Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Christians and Violence: A Modest Proposal



For the church throughout most of its history the question of the Christian and violence has been controversial. Should Christians ever pick up the sword? If they can, is there a limit to the kind of violence they can inflict? If they cannot, can they still support the war effort in non-violent roles (e.g. working in hospitals caring for the wounded)?

For the first three centuries of Christianity, there is little doubt that the church rejected violence and going to war as an option for Christians. Some have questioned this suggesting that the church's prohibition against military service in the Roman army was largely due to the inability of Christians to participate in pagan worship and declaring allegiance to a divine Caesar. Christian historian Ron Sider has effectively countered that latter argument. The first generations of Christians embraced nonviolence as a hallmark of following Jesus.

Nevertheless, a change did happen in the third century. It did not take place overnight; it took some time. But, what John Howard Yoder refers to as a Constantinian Shift did take place when that notable emperor formally codified toleration of Christianity in 313 CE.. Among other things that were changing for the church in that time was the possibility to serve in the military and bear the sword. But once the church began to tolerate and later commend waging war in support of the empire, there still needed to be some rules. When is it acceptable to go to war? Once war is declared how is it to be fought? It was Augustine (354-430 CE), theologian, philosopher, and Bishop in North Africa who would put bones and then flesh on those two questions, which would become known as the Just War Theory and with the passing of time the Just War Tradition.

There are two questions of the Just War Theory/Tradition (JWT) that must be answered in the affirmative for war to be a just endeavor: The first question concerns the acceptable conditions in which war can be declared (Latin, Jus ad Bellum), and the second inquiry concerns how the war is justly prosecuted (Latin, Jus in bello). Joe Carter* outlines both:

There are six criteria that must be satisfied before entering war can be considered just:

1. Just Cause-- There must be a just and proper reason for going to war. Some of the justifiable reasons include self-defense, protecting the innocent (e.g., preventing genocide), restoring human rights wrongly denied, and assisting an ally in their self-defense. 

2. Proportionate Cause-- The good of going to war must outweigh the destruction and death that will be caused by warfare. In other words, going to war must prevent more evil and suffering than it is expected to cause. 

3. Right Intention-- Our reasons and motives for engaging in warfare must noble and in line with the ethic of Christian love. We can go to war to right a wrong or restore a just peace but not to restore our "national pride" or to seek revenge against an enemy. 

4. Right Authority-- War can only be authorized by a legitimate governing authority. This means it has to be a governing authority we would recognize as fitting the criteria of Romans 13. But it also means that the proper governing authority has actual sovereign authorization to engage in war. For example, the President of the United States has the proper authority to initiate warfare against Canada while the governor of North Dakota does not. 

5. Reasonable Chance of Success-- The initiation of warfare brings violence, pain, and suffering. This cost is only worth paying if it will, as we noted, outweigh the destruction and death that will be caused by warfare. If there is no reasonable chance of success in warfare there can be no reasonable chance of using warfare to restore a just peace. 

6. Last Resort-- Engaging in warfare must be the last reasonable and workable option for addressing problems. Any peaceful alternatives, such as diplomacy or non-violent political pressure, must first be exhausted before going to war. 

Historically, Christian thinkers have proposed two primary criteria for just execution of war, discrimination and proportionality. 

Discrimination-- The criterion of discrimination includes two key components, "innocence" and "deliberate attack." The first rule of just warfare is that we do not target or kill the innocent. In this context, the term innocence refers to whether individuals are able cause direct harm-- whether willingly or reluctantly-- either to us or to our military forces that are engaged in just warfare. Such people are considered "noncombatants" and are immune from attack because the meet the qualification of innocence. 

Proportionality-- The criterion of proportionality in waging warfare is similar to the criterion of “proportionate cause” in deciding to go to war: The good of going to war must outweigh the destruction and death that will be caused by warfare. In other words, going to war must prevent more evil and suffering than it is expected to cause.

It is not the purpose of this post to get into the details of these criteria. The crucial point to be made is that in the history of the church, the burden of proof has rested on those who would wage war, not on those who oppose it. Specific criteria need to be met in order to go to war, and then once the war is being fought, it must be fought in certain ways. Any war that does not meet the criteria of the first question is unjust if war is declared, and any war is unjust if it is fought without regard to the criteria of the second question. These criteria are so important that theoretically once war is being waged, if one side realizes it cannot win the war without fighting it unjustly, the only recourse is surrender. In other words, those who embrace some aspect of the JWT theoretically are situational pacifists. If the criteria are not met, there should be no war. In other words, for pacifists and just warriors nonviolence is the default position.

