Month: November 2015
Love, Death and ISIS: A view from the mountaintop
When Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his final speech on April 3, 1968 – a speech in which he urged support for the labor strike of Memphis, Tennessee’s African American sanitation workers – he spoke candidly about having received death threats prior to his arrival in Memphis. Because of the threats, King told his audience, the plane upon which he arrived had to be (according to the pilot) “‘protected and guarded all night,’” and the bags of the other passengers on his plane subjected to heightened security checks.
“I got into Memphis,” King continued,
“And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
What was significant about this speech, and this moment, was not – as many have speculated –that King had some kind of sixth sense about his impending assassination. Instead, what made this moment important was that King modeled the capacity we all have to transform into a source of power our physical vulnerability to others’ violence; to claim as “our” brothers and sisters those who want to harm us and, in the process, to recognize their need for healing; and, to let go of our attachment to “longevity” – indeed, to our fear of death – precisely because these attachments keep us from seeing, and erecting, our vision of a better society.
King was not special. He was just a man, one who decided that he would not let his vulnerability distort his vision, turn him against others, and compromise his highest ideals and deeply held beliefs. He died for them, yes. But he also lived for them.
The “current threat of terrorism,” wrote Leela Fernandes in Transforming Feminist Practice, “is a real one and the fear which people feel is also real.” Consequently, “if progressive activist-thinkers gloss over this reality they will not be able to reach a wider public base.” The “difficulty,” Fernades continued, “is to provide a courageous alternative at precisely the point where individuals feel their own personal safety is at risk, for it is usually at this point of perceived vulnerability that we are most willing to put up our fences, lash out at others and forsake our deepest ideals.” Indeed, the “question of security poses the deepest possible spiritual challenge to individuals, communities and nations – for it is an area which has created the most distortion around the meaning of self-preservation. From a spiritual perspective, any act that causes harm to another can never ultimately be an act of self-preservation.”
King’s demonstration – “a spiritualized practice of nonviolence,” to use Fernandes’ words – is the stuff from which we can create “a courageous alternative,” one that will allow us to attend with an open heart to our countrymen and women’s (and our) growing hysteria, fear, and utter sense of vulnerability concerning both the emergence of ISIS and the continued threats of “terrorism,” as well as the warmongering and hate that are feeding all of it. Instead of submitting to vulnerability and fear, and consequently closing ranks, we could use both to engage and resist ISIS as well as others who do terrorism (and that includes our countrymen and women) in ways that claim them, absolutely, as “our” sick brothers and sisters in need of healing. We dare to see ourselves in them, in fact – to pursue policies rendered unthinkable by our belief that a Self/Other view of the world is the only realistic vision we can have for humankind. By daring to step into this kind of vulnerability, we might very well break the cycle of carnage and counter-carnage that passes as both self-preservation and foreign policy.
And I say this conceding that, by now, the men and women whom we call “terrorists” – and certainly ISIS – are probably beyond our reach. To use the words of South African theologian Allen Aubrey Boesak, “I am painfully aware that deeply complex situations arise where nonviolent intervention comes too late, where the world, for various reasons, has hesitated too long, has erred fatally on the side of greed, neglect, or indifference, has invested too vastly and for too long in the entrenchment of tyrants of all kinds.”
However, it is not too late to examine ourselves and to look at the question of terrorism – foreign and domestic – in terms of our having failed to choose nonviolence in the first instance (by, for example, refusing to underwrite tyrants, to sacrifice the needs of the many for the benefit of the few, to hoard resources, to live with great indifference in the midst of profound poverty and despair). It is not too late to see self-preservation as inextricably bound to the well-being of others, or to see in the violence around us the harm we have caused.
And it is certainly not too late to reject our politicians’ invitation to retributive justice and joyful, sacred violence.
But all of that self-examination requires that we ultimately let go of our attachment to the longevity of this empire, does it not? We must look at death – the death of our bodies, the death of our idea of self, the death of nation, the death of anything and everything that makes it impossible for us to speak in terms of I and I – and fearlessly say, as did King, that we are “not concerned about that now.” For the place we want to get to – peace – is the place we must bring into being with a willingness to pay the price if we must, so that we can one day sit and break bread with all of our sisters and brothers – all of them, without exception.
