In this podcast sound bite I honor the life of Tom Hayden by asking, whither our peace movement?
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.
“The Christmas season,” wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1967 sermon, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” “finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power.”
This good will is meaningless, and peace is impossible, I believe, if we are not committed to the idea that we all, every one of us, deserve nonviolence. That is to say, we deserve radical care and regard, deserve one another’s active, purposeful, personal commitment to practices through which we communicate – in no uncertain terms – that we must, and are absolutely called upon to matter to each other. Our collective bewilderment, the absence of “peace within” and “without,” our paralyzing fears, our wars – large and small – are the stuff of our disregard, enacted daily, for example, in small slights and discourtesies, enacted by proxy through systems of subordination, through drone-launched missiles that tear the limbs off, and hearts out of five year-old little girls and boys. It is destroying us, this disregard. It is destroying other sentient beings, the planet itself.
Even out of unimaginable suffering, we can reach out in order to touch the lives of others near and far, to say “you matter to me,” to say that, even though I suffer, I see your suffering and so I suffer with you. Radical care knows no boundaries of nation or tribe, knows the absolute necessity of love to peace.
When we claim the truth that we all, every one of us, deserve nonviolence, we embrace the responsibility that it places on us, namely, that we must not only practice nonviolence ourselves, but we must also actively and unflinchingly require it of each other. Indeed, we are bound both to call forth and to stand ready to witness each other’s capacity to give and to love beyond measure. And when some of us fall short by choosing to be our smaller selves, we stand ready anyway, because we must also stand witness to – so that we can deepen – our own capacity for faith, generosity and loving kindness.
“Utopias,” writes Leela Fernandes in Transforming Feminist Practice, “are inconvenient because they necessitate deep-seated changes in ourselves and in the ways in which we live our lives.” Indeed, utopias “require labor.” And it is through this labor that we come to realize this important truth: “utopia exists at the moment when suffering is transformed into love. Utopia is the labor itself which enables such transformation, not, as is mistakenly assumed, the outcome that results from this labor.”
“Peace and good will toward all,” if it is to be more than simply a thing hoped for, depends on the work each and every one of us is willing to do, from the everyday and often mundane “labor” of compassion, kindness and radical care, to the labor of die-ins staged to demand that killers of children and torturers be brought to justice. It is that work, and because this is so, peace and good will toward all is available to us not only during the Christmas season, but always.