I cannot speak for war in other religious traditions-- Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others will have to speak for themselves. But what I can say is that throughout church history, the default position for Christians has always been one of nonviolence. That is the church's natural state. Peace is the normal condition.

Sadly, that has not always been so. Indeed, it seems that for much of the church in America, nonviolence is not the default position. Even from a superficial glance of the church in American history, it appears that the burden of proof no longer rests with those who are beating the drums of war, but those who are opposed. In the lead up to the War in Iraq that began in 2003, it was obvious that those who urged caution were the ones that had to explain themselves. Churches throughout America almost immediately after the drums started to beat, threw themselves into patriotic worship and casting the soon-to-be conflict in terms of holy war. Christians who objected were accused of being unpatriotic and called all manner of disparaging names by other Christians! Pope John Paul II rightly came out in opposition to the war because it did not satisfy the criteria of the JWT (the official position of the Catholic Church) to the consternation of many Catholics in America.

For many Christians today, a just war means nothing more than a war we want to fight, and fight in any way necessary to win. There is no longer any consideration that in order to stay away from noncombatants, we must be willing to sacrifice more of our combatants, not because we want to, but because to target those unarmed would be unjust. No longer is surrender an option if the war cannot be fought justly. We must win at all costs even if more harm is done in winning the war as opposed to suing for peace. Is it possible to imagine during the Gulf War, President George W. Bush going on national television to say," I have consulted with our generals and we have come to the conclusion that we cannot win this war and fight it justly. Therefore, I have sent a communique to Saddam Hussein asking him for terms of peace." Of course, that would never happen, but for those who say they take just war seriously, that truly is an option. Nonviolence is the default position.

That is a long introduction to my modest proposal. My proposal is that for Christians, regardless of their views on the church and nonviolence-- what if all of us could affirm what our historic tradition maintains-- as followers of Jesus, nonviolence is our default position; and those who seek our support in going to war are the ones who bear the burden of proof. What if Christians in all their various understandings of war and violence could sit down and at the very least, say with one voice to the powers, "It's your task to convince us." If we could take that modest step together as Mainliners, evangelicals, conservatives and liberals, we would in a small way be able to bear witness to Jesus as the Prince of Peace; and perhaps there will be a little less bloodshed in our world.

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* Joe Carter, "A brief introduction to the just war tradition: Jus ad bellum," https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/a-brief-introduction-to-the-just-war-tradition-jus-ad-bellum/; "A brief introduction to the just war tradition: Jus in bello," https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/a-brief-introduction-to-the-just-war-tradition-jus-in-bello/.

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Allan R. Bevere is the pastor of Ashland First United Methodist Church (Ohio) and a Professional Fellow in Theology at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. He serves on the ACN Steering Committee. He blogs at allanbevere.com.


Friday, October 2, 2020

How Listening Helps Talking in Divisive Political Climates

 


      As our presidential election draws near in what has become a very divisive political climate, we may find ourselves spending more time reading posts on social media and viewing news programs, both of which tend to present polarized views.  This polarization can affect how we think and talk about political issues.  How do we talk to family and friends who may have different political views without harming those relationships?  The answer may well be found in research associated with conflict resolution.  This research finds that conversations about political issues can become argumentative or emotionally charged. An effective communication strategy is to identify your listening purpose. Listening purposes include critical listening, listening for understanding, empathetic listening, and listening for enjoyment.  Our choice of listening purpose influences what we listen for, how we interpret information, and how we respond.  In most conversations involving political or social issues, our listening choices tend to be critical.

    In political conversations, critical listening provides one the opportunity to construct counterarguments and rebuttals in support of one’s position or opinion.  This listening purpose may produce a victor but does little to make the conversation comfortable for all participants, especially family and friends. Listening critically also contributes to the potential of a conversation spiraling into a serial argument. Over time, these patterns can erode positivity in relationships.

Listening to understand, on the other hand, allows participants in the conversation to possibly find common ground, even if they disagree about candidates or issues.  This purpose requires one to paraphrase what was heard and to ask questions for clarification of position and underlying interests. An example is asking what the most valuable quality in a chosen candidate looks like to the other person. A follow-up question could be asking what we expect someone with that quality to do as a leader. Listening to understand shows family and friends that you have an interest their views. It also can set a pattern of reciprocity for the conversation in which listening to understand becomes a focus for both people as they take turns.

We do find ourselves living in and coping with a divisive political climate.  However, that does not mean that our political conversations have to be divisive.  In conversations with family and friends, there should be an expectation of being heard with respect, albeit sometimes without agreement. When we have a listening purpose to understand, that expectation is better realized.

