Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Persistence, Diligence, and Vigilance in Advancing Social Justice

"I can't believe I'm 66 and still protesting this shit.”

That resonates. I am 66. I recall taking part in civil rights rallies in the early 1970s, during school desegregation in Boston when white supremacists threw rocks at buses carrying Black school children. Forty-seven years later, I am taking part in marches and unity rallies protesting those same racist attitudes. And in 2020, institutional racism is being enabled, even encouraged by a United States President who seems to admire global autocrats more than democratic leaders. 

That slogan also expresses frustration but at the same time an urgent reminder that persistence, diligence, and vigilance is needed when tracking society’s injustices and inequality. Black Lives Matter exemplifies that. Formed in 2013 as a response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, BLM has finally and rightfully achieved global center-stage, a position from which to aim the spotlight on ongoing institutional and societal racism. From stopping persons of color for a traffic check for no apparent reason (other than their skin color) to killing George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, we have seen many incidents of racism in law enforcement.

Toni Morrison has said: “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” She is referring not to the hyphens, for example, in African-American, Asian-American, and Native-American (terms of empowerment) but rather the hyphen in “non-white”, which implies that being other than a white person is, in a sense, “only” a negation of whiteness, not really quite a full citizen.

Historically, this is poignantly illustrated in the cases of Black soldiers who fought to end slavery in the civil war, the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII fighting fascism in Europe, and Black soldiers in Vietnam, fighting to (presumably) stop Cold War Communism in Southeast Asia. In Spike Lee’s most recent movie, “Da Five Bloods,” one of the 5 Black Vietnam War Veterans featured in the film, says “we fought a war to protect rights we didn't even have." He speaks for not only all Black soldiers in all wars but also for all other “hyphenated” Americans asking only for justice in equal rights and fair play.

Those Black soldiers, like all persons of color, were subject to Jim Crow laws when they returned to their lives in the United States. Those laws, a most blatant form of institutionalized racism, were in place from 1876 to 1965. They included laws like segregated public transportation, separate drinking fountains and restaurants, but they also outlawed “miscegenation,” or mixed-race marriage. Consider the irony of that term. The prefix “mis” is understood as a negation; for example, “misapplied” means to apply wrongly or mistakenly. But “mis,” further back etymologically means “to mix” so miscegenation decays from “mixed genes” to “mistakenly (mixed) genes.” Institutional racism embedded in the language of the law.

As to the question: “What does Nonviolence mean now?” Let us examine the term “nonviolence.” I suspect many people think of nonviolence in its hyphenated form: “non-violence.” Like the term “non-white” that elevates “white” to a higher position, “non-violence” subtly elevates violence. In contrast, “nonviolence” reflects a basic foundation and holistic meaning, an attitude and way of being. The term “violence” refers to a “violation of peace.” May we persistently, diligently, and vigilantly proceed towards peace through nonviolence. Perhaps then we can aspire to the place where we all have unequivocal faith in a nation which affirms that, regardless of race, color, or creed, every person deserves the title of “American.” Maybe then, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, we can all “surrender to the air and together ride the wind.”
Allan Andersen is a former English Literature Instructor at the University of Colorado. He is currently a small business owner in Ashland, OH and has been a member of the ACN Steering Committee for the past 6 years.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

What Does Nonviolence Mean Now?

In a well-known passage from Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno writes that “The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.” To Adorno, the light shed on things by redemption—seeing things not only as if they were capable of being redeemed, but also seeing them as though they are already on the way, if not already redeemed—is a perspective he calls “messianic.” 

I have found it difficult to know how to process so much of what American society has been going through since the murder of George Floyd on May 25. Reflecting on the nature of nonviolence has been on my mind as I have responded in other, more concrete ways. When I marched in a peaceful protest with fellow citizens of Ashland under the leadership of an Ashland University student, for example, I wondered about what makes a protest peaceful. Is it just that we were lucky enough that violence didn’t break out? I think there’s more to it than that. Nonviolence, which is a spirit more than a description of events, is “messianic” in Arorno’s sense: it names the discipline of striving to see reality as it currently does not appear to be, but that it will be one day. It doesn’t redeem reality; it lives as though reality will be or has already been redeemed. 

I am aware that this perspective can sound like the last thing we need right now. Doesn’t it counsel escape from reality, an especially dangerous impulse at a time when we especially need a heightened commitment to the unvarnished truth about injustice? This is indeed a very real risk if things aren’t really being redeemed. (And here I disagree with Adorno who adds that “the question of the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters.” I think it matters quite a lot.) 

