change. Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal. In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method."

Today, my partner, Gary Nixon, and I are searching the lives and teachings of Gandhi and King to see how their "soul force" principles apply to our current struggle for justice— a struggle not just for God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children, but for all who suffer injustice. In the study and practice of "soul force" our own spirits have been redirected and renewed. Frankly, the Christian faith as I once knew it is gone forever. But from the ruins, I am piecing together a whole new picture of Jesus. Thanks to "soul force," I am beginning to hear and understand the words and actions of that first century Jewish carpenter in a whole new way. This new take on Jesus is undermining many of my old evangelical assumptions about God and making some serious changes in the way I see myself, my allies, and my adversaries.


"I promise to seek the truth, to live by the truth, and to confront untruth wherever I find it."

If you are a Christian, you know that Jesus identifies Truth with God. He names God’s Spirit, "the Spirit of Truth." He teaches, "Know (believe in, seek, hunger for) the Truth and the Truth will set you free," (John 8:32).

Gandhi, the Hindu, helped me understand these teachings at a new level. In his autobiography, My Experiment with Truth, Gandhi gives to God many names, but he states that God’s ultimate name is Truth. The struggle to know truth is the struggle to know God. And because untruth (evil) causes God’s children to suffer, the struggle to confront untruth is the struggle to do God’s will in the world.

Gandhi’s vow to truth is the first of his three primary soul force mandates: I promise to seek the truth, to live by the truth, and to confront untruth wherever I find it. This teaching redefined my understanding of my call as an activist and as a Christian.

I grew up believing that we conservative Christians had a kind of monopoly on truth. "Jesus is the Truth," they said to me; and "knowing Jesus" was all the truth that needed to be known. I didn’t question any of the assumptions about life that went with "knowing Jesus." In fact, I doubted anyone’s views who didn’t "know Jesus" as I knew him. That has changed forever. Now, I am encountering truth from sisters and brothers in faith traditions I once thought alien and from sisters and brothers who confess no faith at all.

I once trusted my conservative pastors and counselors when they told me that homosexuality was "a sickness and a sin." Trusting that my evangelical friends knew the truth for me, I spent thirty-five years and more than $150,000.00 on "Christian" counseling, aversive and ‘ex-gay’ therapies, electric shock and exorcism trying to become a heterosexual. Blindly believing their untruth about homosexuality led me to almost four decades of suffering, guilt, loneliness and despair.

Finally, aching for death, I opened my heart and mind to other voices who spoke other truths—doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, historians, pastors, biblical scholars, friends and family who helped me realize that God had created me gay, that God loved me exactly as I was created, and that I could accept my sexual orientation as one of God’s gifts.

Knowing the truth about homosexuality set me free from my closet of despair and empowered me to celebrate and work to do justice and help bring in the "beloved community." As one determined to help relieve the suffering of my lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered sisters and brothers, I am called to seek truth and to confront relentlessly untruths used to justify their suffering. I felt called by God to share the new truths that I had discovered with my old conservative Christian friends and colleagues who had become the nation’s primary sources of untruth (about homosexuality). For two years I tried to get them to meet with me, to hear the other side. They refused and with each new refusal, my anger grew.

At that point I confronted the second primary principle or rule of soul force — love of enemies. Telling my enemies the truth about homosexuality and confronting their untruth is not enough. I must love them.


I promise to reject violence (of the fist, tongue, or heart) and to use only the methods of nonviolence in my search for truth or in my confrontation with untruth.

The "soul force" vow to love commits us to reject violence (physical violence, spiritual violence, psychological violence) and to use only the methods of nonviolence in our search for truth and our confrontation with untruth.

In reading Gandhi and King, I met Jesus for the second time. Love was Jesus’ end and his means, his constant theme, his "new commandment." "Love God." "Love your neighbor." "Love yourself."

In the "soul force" principles of Gandhi and King, Jesus’ words about love came alive in fresh ways in my life. "Love your enemies" was transformed from a bumper sticker slogan to a plan of action that would lead to the transformation of society and to the renewal of my own soul Our enemies are victims of misinformation, just as we have been, Gandhi advised. Don’t kill, hate, or abandon them. Bring them truth in love relentlessly. The process, Gandhi promises, will ennoble and enlarge our own souls.

Early in the civil rights movement, Dr. King explained that he was not working to end segregation. Segregation could be ended by jailing or killing all segregationists. Instead, he was determined to "bring in the beloved community," where he and the most avowed segregationist could live together as loving neighbors in the same neighborhood. If his end goal was a loving world, then every means taken to reach that end must be guided by love.

For Gandhi and King, any authentic search for truth must be guided entirely by the principles of love. The even more difficult task of confronting untruth must also be carried out lovingly, with no trace of physical, psychological or spiritual violence.