 

Gwen A. Hullman, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at Ashland University. She studies conflict resolution and health communication, and has served as a volunteer mediator for several years.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Iceberg Dead Ahead! Key Threats Which Will Sink America

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“Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.” (Proverbs 18:12, NIV)

If the American people were to wake up to the wisdom of the words above, we would realize - as some undoubtedly have already come to suspect - that America’s perceived greatness and its near-global hegemony stand atop a house of cards. As even the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong could clearly see, American dominance was and continues to be “a paper tiger… unable to withstand the wind and the rain,” the foolish man who builds upon a foundation of sand instead of rock.

Much of this underlying weakness is ignored because of the haughtiness of the ruling political class, made evident by the continued lack of accountability in the government in facing up to America’s major systemic problems: police brutality, suppression of the right to peaceably assemble, lagging school systems, child poverty and hunger, the obscene costs of higher education, and the titanic military-surveillance matrix. All of these problems have occurred and intensified under what many refer to as the “Pax Americana,” and, adding to the already paralyzing ironies, are almost all issues of illiberality and lack of resources in what we are told is the freest and wealthiest nation in the history of, well, history.

I am interested here in pointing out the two major contemporary reasons that the heart of America is being steered on a treacherous course toward a wider downfall. The first culprit is American exceptionalism, the religion of the patriot and the tool of many a phony statesman to remold the sensibilities and good intentions of the common man. While the civil religion of American exceptionalism should ring warning bells in the minds and hearts of American evangelicals, they tend to be one of the main proponents of its pillars and precepts. Instead of worshiping God, our timeless, loving Father, so many Americans profess a form of Christianity which aligns itself nigh-inseparably with the fleeting, hateful interests of the modern federal government. It is one thing to believe that the maxims of liberty and equality of man at America’s founding are ideas worth continuing, and it is quite the opposite thing to mock God with blind reverence for the rusting hull of our ever-growing ship of state. One way that we as citizens can work to clean the barnacles from her side and help her push past these choppy waters is to recognize that we have a problem. This may seem simple, but American exceptionalism thrives when we do not ask simple questions like: “where are my tax dollars going?”; “why do so many other nations hate us?”; “would I trust the people I vote for to watch my kids for five minutes at Wal-Mart?” This last question brings us to the next large part of the problem.

The other guilty party in this “haughtiness dilemma” is the President of the United States. Not simply the current chief executive, mind you. In reality, all of our nation’s Presidents since the Second World War have either overlooked America’s harmful trajectory or been actively complicit in it. It is a prerequisite of the office since its founding to appeal to some form of American exceptionalism, but this can come in forms less putrid than its modern manifestations. It can come in the form of calls to live up to the noble ideals of our Declaration of Independence or in calls to hope and the perseverance of community after disaster strikes. The latter occurred briefly following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and far more recently in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd murder. However, both times were short-lived. The character of the people had been poisoned by the prevalence of American exceptionalism; its rabid supporters and those who see its evils manifested cannot long see eye to eye. Disappointingly, it has been so long since America has had a President who consistently works to build hope and community at home or abroad that a good number of people alive today have not lived in such an America. I know I certainly haven’t had that experience, even when I was too young to remember such things. Presidents certainly have their shining moments; even those of the “polished turd” variety. Southerner President Johnson signed landmark civil rights legislation. Radical cold-warrior President Nixon opened talks with China and established arms limitation treaties with the Soviet Union. Regardless, one thing that holds modern Presidents together is their hubris and inability to let haughtiness give way to humility. Even when a President is forced to apologize when scandals see the light of day, they keep working on their next schemes behind closed doors.

The lack of humility and honor in the modern executive branch is exemplified in its current leader, President Trump. Something new is happening; where Presidents once put on at least a facade of apology, President Trump has realized a level of executive arrogance that causes him to feel no need to admit to his wrongs. Instead, he gloats and spins tales that are often so absurd that they cannot be disproven by traditional means. This should not necessarily be an issue in a republican form of government, but President Trump wields the simplistic and worshipful rhetoric of American exceptionalism like few others; he certainly wields it well enough to keep a vast proportion of eligible voters convinced that things like health-care reform, defense spending reductions, or a less violence-prone policing system are steps toward the rebirth of Joseph Stalin.

