A few years ago, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published a book called Between the World and Me. It is an open letter he wrote to his young son describing what it is to be a black man in the United States today. I am grateful that I read this book.
Early on, Coates made an observation, I find disturbing. See, I have long been a student of nonviolence; one of the best teachers of nonviolence is Reverend Martin Luther King, Junior. I remember sitting in the basement of my college library discovering his Christmas Sermon on Peace, and I can tell you that sitting there, reading that, changed my life. He talks about a double victory where nobody’s free until everybody’s free. He takes love seriously. 1http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/christmas-sermon# I’m a person who’s pretty well convinced that Reverend King was not wrong.
Then I came upon this passage written by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
“Every February, my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for ritual review of the Civil Rights Movement. Our teachers urged us toward the example of Freedom marchers, Freedom riders, Freedom summer. It seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera. The black people in these films seemed to love the worst things in life —love the dogs that rent their children apart, the tear gas that clawed at their lungs, the firehoses that tore off their clothes and tumbled them into the streets.
They seemed to love the men who raped them, the women who cursed them, the children who spat on them, the terrorists who bombed them. Why are they showing this to us? Why are our only heroes nonviolent? I speak not of the morality of nonviolence, (Coates says,) but of the sense that blacks are in especial need of this morality.”2Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Text Publishing Company, 2015. page 32.
Make no mistake, Coates is not wrong. He is not alone in making this argument. What good is nonviolence if it teaches people there is something noble about getting yourself beat up? What exactly are we teaching our children? Hands-up, on-your-knees, submission to violence is a problem, and Coates is right to call it out.
Something that haunts me is knowing that in ages past, good Christian preachers read Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who abuse us, and those preachers stood in pulpits like this one and implored wives to stay with husbands who hit them; preachers told children to obey their parents who hit them, and they preached these sermons in the name of Jesus. And oh my friends, we know better.
This is a problem. Child abuse and domestic violence have no place in the kin-dom of God. It’s a problem because we Christians have no right to tell someone, “Hey, if someone’s hurting you, you should put up with it.” As a white person, I have no right to tell my black sisters and brothers, “Hey, Reverend King recommends treating the Ku Klux Klan with love!” I mean he does, but I don’t get to ask them to put their lives at risk. I have no right telling the survivors of mass shootings that they should “do the Christian thing” and forgive the shooter. I have no right.
All I can tell you is that sometimes people really do try this kind of love. Sometimes people really do answer violence with nonviolence, and sometimes they pay the price for it. Sometimes people begin the long process of forgiving the shooter. And this brings me to my knees every time. Because did you see that… Every act of compassion disrupts the inevitability of violence. It changes the world.
Today we’re continuing our Easer series on the Sermon on the Plain from the Gospel of Luke, and we hear the troubling and tricky teaching of Jesus: “But I say to you who listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). I mean seriously?!
Jesus goes on to say, if anyone hits you in the face, turn the other cheek, so they can hit you again. If anyone takes your coat, go on and give them your shirt as well. And if you’re feeling like —how is this even possible?— you are not alone.
One option is to consider the clever interpretation offered by nonviolence expert, Walter Wink. He takes apart Matthew’s version of this passage with the sparkling zeal of somebody who just found a loophole. You can practically hear his gleeful “Aha!”
Wink argues that Jesus was an advocate of nonviolence, and nonviolence functions, tactically, by changing up who has the power. So in this scenario, the person getting hit in the face, or the person getting his coat stolen, can reclaim his power by surprising and shaming the assailant.
In the picture Wink is painting, the person who got hit in the face refuses to fall down and surrender. Instead, she stands there. By turning her face, she challenges her assailant to hit her again, and again; this would bring shame upon him.
“And oh, you’re taking my coat, well you better take my shirt too! Actually take all my clothes. I will stand here naked in the street, then which one of us will be humiliated, cause it won’t be me…”
You get the idea. Jesus’ teaching is not about submitting to the cruel powers-that-be; it’s about subverting this power, so the one who is vulnerable can get the tactical advantage. 3 Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Fortress Press, 2003. pages 14-28.
Now you know, I think Wink is on to something. His idea is snarky, and refreshing, and faithful to Christ’s tendency to switch up traditional power dynamics. But I will tell you. Nonviolence better be about more than getting hurt. And it is about more than getting hurt. It better be more than a clever tactical strategy to embarrass a bully. And it is.
Nonviolence is the power of healing the harm we’ve been rehearsing for generations.
The truth is this. We human people are still paying for wars that happened centuries ago. My grandfather’s experience in World War Two was something he brought home with him in the silence, which then shaped my uncle’s experience in Vietnam, which is something he brought home with him. I can tell you how war has shaped my family, and my grandpa and uncle both came home. I can only imagine how war has shaped other families.
I can imagine how the violence of slavery has shaped us and been handed down, how violence against Native Americans has shaped us and been handed down. All of us have ancestors who have been hurt; probably all of us have ancestors who have done some of the hurting. None of us are exempt. Violence is in our blood.
Peacemaking is the work of healing from the trauma that started long before any of us were born. Peacemaking is deciding to give our children and grandchildren a way out of violence, where we pass on not the glory of victory, but the power to be healed. And you know, this healing is already underway. We just have to see it.
This means every act of nonviolence matters —not because it gives someone vulnerable the upper hand for a moment, the chance to say “In your face!” to their attacker. Every act of nonviolence matters, and not because it gets put on a video and played for black schoolchildren with the erroneous subtext, “See how you should submit.” Oh no.
Every act of nonviolence matters because it changes the trajectory of what is possible. It proves that violence might be in our blood, but it is not our destiny.
Here’s how I know. In his book Barking to the Choir, Father Gregory Boyle writes about a man who was incarcerated in Folsom Prison. Everybody called him Al Bundy and Father Boyle describes him as “one of the gentlest souls I have ever known.”
One afternoon while he was standing in the yard with Father Boyle, Al Bundy asked a corrections officer what time it was. The officer made a big show of looking at his watch and then he says to Al, “It’s about… time for you to get a watch!” Only it wasn’t funny. It was mean. And Al Bundy knew it.
Another inmate who saw the whole thing came up to Al, “Why didn’t you tell him something? You shouldn’t let him get away with that!” Al answered, “Nah. He’s going home to his wife and kids. What if I said something that got him mad? Maybe he’d go home and hit his wife or beat his kids. Nah.”4 Boyle, Gregory. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. Simon & Schuster, 2017. page 145.
Did you see what just happened… There was a predictable exchange where cruelty was set on its course to escalate, then somebody stepped up and stopped it.
Now I could never preach a sermon to people who are incarcerated, and invoke this example, and look at them and say, “See what Al Bundy did? You all should do the same thing.” I have no right to give the instruction to please pick up your own humiliation and turn it into compassion. Would you be so kind as to take your stinging rage and turn into gentleness! I have no right to make this demand.
All I can tell you is that people really do this. Sometimes people hear the permission in Jesus’ preaching, and they decide to take him up on it. There are people who really do love those who have hurt them. There are people who pray for their abusers and begin the long work of forgiving the one who took everything. And did you see that, because it brings me to my knees every time.
You’ve got to watch those peacemakers. Leave it to them to disrupt the inevitability of violence. By practicing peace, they are changing the way the story has to end. Now the world won’t be the same. Thank God.
Footnotes [ + ]
|2.||↑||Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Text Publishing Company, 2015. page 32.|
|3.||↑||Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Fortress Press, 2003. pages 14-28.|
|4.||↑||Boyle, Gregory. Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. Simon & Schuster, 2017. page 145.|