For Joanie, my mother (d. 11/24/2012)
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)
You can order directly from Amazon and Lantern books.
Donald Trump and the “what about Hitler?” question
“Could nonviolence have stopped Hitler?” was a question President Obama asked when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and it is a question many often ask as a retort to those of us who advocate for nonviolence as a means to confront power and injustice. Like Obama, not only do the men and women who ask the question already assume that a “non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies,” as Obama stated; they also already believe that nonviolent resistance would have enabled Hitler ultimately to rule the world. Nonviolence is simply no match for those who are committed to violence and tyranny.
Well, that’s probably true. But “putting nonviolence on trial in the manner of Obama [and others] is problematic because the question,” as Michael Allen Fox argued in Understanding Peace, “is open to more than one interpretation. If it is taken to mean (as Obama obviously intended): ‘Could forms of nonviolent resistance have defeated the juggernaut in battle or in the midst of its rolling over weaker countries?’ then the incontestable answer would seem to be: ‘No, certainly not.’
But if instead “the question being asked is rephrased in this way: ‘could Hitler’s rise to power have been thwarted by nonviolent campaigns?’ then the answer is not so apparent; the only thing we do know is that this tactic wasn’t tried in any ongoing, large-scale manner.” In Fox’s view, the fact that nonviolence “wasn’t tried in any ongoing, large-scale manner” is “an instance of a bigger issue: Nonviolence cannot be written off as an inadequate or failed response to particular human problems if it has not been tried as a means to solving them.”
Which brings me to Donald Trump and his competitors for the Republican nomination, all of whom have been clamoring to out-do each other on providing Nazi-like solutions to the terrible suffering of the Syrian people and to the threat of ISIS. Trump wants to require all Muslims (who’s next??) to register in a national database and/or make them carry special identification designating their religious beliefs – much like the stars and triangles the Nazis required of Jews and gays (Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want to give refuge only to Christian Syrians (shades of “whites only”?) – a policy position that suggests how willing they are to leave Syrian Muslims, those of other faiths, and secularists all subject to continued violence, hunger, despair, and death).
Trump’s support among potential Republican voters has surged.
We can watch these developments from the sidelines and write them off as election year antics. And if Trump or any of his colleagues capture the Oval Office, we can take comfort, I guess, in the fact that the people have spoken and that 2020 presents another opportunity to change course.
Or we can recognize that this is a moment for us to confront and thwart, through militant nonviolence, the rise of those who have made abundantly clear that they disdain not only the constitution and our democracy, but also humanity itself.
Hitler was elected, after all.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)
TOWARD A NONVIOLENT DEMOCRACY: BERNIE SANDERS’ RACIAL JUSTICE PLATFORM
While there are countless reasons why Bernie Sanders’ adoption of a Racial Justice platform that tackles violence against African Americans is both extraordinary and unprecedented, certainly one reason must be that the platform in effect charges our government with the responsibility to practice nonviolence toward African Americans in particular and people of color generally. In fact, Sanders’ platform – the adoption of which was instigated by #BlackLivesMatter activists – presupposes that folks of color deserve nonviolence, both from the government and from private citizens. We deserve it, the platform suggests, because we are a valuable part of the body politic – “we must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color” – and because it is right and just.
The platform is not, as one might imagine, merely a recitation of platitudes about racism and justice (though it certainly includes many); instead, it offers specific policy changes that Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists hope will help to make African Americans’ and others’ lived experiences of violence a thing of the past: police retraining, expanding the franchise, ending the War on Drugs, banning “prisons for profit,” investing in youth employment programs. These are just a few of the proposals that the platform outlines.
Of course, the word “nonviolence” does not actually appear in Sanders’ Racial Justice platform, even though the platform refers to and quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. in the section dedicated to economic violence.
