Tag Archives: violence

Unarmed Truth & Unconditional Love

94d5a3c3a1397d1a4df25f54640503c2

Ralph Abernathy and Will Campbell grieve the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Lorraine Motel (April 1968)

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was deep in the heart of rural Texas when the chaos in Charlottesville unfolded last weekend and found myself in a conversation with a couple of local police officers about other matters. I mentioned that they should visit us in California sometime and one offered a kind smile and said, “Nah, Californians don’t like Southern Republicans.” We laughed, but there is some measure of truth to his statement. And vice-versa, of course. There is plenty of not liking to go around these days.

I am a Christian, which unfortunately means many things to many people, but for me it means that I must love everyone. No exceptions. So I stand in opposition to hate in any form, which most assuredly includes all versions of white supremacy. And because I must love everyone then I am necessarily opposed to acts of violence. It is a package deal. Violence toward a loved one is unfathomable, so when you choose to love everyone it kind of takes the wind out of Violence’s sails.

“‘Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?’ / ‘O, the Bible! To be sure, it says a great many such things; but, then, nobody ever thinks of doing them . . .'” – In Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Will D. Campbell is a personal hero of mine who was an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement and a fierce advocate for the victims of deep racism. However, Campbell started to notice that many of his fellow activists used the same dehumanizing language  and tone toward the “segregationists” that segregationists used toward African-Americans. Since Campbell was a Christian, he took a stand against that, too.

“With the same love that is commanded to shower upon the innocent victim of his frustration and hostility, the church must love the racist. Moreover, the church is called to love those who use and exploit both the racists and their victims for personal wealth and political gain. The church must stand in love and judgment upon the victim, the victimized, and those, both black and white, who exploit both, for they are all the children of God.” – Will D. Campbell, in Race and Renewal of the Church (1962)

Some things in this country have improved in the half century since the milestone moments of the Civil Rights Movement while many others have quite obviously not. And the version of Christianity touted by “Brother Will” and Dr. King often appears unopened in the shrink-wrapped box.

But I remain hopeful. For I, too, believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will someday have the final word.

Advertisements

Avoiding a Repeat of History

charleston-picI set my alarm for 5:30am most every morning, but when I did so on Tuesday in Charleston, South Carolina, it was actually 2:30am for the old California-tuned biological clock.  But I got up anyway and met a new friend in the hotel lobby for an early morning run.  We ran four miles through that beautiful city with its gas lamps, stately mansions, cobblestone streets, peaceful waterfront, and general gorgeous-ness before the sun really even thought about making an appearance.  It was great—the run, the conversation, the city, the sights, and the weather.

When we first located the ocean on our run (fyi, those oceans aren’t always as easy to find as you might think), my new friend pointed toward a gleaming set of lights in the distance and said casually, “Oh, there’s Fort Sumter.”

I nearly had to stop running.  Fort Sumter.  Where the American Civil War began, a fact I taught an unknown number of teenaged history students a few decades and careers ago.  I knew Fort Sumter was in Charleston but hadn’t thought about it in the days leading up to this hastily-planned business trip and surely didn’t expect to see it pointed out in casual conversation.

That location, sitting silent in the darkness, is where the citizens of my country chose up sides and literally started killing each other.

Times are a little crazy right now, and I don’t wish to sound overly dramatic, but a professor friend of mine who is an expert on Lincoln has pointed out more than once recently that our current political climate reminds him of the decade leading up to the American Civil War.  Surely such a thing couldn’t happen again?  Could it?

Not if I have anything to do about it.  And I do.  We all do.

While Fort Sumter sat silently in the distance, I considered the contrasting metaphor of our morning run where two American brothers ran side by side in the same direction sharing deep thoughts and good stories.  That was nice.  We did, however, meet people traveling different directions than us, and as we tend to do in the South (and as this Southern boy does wherever I happen to be), we said hello in warm greetings to those traveling in the exact opposite direction.  That was nice, too.

Now don’t get me wrong: There is a time and a place to stand in opposition to others.  And we should.  But there is also a way to treat your brothers and your sisters when you stand in opposition, and when the collective decision concludes that the best way to do so is to pick up weapons and start shooting each other, then something went horribly wrong a long time ago.

Something may have already gone wrong in this country of ours a long time ago.  If so, I suggest that we find a way to reverse course before some random runner a couple of centuries from now is jarred by the sight of the place where we once again chose a violent answer.

Peace on Earth

img_4126Thanks to our friend, John, and the Pacifica Institute, we recently hosted Muslim families for a Christmas dinner at our house.  That’s right, Muslim families for a Christmas dinner.  It was wonderful.  The stated purpose of the dinner was to build bridges of respect, understanding, and friendship between Muslims and Christians—and it sure worked.  We instantly have new friends and were honored to accept a return offer to visit their homes in the new year.

All of our guests came to the United States from Turkey, and as we talked over dinner it was sobering to sense the sadness in their hearts when they spoke of conditions related to terrorism in their home country.  And it was even more sobering to sense the fears they live with in this country when the actions of religious extremists lead others to associate such terrible violence with the religion they practice and love.

Possibly my favorite moment of the evening came when one of our guests slipped money to our youngest daughter when she shared about her work in Kenya last summer with street kids from Nairobi slums.  It seems that our guest has a soft spot in his heart for poor African children, and he couldn’t help but give money to support the Christian organization when he heard about the good work it is doing.