I’m only beginning to understand what the commitment to love meant for Gandhi or King, let alone what it means for me. But the justice-seekers behind "soul force" have convinced me that truth that is not guided by love can become a bludgeon or even an instrument of death.

But how can we love those "who revile us, persecute us, and say all manner of evil against falsely"

Gary and I have a long row of filing cabinets stuffed with print, audio, and video samples of the false and inflammatory rhetoric of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, D. James Kennedy and the other radio ministers and televangelists who regularly speak against God’s lesbian and gay children. We’ve received more than 50,000 letters telling true, painful stories of how their anti-gay rhetoric and political action lead directly and indirectly to suffering and death. Unwilling to even consider our evidence, their misinformation continues to flow like toxic waste into the homes and churches of this nation.

To love these perpetrators of untruth and to confront their untruth lovingly is the most difficult spiritual task I have ever faced. How can I love those conservative Christian leaders whose words and actions help cause lesbians and gays to be rejected by their families, ex-communicated from their churches, evicted from their apartments, fired from their jobs, hunted down and hounded out of the military, denied their basic human rights and civil protections, harassed, assaulted, maimed and murdered?

I can’t pretend that I’m a huge success at loving my enemies; but I am getting better at it. Now, when I feel anger and hatred building up in me against my old evangelical colleagues and clients, I stop what I am doing and I try to see them as Jesus saw those who crucified him; as Gandhi saw the British, Hindu and Moslem extremists; and as King saw the lynch mob and the bullies wearing badges. Like my evangelical brothers and sisters, they, too, were victims of misinformation. My hatred can only fuel the fire that would consume us both. When I try to understand them and the misinformation that traps them— when I see them as God’s children, members of one human family, my own lost brothers and sisters —my anger dissipates, and love begins to triumph in us both. Of course, the question that follows immediately is how far must love go?

The answer comes in the third primary "soul force" vow, a vow to voluntary redemptive suffering.


I promise to take on myself without complaint any suffering that might result from my confrontation with untruth and to do all in my power to help my adversary avoid all suffering, especially that suffering that may result from our confrontation.

Though it is far too early in my own "soul force" journey to even comment on voluntary, redemptive self-suffering, the lives of the martyrs and the saints make it clear: when our confrontation with untruth is guided by love, we go on loving our enemies, even if they kill us.

At first, I didn’t understand this need for self-suffering to be included in the "soul force" mandates. Now I see that it is essential.

Every time my attempts to confront untruth in love are rejected, the same question comes to mind. How far must love go? And always, the answer is the same: love must go all the way, even if it means that we voluntarily suffer in our enemies’ place. When "soul force" calls us to seek truth and to confront untruth (lovingly), our willingness to take on the suffering of others becomes the measure of our commitment to God’s way, the way love.

Late one night in 1958, near Monterey, California, I was riding in a car with Dr. King when an oncoming driver flashed his headlights on us full force. He thought quite wrongly that Dr. King’s lights were on high beam. I muttered "Flash him back." Dr. King responded quietly, "That would be an act of violence." Instead, he squinted against the glare, absorbed the other driver’s anger, and steered carefully to avoid a collision.

Almost forty years later, that memory has become for me a "soul force" paradigm. Dr. King was in the right. But it was more important for him to respond in love to that mistaken driver than to prove himself innocent.

Gandhi’s call to absorb the suffering of those who confront or condemn me has given me a whole new picture of Jesus, "the suffering servant," who came into the world to take on our suffering. The more I read Gandhi and King and the other mentors in the work for justice, the more I see how voluntary self-suffering triggers the possibility to successfully end the suffering of others. "Greater love has no person than this," Jesus said, "than to lay down one’s life for one’s friend"
(John 15:13).

The last two Soulforce Vows are deeply personal. They must not be seen as laws and we must not be legalistic in enforcing them on ourselves or on our co-workers.


I promise to control my passion for food, sex, intoxicants, entertainment, position, power that my best self might be free to join with my Creator in doing justice (making things fair for all).

The "appetites" or "passions" listed above are only a sample of the encyclopedia of human needs and desires that Gandhi and King both discuss. They believe that each human need or desire has potential for good or for distracting us from good. They urge us to judge our own passions by that one standard: does it help us fulfill our human potential or does it get in the way? Does it help or hinder our journey to soulforce?

I grew up humming this fundamentalist Christian chant: "I don’t smoke. I don’t chew. And I don’t go with girls who do." (Of course if I had been honest even then, I would have said "…boys who do" but that’s another story.)