I do not propose that the solution to a marvelous new America would be to give up all vestiges of American national pride. Pride in the incredible scientific and industrial achievements and founding values of the United States is something that I never give up despite my misgivings about America’s modern violence, corporatism, and hypocrisies. I propose the rejection only of the core tenets of American exceptionalism doctrine. Devotion to a flag and an anthem and a powerful President obscures the uses of critical thinking, reasoned judgments, and the right of the people to decide their representatives and their destinies. Faith should be placed in the Almighty who died for our sins, not in the power of a hellishly equipped military to exert our will on the unwilling. Schools should pass out more Constitution booklets instead of pounding the Pledge of Allegiance into our children's’ impressionable heads. Before our President holds up a Bible in the streets, his government should guarantee that those same streets are not the sites of police shootings or chemical attacks on the peaceably assembled.

Those in command and in places of privilege on board the Titanic when it sank were those most confident in its invincibility. They were also the least likely to perish should anything go awry. They plotted full steam ahead into the abyssal night despite reasoned judgement. Their level of “Titanic exceptionalism” was unchecked. Before our national vessel is torn asunder by the mass on the horizon, we the people must reject American exceptionalism for a reasoned love of nation; nation not as a machine of progress, but as a community meant to seek domestic tranquility and promotion of the understanding of the equal station naturally given man by his God to all nations, not as their barbaric invaders but as their willing company.
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Konrad Hodgman is an ACN Peace Scholar and currently sits on the ACN Steering Committee. He is a Junior at Ashland University majoring in International Political Studies, Political Science, and History with a minor in Ethics.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

What's It All About?



When I need inspiration to handle a world that seems to be spinning out of control, my “go to” book is “Make Us Aware: The Writings by Dr. James Leslie”.  Dr. Leslie was chaplain of Ohio Wesleyan University from 1960-1988, very tumultuous times, indeed. The “James Leslie Center for Peace and Justice” was established in 2007 at OWU and this book was lovingly published by his colleagues in 2010. As I participated last week in the OWU Alumni Book Club to discuss it, I was moved by the long-lasting, profound impact he has had on his students and am absolutely convinced that his legacy will live on in perpetuity. I’d like to share a piece “What’s It All About?”. 

Full disclosure, I’m not an alum of OWU. However, to tell my journey with the nonviolence movement and the importance of activism means to start with my earliest years growing up in Delaware, Ohio, participating in programs sponsored by this chaplain’s office. He was my best friend’s father and a major influence in my life until his death. My eyes were opened to social justice, racial reconciliation, and world peace. During those turbulent times of the 1960’s, Dr. Leslie provided opportunities to process and protest the deaths of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, the very first seeds of what we call today “Black Lives Matter”, to name a few. As a 14-yr old boy, he sat in Mahatma Gandhi’s hut and listened while Gandhi and his father discussed matters of faith and world affairs. He and MLK were awarded their doctoral degrees from Boston University on the same day.  Dr. Leslie’s orientation to the world was something I never would have experienced had he not organized thoughtful and peaceful vigils, speakers, protests, sit-ins, and marches. He taught me to view the world through a non-violent/civil rights lens. To realize that silence and inaction often translate to acceptance and agreement. That to not participate in the process for the change you want to see means you will forever live with the results of a world much different than it should be. To speak truth to power. 

 

And, now, his words, originally heard at an Alumni Convocation in June 1974. I hope you will agree with me that these words are as relevant and inspirational today as they were then.

  

What's It All About?

 What is it all about? It's about people. in a certain Midwestern college, in a county seat, coming together to renew friendships and memories, mostly pleasurable, but some sad.

It's about remembering traditions, of gathering in this place with these people, to keep in touch with each other and the world that surrounds us and sometimes engulfs us.

It’s about taking time to remember who created us and to try once again to discover why.

It’s about lowering our defenses for sixty minutes to confront one another and God.

It's about a world that is hurting right now more than we can comprehend. And it's about many of us who can't remedy such hurt and who are frustrated by it.


It's about people sometimes ignoring other people in faraway places with strange sounding names.

It's about a presence, and a power, to whom we choose to go for help.

It's about time.

It's about time we woke up to what's going on around us.

It's about time we recognized the skills we have at our fingertips, necessary for healing, for calming, for building, and for rebuilding.

It's about minds that can sort out good intentions from difficult attempts.

It's about people who want to do what is right and often end up satisfying their own appetites, and it's about guilt feelings for doing just that.

It's about humans being inhuman to each other.

It's about the same humans being dissatisfied with what has been, and trying now to make changes, to make a difference.

It's about God, trying to get through to us, and about us, being very trying, and sometimes, sometimes, catching glimpses of God in people, in actions and even in ourselves.

It's about time to begin.