Nevertheless, with its focus on “the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans – physical, political, legal and economic,” it is hard not to see that what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists have done is something quite in keeping with what King did in “Beyond Vietnam,” his crucial 1967 speech against the Vietnam War: denounce the government’s violence and require from it something radically different. For King, that radically different something was for the government to conduct domestic and foreign policy in ways that reinforce “brotherhood,” and thus for it to choose “nonviolent coexistence” over “violent co-annihilation.” For Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists, that something is for the government to refrain from waging violence against black and brown people.
Because Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists produced a platform that expresses in great measure the spirit of King’s challenge, they accomplished something rather remarkable: they inadvertently produced a framework by which we can construct a platform that commits us to making nonviolence the crux of our nation’s domestic and foreign policies. Physical, political, legal and economic violence – these categories certainly capture what we justify nationally and internationally as in our national interest, and thus they provide us an opportunity to offer the kind of nonviolent alternatives we sorely need. Our undeclared war against ISIS, the unspeakable suffering of the Syrian people, the horrific attack in Paris, the everyday violence we suffer at the hands of one another – what else do we need to add in order to see, finally, that we really must choose between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation? What other kind of mass shooting, suicide bombing, war – what other kind of atrocity do you require?
So, forgive me for having the audacity to offer a nonviolent political platform – a work-in-progress that builds upon (and borrows from) what Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter activists started. I offer this because it is clear to me that unless and until ordinary citizens step up to put forward alternatives to our culture of violence, we will continue to be mired in bloodshed, hate, and conflict both here and abroad until we destroy ourselves. It is my hope that you will comment, critique, talk about and add to what I have written here. It is my hope that you will even imagine a platform more daring, one that shifts this superpower inexorably toward militant nonviolence and to which you will, through bold action, hold every single candidate accountable from now until November 2016.
Shifting focus: Mizzou and those racist students
While the student protests at the University of Missouri continue to be dissected, analyzed, and judged, we might want to direct our attention to the folks who – remarkably enough – have not been thus far the subject of much debate and critique: those white students who shouted racial slurs at Peyton Head as he walked near campus, the drive-by racists who shouted “nigger” at the Legion of Black Collegians while they practiced for homecoming, and the other faceless, nameless students who engaged in racist conduct (we might also want to include the silent white assenters – students, faculty, staff – as well as any onlookers who stood on the sidelines and maybe even laughed or otherwise encouraged their colleagues).
It is not enough merely to call these students or their acts “racist” and their words “hate speech,” to speak only of epithets and hurt feelings, to evoke the First Amendment (while forgetting the Fourteenth), and then to turn and launch extended critiques of “political correctness” on the part of those protesting (a “political correctness” that we must – if we are honest with ourselves – see as, in part, an outgrowth of the heavier burden of free speech that some communities are forced to bear).
Instead, or perhaps primarily, we should be wondering out loud, and without distraction: what are these students trying to do? What do they hope to achieve?
It seems to me that one of the things that they are trying to do is to speak as, and on behalf of Mizzou – with the full power of the institution behind them. Or to put this differently: I suspect these racist students (and others) presume that Mizzou is the institutionalization of a particular kind of white power and privilege, and that because they are white and because they are Mizzou, then when they speak the language of racism and white power as well as engage in racist conduct, they are merely being Mizzou itself. And in being Mizzou, they hope to impress upon students of color, and African American students in particular, that they can never be Mizzou and thus can never embody and exercise power – on campus or anywhere else. No, power belongs to, and can only be exercised by whites and whites only.
If I am right, and I suspect that I’m a little right, then we need to ask whether the University of Missouri – the governing body, administration, staff, and faculty – give white students such as these every reason to believe that they and Mizzou are of one mind and one body. For if this is the case – and I suspect that this is the case – the resignation of Tim Wolfe will hardly suffice. Indeed, what will be required is nothing less than Mizzou’s radical transformation – its mission, its governance, its admissions policies and criteria, its hiring, its faculty, its student body – and, by extension, the entire state of Missouri itself.