I shared with our guests the story from Kenya at this time last year when the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, commandeered a bus that held Christian and Muslim passengers.  The terrorists demanded that the passengers separate by religion so they could execute the Christians, and the Muslim passengers, mostly women, led the refusal to answer by saying that if they would execute one they would have to execute all.  They were neighbors after all.  Miraculously, no one was killed.

Our guests had not heard the story and were visibly encouraged by it.  One of our new friends said that such reactions should be the standard response.

I sense that many are wary of the concept of interfaith dialogue, thinking that it means a dilution of religious conviction—a sort of “I’m-okay-you’re okay” approach to religious belief.  If you spend much time with any religious belief system you’ll realize that would be sort of silly.  Instead, I have to wonder what is terribly wrong with moving toward a world where we have “join us for dinner” relationships across all sorts of lines that purport to divide us.

Sharing dinner in our homes with new friends would sure go a long way toward a world where the scene that occurred on that Kenyan bus will be the standard response to those who deal in violence.  Not uniformity or watered-down beliefs, but neighborliness and solidarity for peace on earth and good will toward all.  I am a Christian, and at this time of year we remember an angelic proclamation to a group of shepherds about such things.  This particular dinner sure felt like a step in that direction.

Make Them Know

“Make them know.”

In Jesmyn Ward’s award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones, Skeetah, a poor Mississippi teenage boy whispered that phrase to his treasured pit bull, China, before sending her into battle against her nemesis, Kilo.  I found it to be the most gripping line in a terrific book.

Salvage the Bones is a fierce story of a poor family as told through the eyes of a teenage girl, motherless, surrounded by men and boys, secretly pregnant, and trying to understand life as Hurricane Katrina warms up, bears down, and then inundates their world.  Among many compelling topics the novel explores is the idea of invisibility, which is where the phrase “make them know” leapt off the page and demanded my attention.  Unnoticed, overlooked, neglected—those are not good words, and undeniably not a good feeling.

My little family of four lost our home eleven years ago today in Hurricane Katrina, and although we surprisingly have fond memories of that great national tragedy due to a heightened sense of community and the opportunity to meet great-hearted strangers full of love, the raging waters surely had some of our tears sprinkled in.  And, to be honest, from time to time, a little bit of spit in it projected in anger toward institutions including but not limited to governments and insurance companies, pardon the legalese.

And I’ll tell you, if you ever want to get punched by someone from Mississippi (and who doesn’t?), then say that you thought Hurricane Katrina was just in New Orleans.  Please know that it wasn’t.

Make them know.

When you mix marginalization and anger and leave it in the microwave too long, you start to hear those words building in your heart.  And more often than not, they emerge violently.

So why does my family have fond memories of a tragedy in our lives?  Despite the infuriating institutions that failed us?  Despite the relatively speaking inordinate attention our New Orleans neighbors received?  It is because we were loved.  We were known.

In this tragic world of ours, where the recipe for violence is constantly prepared in the kitchen, the best advice I can offer is to be about the work of making others known.  Expecting others to do it themselves is not healthy for anyone.

A Third Way

It was a disturbing week in these United States.  After celebrating her birthday, America apparently went batpoo crazy.  Thankfully, many people (sadly, not all) posted good statements that condemned all of the violence that destroyed lives in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas, so I should just keep my mouth shut, but since I am obviously on a quest to lose all of my friends, here goes.

To begin, although this is admittedly judgmental, I don’t believe people in general and Americans specifically are intellectually honest when condemning violence.  I think we are conditioned to celebrate and rely on violence albeit with sincere opinions on who-what-when-where-why and how much.  Watch a movie (Free State of Jones) or television show (Game of Thrones) or sporting event (UFC) and tell me we don’t appreciate a good guy’s use of violence to take down a bad guy.

Further, the United States makes up 4% of the world’s population and yet shells out 39% of the world’s military expenditures, and of approximately two-hundred nations in the world, twenty-one use capital punishment–and the United States is one of the top five in actually using it.  We hold a strong belief that there is a proper time-place-reason for violence.  Theologian, Walter Wink, called this the myth of redemptive violence—“the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right . . .” It is what we turn to when all else fails.

So when I heard the tragic news about Mr. Sterling, Mr, Castile, and the five Dallas police officers last week, I was deeply saddened but not surprised.  “When all else fails, turn to violence”—that thinking seemed to fuel a lot of the things we now lament happening in schools, nightclubs, police stops, and downtown Dallas, Texas.  Let’s be honest.  We are not outraged by violence per se.  Our outrage concerns who-what-when-where-why and how much.¹

Walter Wink, on the other hand, argues that the very idea of redemptive violence is problematic and that we need a different way.  He suggests creative, nonviolent resistance as the alternative.  Buy his book because I’m not smart enough to explain it well.  What I’ll simply say today is that such a way is based on love.  If you love someone too much to kill them and too much to let them carry on their madness, then creative, nonviolent² resistance is a third alternative.  That was the choice made by Gandhi and King—a true rejection of violence based on a true love of others.

And underneath all three of last week’s major news stories was an absence of love.


¹ I’m not writing any of this to shame anyone for believing that violence can be redemptive.  But don’t be surprised when someone determines that they need to start shooting people because they see no better alternative—that is based on the belief that violence can be redemptive.

² For the obvious questions about police, military force, et cetera, I make an important decision between “force” (the minimum amount of physical strength needed to stop a behavior) and “violence” (anything above the minimum).