The Non-Violence Pose

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community. – Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Nonviolence As Compliance”, The Atlantic, April 27, 2015

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[D]itch your superior, smug attitude and 1) stop hairsplitting (“non-approval” vs “judgement” or “condemnation”) and 2) renounce the gospel of Jesus as you refuse to accept His way of non-violence. – A comment directed at me in a discussion in a private group on Facebook, Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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Other: You know what they say about opinions….

Me: Wow. Really? History tells us over and over that the only truly effective, long-term social change comes through violence. Whether or not this is what anyone would prefer is beside the point. And rather than offer something counter to this reality, you decide to call me an asshole? Good job. – Exchange on Facebook in a private group, Wed., April 29, 2015

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Joan Baez leading Berkeley protesters in yet another chorus of Kumbayah.

Joan Baez leading Berkeley protesters in yet another chorus of Kumbayah.

The week has been interesting, to say the least. Lots of us have had a lot to say about the death of Freddie Gray, the police, the protests, and the riots. Lots to say, yet so little time to listen to the voices that matter: The folks in Baltimore; African-Americans who understand the simmering rage, fear, and frustration that prompts protests to turn to violence; the demands that national media either cover the actual events and talk to the people on the ground or get out of Baltimore. Everyone (and I’d include myself in this, obviously) has so much to say, yet never enough time to listen, to think, and for us Christians, to pray. It’s so much easier to find a picture or meme online, post it, and offer predigested opinions rather than engage with the reality that confronts us, challenges us, and has certainly disturbed us, yet again.

Which leads me to one of the sillier things, thankfully highlighted by Jon Stewart, showing Wolf Blitzer expressing incredulity at the protests in Baltimore; then showing him using the exact same words during the protests in Ferguson, MO. A national correspondent for a major media outlet finds it unbelievable that poor and minority communities might act out their anger and frustration because . . . because of the number of the year? And uses this schtick over and over? Then again, it is Wolf Blitzer who may well be one of the more clueless TV “journalists” around.

In expressing his incredulity, Blitzer brought up Martin Luther King, Jr., whose name and words have been invoked a whole lot this week, particularly by well-meaning white people of faith. While I understand the sentiments, I just wasn’t ready to be yet another white person far removed from the immediate circumstance and ignorant of the specific realities of African-American and police relations in the city of Baltimore (it turns out over the past few years, there have been 100 police-related fatalities, and the city has paid out $5.7 million to victims of police brutality; meanwhile, the city administration privileges the police over the victims, even as police actions cost the city needed money, money that could improve the neighborhoods and lives that are now rising up in protest). That kind of silence, however, was too often taken for consent to and approval of the violence. When I said that white folk, particularly those not in or around the neighborhoods in question might well benefit from silence, from some knee-jerk response calling for non-violence, and should perhaps wait to be invited to the conversation, I was accused of rejecting the Gospel and called an asshole. Because, you know, humility from people in positions of privilege and power is the anti-Christ, and Jesus did say, “Blessed are you who sit and sing ‘Kumbayah’, for you shall be called children of God.”

I do believe I demonstrated a bit more contempt for these folks than might have been warranted. After all, my own preference of course was that the vastly larger groups of people staging completely peaceful marches and protests, calling for an in-depth investigation of Freddie Gray’s death and accountability for the police department should receive far more coverage than the rioters; that white folk should withhold judgments about those engaging in violent confrontations with police precisely because we aren’t there or those people; and that too often those folks quoting King and demanding peace, no matter how much I might agree with them and desire much the same thing, come across no different from all the white folk who’ve been telling black folk how best to live and act in society for 400 years. It is far better that we, no matter our personal preferences, remain silent than continue to participate in social practices that privilege white voices.

The voices, however, continue. For some reason, white people appropriating the words of an African-American (like we’ve been doing with their art for centuries) seems to offer them a sense of moral authority, a pedestal from which to demand attention and agreement from all around. That the sentiments on offer are admirable is beyond doubt; their relevance, however, is certainly in doubt, as is their recent provenance. It isn’t right or good, and certainly not Christian, to take words from the mouth of a reluctant national leader against oppression and state-sanctioned violence and use them against those same people. To equate non-violence with the Gospel is a contemporary conceit, especially beloved by those in positions of power, privilege, and authority. Which is not to say it is necessarily wrong. It is only to note the current social and cultural milieu in which it seems to be so popular. For some reason, asking folks who certainly have their hearts in the right place nevertheless to refrain from the kinds of statements that come across as patronizing, judgmental, and dismissive of the real voices of the people on the ground is, in the eyes of these same people, approving of violence and a rejection of the Gospel.

Do I get this? Of course not. Do I wish more folks like me might restrain themselves from speaking with assumed authority, using words appropriated from a white-approved black man to tell black folk what’s good for them? Of course. I suppose, however, I shouldn’t be surprised that even people of faith have blind spots. Acknowledging this isn’t rejection of the Gospel or approving violence. It is, rather, to be humble in the face of so much social unrest; to be aware of one’s own limited perspective and one’s own position of social, political, and cultural privilege; and to be in prayer that from all the unrest, peaceful and otherwise, something constructive will emerge, some effort to patch together and reweave bonds of community, including between the city of Baltimore and its police department and communities of color in that city. We who are outside, however, would demonstrate the best solidarity by remaining silent.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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