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Barbara Schmidt-Rinehart (Ph.D., The Ohio State University, Second Language Acquisition and Spanish Linguistics) is Professor of Foreign Languages at Ashland University. Her academic areas of research and publications focus on forms of address in Costa Rica, professional development abroad for US teachers of Spanish, and the homestay component of study abroad. She is the director of the “AU in Costa Rica” program and serves on the ACN Steering Committee.







Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Pete Seeger, Selma, and Kenosha: Thoughts on Nonviolence and our Neighbors in Troubled Times

 

“I believe that in the period of history we are entering, it is going to be very difficult to love a large portion of the human race living here in the USA.”  -- Pete Seeger, June  6, 1965


I have spent the strange and terrible summer of 2020 alternately researching the life and work of songleader and folklorist Pete Seeger and standing with my Black Lives Matter sign on the corner of Main and Claremont. Seeger, the banjo picker and lifelong activist, has had a lot to say to me as trucks roar by and voices yell at the small band of Ashland’s persistent witnesses.

Around sixty days into the demonstrations, a nice old gentleman pulled up at the light, rolled down his window. “Thank you for not being like those violent protesters,” he said. He had obviously been watching the news filled with the late-night stand-offs in Portland: the tear gas, riot gear, umbrellas, fire and broken glass. He had also been listening to the political rhetoric designed to incite fear rather than offer insights to calm and heal.  But he had observed the motley collection of local people standing downtown and we didn’t match that reality: we hadn’t smashed, burned or looted anything.

His compliment struck us as absurd.

We are, indeed, a nonviolent protest but, honestly, what other option would we even have?  Certainly there are some of us who embrace Jesus’ ethic of loving enemies and refusing to strike back but others find that kind of talk naive and irritating. What unites us is our anger at the terrible life-destroying statistically undeniable bias in our country’s justice system. We have been heartened by the honks of support and look of joy and surprise on people’s faces as they drive past. We have also at times been shocked by some of the responses from our fellow Ashlanders, particularly when the screamed racist invective has been hurled at children. We all at times wonder if there is any purpose to what we are doing. One middle aged man on a Harley shook his head, “Jesus Christ! Give it up already.”

The week of the news from Kenosha followed by images of the counter-protest convoy of trucks flying “Trump 2020” and “Blue Lives Matter” flags pouring into Portland seemed very familiar to us. We see those same trucks every day--we jokingly call them the Ku Trucks Klan. But these are our neighbors who think we are terrorists and yell “All Lives Matter, dumbass!” at us as they pass. How on earth are our divided communities going to move forward? How much worse is this going to get?

In March, 1965, Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi walked alongside John Lewis on the march from Selma to Montgomery. Lewis was one of the great American apostles of nonviolence; for him nonviolence was a way of life. Seeger, took a more pragmatic approach. He, perhaps like most of us, was impressed and inspired by the nonviolence of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNNC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); however, he couldn’t completely give up the idea that a conflict might arise where violence would be the last resort needed to stop a terrible enemy.

Pete Seeger was excited to hear all the singing going on around him. A group of teenage girls walked behind the couple. For mile after mile they sang. They sang church songs and school songs and freedom songs hoisting up the songs like sails to catch the wind. Some filled and went on for chorus after chorus with voices up and down the line joining in. Others just flapped against the mast to be lowered after only a couple of verses. Seeger jotted down the words marveling at the way that the girls were singing new words to old songs and adding their own verses--seemingly making some of them up on the spot.

I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart

One of the new verses surprised the veteran folk singer.

I love Governor Wallace in my heart . . .

Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who had famously intoned, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

For the communist Pete Seeger, this joyful moment of singing brought alive a piece of Christian teaching, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 RSV). It played over in his mind in the succeeding weeks. In June he gave the Baccalaureate address at a college. Telling the students about the march and the girls singing he said, “I’d like to commend this spirit to you, because I believe that in the period of history we are entering, it is going to be very difficult to love a large portion of the human race living here in the USA.”

Seeger was anticipating the escalating conflict and political polarization around the war in Vietnam and poverty at home: divisions that over the next few years brought riots to cities and death to college campuses and mass protests to the capital. But those words spoken 55 years ago never seemed more relevant than they do to me today.

They are honest words.

Today, many Americans find it increasingly hard, if not impossible, to understand the priorities and political commitments of their fellow Americans. Looking ahead, it will be hard for us to love each other after all that has been going on.