In my childhood, I was taught to judge a person’s "holiness" or "closeness to God" by rather superficial standards of conduct or behavior. During my first year away from home as a freshman in a Bible College, I was asked to pick up a Christian "celebrity" in his hotel room and deliver him to a Youth for Christ rally in the Civil Auditorium. I knocked at his door and found him smoking a cigar, drinking a glass of brandy, and reading a paperback detective novel. In my young eyes, that was three out of four (and who knows what might have been hiding under the bed.) I was stunned. Immediately, he was demoted in my mind from saint to sinner.

Looking back on that moment, I feel embarrassed and ashamed. Don’t confuse Gandhi’s call to control passions with those old puritanical rules of fundamentalist Christianity. Gandhi was a fanatic about celibacy and went too far in demanding that his co-workers meet his unreasonable standards. King struggled with needs and desires of his own. However you feel about the successes or failures in their personal lives, both of these Soulforce heroes refused to let their passions distract them from their Creator’s call. In their own struggles to control their human desires they knew victory and they knew loss. But in the long haul, they were better men for having struggled to control their passions. This vow is simply our promise to join them in that struggle.


I promise to limit my possessions to those things I really need to survive and to see myself as a trustee over all my other possessions, using them exclusively to help make things fair for those who suffer.

This vow hangs above me like a cloud. All my heroes and sheroes refused to be encumbered by personal possessions. I grew up hearing my parents say, "God will take care of you." And I still believe them. But what about life, health, auto, homeowners, accident, and liability insurance? What about IRAS and retirement plans, stocks and bonds, checking and saving accounts?

When I went to India to study Gandhi with his grandson, Arun, my partner Gary was afraid I’d come off the plane carrying Gandhi’s old walking stick, wearing only leather sandals and an adult-sized diaper. When Dr. King was assassinated he left his wife and young family with almost nothing to care for them in the difficult financial years ahead.

I don’t have a wealthy hero. My heroes all died poor. I hate that. I don’t want to become a burden to Gary and my family. I want to leave those I love financially secure. I like to eat in restaurants and go to plays, buy $30 hardbacks and listen to $15 CDs.

But even as I’m glancing down the right hand side of the menu or handing over my credit card for a $25 ticket to Les Miserables (OK, a $50 ticket), I remember that one-half of the world’s people are hungry and that almost twenty-five percent of America’s children are poor. And at that moment, in this Soulforce Vow, I hear Jesus and the Jewish prophets reminding me that God loves the poor and hungry best, that we can’t even think about winning justice for homosexuals if we don’t also think about saving poor, hungry kids from misery.

No one can tell you what you should or shouldn’t do about money. But again, our soulforce heroes and sheroes remind us that the way we use money is the ultimate proof of what we really value. My experience with our community may not be fair or accurate, but gay and lesbian people have not been trained in the art of stewardship. We don’t see ourselves as caretakers of our Creator’s resources. We spend endlessly on ourselves and give almost nothing to our cause, or for that matter, to any cause.

There are great exceptions, of course, but when you add up every dollar that is given in one year to our local, state, and national non-profit service and activist organizations, it is less than what the televangelists together collect every day.

Making us feel guilty is NOT my goal. If we don’t share our resources with others in need, our own souls shrivel and die. But when we are generous, when we give to liberate others, we liberate ourselves and our souls prosper.

Gandhi sees truth, love, self-suffering, and the struggle to control passions and limit possessions as the components that make up the unique, human soul. Applied in our lives and daily struggles, these create a force that expands and ennobles our spiritual heart, a "soul force" that joins with God’s "Soul Force" in reforming and renewing the world.

Gandhi assured his followers that exercise of "soul force" — whether they ended up jailed or set free— would set their souls free in direct proportion to the amount of "soul force" they exercised. In this, he echoes the teachings of Jesus. Seek truth. Love neighbor and self. Give your lives for others. In doing so, you will join me in the beloved community. If we follow this way, whether we succeed or fail at changing the world, we will always succeed at expanding our own souls. Our goal, then, is to apply the "soul force" principles in our lives relentlessly.

Although I have only begun to experiment with these principles, I am already beginning to notice the changes. In applying the principles of truth, love, and self-suffering, I am experiencing the presence of God in my life in whole new ways.

During my Evangelical childhood I understood my life task was as knowing God through Bible study, church attendance, hymn singing and prayer. Now, I am convinced that to know God is not simply an inward, mystical journey into my soul, but also an outward, practical journey into the world where I am called everyday and in every situation to seek the truth and to confront untruth lovingly. The "soul force" mandates, based in such large part on the life and teachings of Jesus, have become the map I follow.

Jesus’ makes it perfectly clear. God is not waiting in the padded pews of mega-churches that turn lesbians and gays into outcasts. God is out there in the world struggling to relieve the suffering of all Her oppressed and forgotten children.

When we take even one small step to join Her there, our souls will be renewed and transformed. Taking these Soulforce Vows is a huge leap in that direction.

Take the Five Soulforce Vows or Promises

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