About civil initiative

No goats required.

Civil initiative is peacebuilding in its most essential form: community action that brings recognized rights into social norms and legal practice; civil initiative establishes law through the exercise of natural rights, unlike civil disobedience or disengagement.

Arizona herder Jim Corbett died in 2001 at the age of 67. But twenty years ago, Corbett was immersed in a protracted human rights struggle known as the sanctuary movement. Part memoir, and part field guide, his book Goatwalking develops the idea of civil initiative, a philosophy and practice of peacebuilding by creative communities. You may ask “Why should I read about civil initiative?” I’ll tell you:

I don’t know.

Civil initiative establishes law through the exercise of natural rights.

Civil initiative is peacebuilding in its most essential form: community action that brings recognized rights into social norms and legal practice.

Civil initiative is designed to protect natural rights by incorporating them into accepted social standards. Instead of depending on government plans or international enforcement, civil initiative focuses on community powers and voluntary effort. Communities that build basic rights into their way of life can bond into networks that extend peacebuilding— across frontiers, ghettos, and war zones where states cannot or will not uphold the rule of law.

“Our central concern is to do justice rather than to petition others to do it.”

In Goatwalking, Corbett explains civil initiative in direct contrast to the uncivil obedience asserted by Thomas Hobbes, the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau and the political jujitsu of Saul Alinsky, all of which shatter the bonds of civility and accountability that form the basis of human rights.

Indiscriminately fused with civil disobedience, civil initiative would become do-gooder vigilantism. Civil initiative means doing justice, not just resisting injustice. […] After meeting thousands of victims of civil war over the course of the last seven years, I have come to feel a deep respect for the humanity as well as the realism of Thomas Hobbes. Few disasters are worse than the shattering of civil society.

Sanctuary, Basic Rights, and Humanity’s Fault Lines (emphases mine)

In action, civil initiative is almost identical to the satyagraha pioneered by Mohandas K. Gandhi1:

Civil initiative must be societal rather than organizational, nonviolent rather than injurious, truthful rather than deceitful, catholic rather than sectarian, dialogical rather than dogmatic, substantive rather than symbolic, volunteer-based rather than professionalized, and based on community powers rather than government powers.

Goatwalking (106, emphases mine)

Corbett expands on each of these points in his definition of civil initiative practiced by several civil society organizations that operate on the Arizona-Mexico border.

The principal focus of civil initiative is concrete action to meet the basic needs of victims— for security, subsistence, and liberty. This is bound up with accountability to civil order.

Unsubjugated covenant communities

Unlike the social contract of Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Hobbes, from history: Remember me, suckers? civil initiative is both proactive and creative; instead of merely reflecting on the civil bond, civil initiative employes the society-forming covenant as a means, forming bonds of civility without ceding natural rights to the Leviathan:

Social contract philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke use the idea of the society-forming covenant retrospectively, as a mythological explanation of the civil condition’s origins. The covenant community uses it prospectively, as a way to overcome friend-enemy divisions. Covenanting across the divisions that separate “the people” from “the aliens” is the way to establish universal human rights, which governments will then, eventually have to recognise.

Goatwalking (109)

Questions for you

Civil initiative aims to integrate natural rights into social norms, with a focus on the needs of victims. But I’d like to hear from your experience:

  • What do you see as the center of your work: the state, the individual, the community, or something else? How does that center affect your efforts?
  • What roles can art and storytelling play in this form of peacebuilding?
  • How do you balance expressive peace witness with the substantive needs of victims?
  • What are the weaknesses, problems, and challenges in civil initiative?

You can leave your questions, comments, and other words below!

I have a few other topics in mind for future letters related to civil initiative and visual storytelling. You can sign up here for updates and other special content. Let me know what ideas you’d like me to delve into.

yours in friendship,
John Stephens

Further reading


1 In Goatwalking, Corbett writes: “Gandhi comes close to formulating civil initiative rather than civil disobedience, but he misses at the crucial point… By asking to be punished for violating the law, he is forfeiting recognition that basic human rights are the law” (106).

He picks up this theme in Sanctuary, Basic Rights, and Humanity’s Fault Lines “The most notable distinction is that Gandhi’s indifference to legal defense would forfeit the very laws civil initiative attempts to preserve” (1988).

Again from Goatwalking: “With this proviso that Gandhi was wrong in pleading guilty to violating the law, Gandhian civil disobedience could serve as a procedural guide for civil initiative” (106).

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