Pete Seeger, who was instrumental in bringing the song Kumbaya to the folk revival and the civil rights movement, did not offer those students what we might now call a Kumbaya moment at their graduation; instead, he issued a wake up call: “I believe the best thing you can do is make up your mind that you will be living in an unpleasant world for much of your lives.” But then drawing on his experience on Alabama’s Highway 80, he said, “If we are in for a struggle to keep our country from falling into bad ways, don’t think it need be a joyless struggle. Far from it. As Jesus urged his disciples, ‘Be of Good Cheer.’”

For me, these words have been incredibly helpful. I am not going to pretend (as we hear some say) that our problems will magically disappear after the elections in November. Whoever wins, we will be stuck for decades with the damage already done. These carefully nurtured divisions will continue to damage and destroy lives.  

How do we proceed into that future? I am with Pete Seeger and the Apostle John: the key question is how on earth are we to love our neighbors that we see everyday?

I appreciate Seeger’s honesty, loving some people is going to be a struggle.

Pete Seeger was not a Christian; his mother in-law used to jokingly chide him for his “diabolical materialism.” But maybe he understood Jesus’s words in John’s gospel better than many of us who profess to be his disciples. The words of Jesus that Seeger quoted to the students all those years ago come from John’s gospel: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

I take heart today from the joy Seeger glimpsed on the march from Selma to Montgomery: he witnessed a nonviolent movement building and celebrating community and singing together. Perhaps only when the struggle is nonviolent can there be the hope that it will not be a joyless struggle.

 
--
Peter Slade is a Professor in the Religion Department at Ashland University.

 


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Day I Changed My Mind About the Confederate Flag


                               

I am a Yankee-- more specifically I am a Yankee from the Great State of Ohio. I have lived most of my life in Ohio, though I spent two years in North Carolina attending graduate school.

Growing up a Yankee I learned about the Civil War from a white northern perspective. We must always remember that when it comes to reading history, perspective is everything. I am thankful that my parents instilled in me a real vision of all persons created as equal in the image of God regardless of their skin color. I am thankful I did not grow up in a racist home. It was from that perspective that I understood the terrible and evil atrocity of slavery in America.

But my upbringing did not instill in me the knowledge of the subtleties of racism. I don't blame my parents for that. We lived in a white world, for the most part, and we were shielded from those subtle forms of racism that African Americans experienced regularly.

But as I got older and my world became larger, I began to realize that racism and racial discrimination were intrinsically embedded in American society in ways I had never realized. One aspect of that embedded racism was the symbolism displayed by society. There are more than a few of those symbols, but the one I speak of in this post is the Confederate battle flag.

As a young man, I began to hear the calls rising from some quarters demanding removal of that flag from government property because of its racist overtones. I confess at the time that I did not understand that perspective. Sure, I understood the connection between the battle flag and the Civil War and the South, but I reasoned to myself that it was silly to get worked up over a symbol and not everyone, I thought, who has a Confederate battle flag or the flag of the Confederacy (the Stars and Bars) on their bumper surely is a racist. I bought into the line from those who said that the Confederate flag was not a symbol of racism, but a display of southern heritage and pride, much like my fellow Buckeyes who fly the state flag of Ohio. That was my perspective until one day that I will never forget.

When our children were young (they are now grown and gone), we would vacation in the south--Virginia, North and South Carolina-- and we regularly visited historical sites. On one particular occasion we were in Charlottesville, Virginia visiting Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. We had given our children money for vacation to spend on whatever they wanted-- souvenirs, et al. At the time our son, Joshua was really into flags and had something of a collection. When we were in the gift shop after our visit to Jefferson's house, he naturally gravitated toward the display of various small flags. He pulled a Confederate battle flag from the kiosk and brought it to me for purchase. At that moment, I had an epiphany. As I looked at that miniature Stars and Bars, I was not sure I wanted him to have it... and as I stood there, I was not quite sure why. I hesitated for a moment and then told my son that he could not buy that flag. He would have to choose another.

I spent the rest of the day thinking about that moment attempting to make sense of my dis-ease. As I put words to my concerns, it was clear to me. I did not want my son owning a symbol that could not be divorced from the belief that certain people could be property. I could not let him display something that in its original context promoted legalized slavery to the extent that some people were willing to kill and be killed for its preservation. And I had to explain to him why I would not let him buy it. Today, Joshua is twenty-five, but he remembers that incident and is grateful for the lesson he learned.