Early on, our organization was counseled to avoid spelling the word “nonviolence” with a hyphen; we needed to keep from defining nonviolence negatively. It’s much easier to get people to agree that we should oppose many forms of violence. When we go to take the next step, though, we lose some people. Is there a peace that is deeper than our opposition to violence? If there is, what happens if we begin to live as though that deeper reality were truly real? 

Keon, the student leader of our local protests, often engages passing drivers by shouting, “We love you unconditionally!” Opponents and allies alike are included in this unconditional love, an element in our protest that I would say makes it truly a peaceful protest.

This is an experiment with truth—the truth that love is the foundation of all things. It would be very foolish to try to live as though that were true if it isn’t. But this is why nonviolence must be dared. Gandhi, of course, was committed to experimenting in this way. One commentator summarized Gandhi’s philosophy like this: “My adversary is part of my truth-finding process.” To Gandhi, peace names an openness to correction, supremely to being shown how what we thought was peace isn’t true peace. 

I consider this openness to be another step on the path of nonviolence. My own self-perception is one of the things that must be cast in the light of redemption. Resignation sees my adversary as an obstacle to be suffered; violence sees him as an opponent to be dispatched. But my neighbor is sometimes my enemy whom I must trust is crucial to my encounter with a truth I might never know apart from him.

I hasten to add that none of this makes my enemy “good,” except in the sense that he and I are both children of our creator who only creates good things. Furthermore, the point isn’t that my adversary is always or ever right. It is that my adversary is there to be reckoned with: sometimes to be listened to, sometimes to be corrected, sometimes to be opposed, and always to be loved. Nonviolence requires that I refuse to overpower the truth. In a very practical way, this means that I need adversaries because my friends might be tempted by the same tendency toward self-deception that I have. 

This, to me, is the heart of peace: believing that all things can be redeemed and are being redeemed. And living like that is the truth.

Craig Hovey is executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Presidential Sacrilege

The events of the past few weeks have unmasked the quick recourse to violence that infuses the American psyche. The national bent toward violence as a means of dealing with difference and dissent has now been set in sharp relief by a presidential threat of violence, followed by an exertion of violence. In short order, the President declared that he would use the military to dominate the streets, in order to restore law and order, and then followed a path cleared by the forceful dispersal of protestors from St. John’s Episcopal Church – so that he could be photographed holding up a Bible in front of it. Although Mr. Trump said nothing, the crude message of the photo was unmistakable: “The violence that I threaten and exert is sanctioned by Christianity’s sacred text and by the God it speaks of.”
Step back and let this sink in. Our country’s head of state and his security forces drove protesters from the grounds of a church and then occupied that space briefly for the purpose of political gain, without consulting or informing the religious personnel who had authority over that space – as if he exercised as much authority in sacred space as he does in the secular sphere.
The Founders were keenly sensitive to the tyrannical practices of the European monarchs, who utilized religious institutions as tools of the state and used force to suppress religious dissenters (like the Pilgrims). That is why they placed limitations on the Executive Branch and why Jefferson argued for a wall of separation between the Church and the State. Presidents do not have the right to enter sacred space as if they have carte blanche to use it as they see fit. By overriding those who steward sacred space, such executives imply that they are above divine authority. This is the essence of arrogant tyranny. It is sacrilegious, as it profanes sacred space (that is, does not give due reverence). And it is blasphemous, when sacred objects and symbols, like the Bible, are blatantly used for political ends. Every citizen ought to be alarmed. A leader of state who believes he owes no reverence to the sacred – whether or not he is a religious adherent – is capable of doing anything.
The Founders also worried over a standing army, which many believed could be used by the President against his own people – as was the practice of European tyrants. They believed, rather, that a citizen militia would provide an adequate defense and, for this reason maintained a minuscule regular force that garrisoned only a few forts and outposts during the early years of the Republic. Mr. Trump’s threat to utilize the military against U.S. citizens therefore steps into deeply troubling waters.
Mr. Trump is the kind of tyrannical president the Founders tried to protect democracy from. It remains to be seen whether the Constitution they bequeathed to us will enable our democracy to overcome it.
Daniel Hawk is Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Ashland Theological Seminary, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, and a member of the ACN Steering Committee.