Because of history, certain symbols get so wedded to ideas and movements that it becomes impossible to see the symbol and not think of those ideas and those events that made them prominent; and no amount of denial can change that. During the reign of the Roman empire countless individuals were crucified, but because of Christianity when someone sees a cross today, only one particular crucified individual is remembered. The swastika originally was a symbol of good fortune. It also was used in early Christian and Byzantine art-- a gammadion cross-- a symbol of the death of Jesus. But because of the Nazis employment of that symbol, it is not possible to see a swastika today without recalling to mind the evil of the Nazis. The swastika is forever embedded with that evil. Would anyone today seriously suggest trying to employ the swastika once again in our church sanctuaries as a symbol for Jesus' death?

After my new found epiphany, I began to do some research on the Confederate battle flag, and Confederate symbols and monuments. It reinforced to me even more that it was impossible to separate America's history of slavery from the symbols and statues of the Confederacy. History has a way of dispelling our cover stories, and to say that the Confederate flag is only a symbol of Southern heritage is a cover story that can only be believed when one is in a state of denial. The attempt to divorce our symbols from the context that gives them meaning is to commit willful amnesia as to who we were as a people so that we can deny what we have inherited and must still confront today. To quote Civil War historian, William C. Davis, "Symbols matter. They say at a glimpse what words cannot, encapsulating beliefs and aspirations, prejudices and fears. Having no intrinsic value, they take meaning from the way we use them, changing over time along with our actions."

When we remove the symbols of our racist history from monumental status to the displays of museums, we are not denying our history, but putting them in their proper context. Indeed, the Confederate monuments themselves, erected in the twentieth century during Jim Crow, were themselves an attempt to erase the sordid history of slavery and replace it with the fictitious notion of the Lost Cause. As displays, they tell the story of who we were; as monuments they proclaim who we still want to be. As displays they remind us of the values that our ancestors embraced; as monuments they continue to proclaim those values as somehow still important. When a community places a monument in public, it is a declaration of what the people who put it there value. No one should be duped into believing that a monument in public makes no moral claims. When communities continue to embrace those monuments, they are affirming the values of those who put them there in the first place.

We must remember the worst of our history. That does not mean we have to idolize it in the town square or on government property.

Symbols matter.

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Allan R. Bevere is the pastor of Ashland First United Methodist Church (Ohio) and a Professional Fellow in Theology at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. He serves on the ACN Steering Committee. He blogs at allanbevere.com.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Nonviolence As I See It Now

The first week of August this month marks the 75th anniversary commemorating the dropping of the atomic bombs in Japan at the end of World War II.  It is a solemn annual event marking Japan’s loss of life, and honoring Japan’s Hibakusha, its now elderly atomic blast survivors.  After the war, many Hibakusha went on to become lifelong peace and justice activists, working to teach the next generations of the horrors of nuclear warfare, and to rid the world of the planetary scale of violence of nuclear weapons.  Many other Hibakusha went on silently to lead normal lives, keeping secret their survivor’s guilt, carrying their wounds and memories quietly into the grave.  Most remaining survivors are now in their 80s, and many more pass away each year, which renders more poignant and urgent the obligation of the rest of humanity worldwide to take up their mission for global peace and unity.

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to be in Hiroshima, Japan.  I had traveled there with colleagues and a group of American students taking a cross listed course in Peace and Conflict Studies/Asia Studies.  We had to rise in the wee hours to commute to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, and be seated in time for the annual August 6 Commemorative Event, which begins at 8:15 a.m., marking the precise moment the atomic blast vaporized much of the city of Hiroshima and most of its residents:  most were unarmed civilians:  women, men, children, the elderly.  I have had few ‘life changing’ experiences, but this was one of them.  I was stunned to see that we seemed to be among the very few Americans there, despite the historic moment of it being the first time a U.S. diplomat would be attending the event.  A few Japanese people approached me, thanking me—someone from the nation that so irrevocably harmed them—for being there.   It was humbling to experience this event from the perspective of the vanquished ‘enemy’ our American history books portrayed the Japanese to be. 

Thanks to my whirlwind bundle-of-energy colleague, Dr. Akiko Jones, who puts her nonviolent mojo into her award-winning Japanese language teaching and our local Cherry Blossom Festival, I have had the honor to become acquainted with one of the Hibakusha, Dr./Ms. Hiroko Nakamoto.  As a little girl, Sensei Nakamoto survived the blast that fateful day.  She went on to recover from her physical wounds, and to have a successful professional career, all while transforming her trauma into advocacy and supporting programs and institutions of learning that teach peace.  Sensei worked her peace magic in Japan, and in the U.S., including here in Ohio.  She used her own financial resources, moxy, and persistence to build a new peace park commemorative zone along the riverbank by Hiroshima’s train station.  Her life’s peace work demonstrates that nonviolence involves patience, hard work, and an unbounded love of all life.  Beyond being brilliant, as an octogenarian, she is one of the most fun, delightful, young-at-heart people I have ever met, with a mischievous sense of humor. She taught me that a life of nonviolence is the fountain of youth. 

I have been studying and teaching about the peacebuilding Communication practices of diverse leaders and nonviolent activists for some 25 years now.  As a grad student I flew from State College, Pennsylvania to San Francisco, California to see and hear the Dalai Lama in person—along with many other renowned nonviolent leaders at a major Peace conference.  I also attended lectures on nonviolence by luminaries such as Myrlie Evers Williams, widow of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers (who was murdered in his own driveway in front of his children), and a bona fide activist in her own right.   She had no rancor, only a steely reserve, an unshakable dignity, and an aura of steadfastness, as she discussed the work that faced nonviolent activism in some 15 years before Black Lives Matter movement reinvigorated America’s conversation about our checkered history of aspiring for all “to be created equal” but falling far short of that ideal in reality.  I attended other keynote addresses by nonviolent leaders and thinkers who view themselves as citizens of the world, like Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi. I had the good fortune to hear author/activist Arundati Roy speak of the growing need to address systemic violences of globalization’s rapacious greed, crushing poor people, wildlife and natural world ecosystems in its path.  When I lived in Alabama, I got to see and hear in person Congressman John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon, who came to speak at Troy University where I worked in 2006-07, and where Lewis recounted with mirthful irony, his college application in 1957 had been rejected due to segregation.   Nonviolent leaders usually have a good sense of humor.  Or, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it, “Love your enemy, it will ruin his reputation.”

These nonviolent leaders’ collective teachings convey that righteous anger is a good first step toward, as Nelson Mandela aptly called it, ‘The Long Walk to Freedom.’  Anger is a useful energy, if channeled carefully, to shift into action peacebuilders ranging from community organizers, students of peace and conflict studies, to citizens or protesters in the streets.  But anger does not sustain the hard, grueling, lifelong labor needed to work for equity, for peace with justice.  The next steps in that long walk involve networking, organizing, and not giving up.  As any of the Nobel Peace Prize winners would say, each in her or his own way, nonviolence means sitting down and talking or negotiating with one’s adversaries, as fellow human beings.  “Your enemy is your greatest teacher,” says the Dalai Lama.  Experiencing nonviolence directly through the readings, writings, orations and leadership of such luminaries has given me inspiration and fortitude to keep moving forward, step by step, in my own small way, in my own life and work.  So here I am, writing this reflection on nonviolence and its meaning to me now in this time of fearsome pandemic and brave citizen-driven calls for changing how our nation and world understands, and behaves to curb, systemic racism.

From nonviolent leaders what I have learned, and what I know about nonviolence now, is this:  there isn’t a specific way for any one person to take on an issue that will make the world a more peaceful, justice-filled, or equitable place.  There is no prescribed path for anyone among us to take up the Hibakushas’ mantle to advocate for the United Nations’ passage of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons:  globally, there are about 13,000 nukes, unimaginably far more destructive than those the U.S. used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Taking actions for nonviolence, justice, and peacebuilding can be as small as planting a tree in one’s yard or in a park, as Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai showed millions how to do worldwide.  Actions may be as weighty as pursuing a career in global diplomacy or, as the tiny nation of Bhutan has demonstrated, creating a new and different (non-economic; pro-sentient beings) metric to measure modern life or success:  Gross National Happiness (GNH).  Whatever nonviolent thought or action you try, however small or big, it’s ok.  Nonviolence takes time, it will be waiting for you.

Author makes the peace sign at Miyajima Gate, Japan, in 2010.

About the Author: 

Ellen W. Gorsevski (Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University) is Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication (SMC), and Affiliated Faculty in American Culture Studies (ACS), Peace and Conflict Studies (PACS), and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program (WGSS) at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Dr. Gorsevski’s research focuses on contemporary rhetoric of peacebuilding, social justice and environmental justice movements. Research interests include environmental rhetoric and critical animal studies, international/intercultural rhetoric, political rhetoric, social movement rhetoric, media criticism, and nonviolent communication. Her sole authored books include: Dangerous Women: The Rhetoric of the Women Nobel Peace Laureates (Communication and Social Justice series of Troubador Publishing, 2014) and Peaceful Persuasion:  The Geopolitics of Nonviolent Rhetoric (SUNY Press, 2004).  She has published in journals such as Journal of Multicultural Discourses; Quarterly Journal of Speech; Western Journal of Communication; and Environmental Communication.  She serves on the Steering Committee of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.