The Energy Continues

A little while ago, I wrote about The ‘Energy’ of Violence, in which I suggested that violence can never be fully and truly defeated by violence; it takes something much more powerful.

In response to this, my friend labalienne reminded us that the sort of argument I advanced in my original post must take into consideration the violence against women that, scandalously, so often gets brushed aside.

In response to labalienne’s excellent response, I’d like to offer three points:

Firstly, I’d like to acknowledge that I was wrong.

My first instinct, when confronted with this point, was a kind of self-defence, arguing that this wasn’t what I was talking about and that I would never advocate a kind of ‘passive-ism’ that accepts but does not confront and expose such violence.

Such for my ‘mansplaining’.

My first response *should* have been unconditional listening.

The point that labalienne makes is all too real, and all too often ignored. Us men so often respond with #notallmen (or #notmyblogpost, it seems), without necessarily allowing the gravity of the point to sink in. This is real, and it’s disgusting, and we—I—need to listen to the voices of women far more attentively.

Secondly, I feel it’s necessary to post the links to the series of articles written by Julia Baird in the Sydney Morning Herald, on the topic of the theology of ‘submission’ and ‘headship’ in Christian marriage and domestic violence (labalienne linked to the first of these in her post, but the second two were not yet written):

  1. “Submission is a fraught mixed message for the church”
  2. “Doctrine of headship a distortion of the gospel message of mutual love and respect”
  3. “Church cannot afford to walk past domestic abuse”

Thirdly, and finally, I want to make a point that I should have in the original post.

I’m white. I’m very, very white.

Violence in our world disproportionately affects people of colour (and especially women of colour), and is all too often inflicted by white men—by people like me.

What we don’t need is for people like me to stand up and talk like we’ve figured out all the ‘solutions’. In my post, the examples I was thinking of as I wrote included a poor Jewish rabbi (Jesus of Nazareth), masses of Indians standing up to the might of the British Empire (Gandhi and his followers), the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and the nonviolence outlined by (post-prison) Nelson Mandela.*

My job is not to suggest (or appear to suggest) that I have the answers to these things, but to point to those who have experienced such violence and who have overcome not through responding with violence of their own, but with something more powerful. I also need to acknowledge the very real bodily pain and suffering that they experienced, and those who lost their lives in the process (and I thank labalienne, again, for reminding me of this point).

I’d like to keep this conversation going, and I hope the points above are helpful.

_______________

* Yes, I am aware (and somewhat disappointed) that all the main examples that were in my mind (Jesus, Gandhi, MLK, Mandela) were male.

Advertisements

The ‘Energy’ of Violence

These days, it’s relatively common for me to get myself in conversations about the ‘effectiveness’ of nonviolence. The discussion usually goes something like this:

Someone: “Look, I like the idea of nonviolence, but in the same kind of way that university students like the idea of Communism: it’s nice on paper, I guess, but it just doesn’t work in the real world.”

Me: “Right. So we’re talking about whether or not nonviolence can be an effective strategy, yeah?”

Someone: “Correct. It might be fine in certain situations, but it’s just not going to work in the face of full-blown evil.”

Me: “Leaving off for a moment a couple of points that could be challenged from what you’ve just said, you might be surprised to learn that nonviolent movements have, historically, proven to be more ‘successful’ than violent ones.”

Someone: “Right. So what you’re saying is that you’re going to fly over to Iraq to have a cup of tea and biscuits and ‘discuss’ options with I.S.? Good luck with that! With the reality of I.S., or Boko Haram—or Hitler and the Nazis—we’re dealing with pure evil. That kind of evil cannot be reasoned with, and it won’t be stopped by everyone sitting around singing Kumbaya! There’s only one language that these monsters understand, and it’s one that’s communicated through the barrel of a gun.”

…and so on and so forth.

Now, there are a number of intertwined issues in this discussion. There’s the dehumanisation of the enemy (using terms like ‘monsters’, ‘savages’, ‘pure evil’, and the like), which, of course, is a very helpful way of assuaging guilt. The thought of ‘exterminating brutes’ is much easier to accept than killing fellow human beings, and it’s why the official vocabulary of war is so full of euphemism. There is also, of course, the core issue of effectiveness (in terms of clear ‘results’), which has been shown a number of times to, quite clearly, favour nonviolent movements (despite common belief, and in all sorts of contexts—including overthrowing violent dictators.

But I think there’s actually a more foundational issue which needs to be clarified:

There seems to be a common belief that violence can be defeated by violence—violence of a different kind, perhaps (if you want to make that argument), but violence nonetheless (…the ongoing popularity of the myth of redemptive violence is here ‘Exhibit A’). Once it has reached the point where there is ‘no other option’, so the argument goes, violence is required in order to overcome the evil that is being (perhaps reluctantly) opposed, and to restore equilibrium.

The problem with this is that violence never defeats violence. Ever.

It can pause it, I guess, or suppress it (for a time), or deflect it or squish and squash or bend it, but violence can never fully ‘defeat’ violence.

Violence, rather, begets further violence—often in new and innovative forms, to be sure, but reliably nonetheless.

Violence, it seems to me, has a kind of energy to it, which ricochets its way through the pages of history. Energy, as the saying goes, never really dies, it simply changes its form. In the same way, the energy of violence is not defeated by further violence, but is simply changed and channeled into new forms.

The violence of I.S. doesn’t spring forth out of nowhere, but from the fertile ground of previous violence. Such is the case for Boko Haram, and Joseph Kony, and Hitler, and on and on it goes. (Perhaps it’s a touch too controversial, but I think this also explains the incredible violence that is alive and well in the U.S., but I’ll leave that for another discussion.)

The cacophony of violence in our world bounces off the blades of swords and the barrels of guns, echoing into perpetuity.

This, of course, is rather depressing.

There is, to my mind, only one antidote, and it’s best illustrated in the torturous death of a poor Jewish rabbi on a Roman cross.

Jesus of Nazareth, hanging on the cross, absorbed the energy of violence into himself. Rather than responding in kind—rather than calling his disciples to violent revolt—he drew the violence of Empire into his own body, and transformed it by the only force in the universe powerful enough to do so: grace. Instead of words of wrath, forgiveness flowed from his lips, and thus violence was robbed of its power. (Of course, the Christian story also insists that, through the resurrection of Jesus, death itself—that thing which gives violence its very power—was overcome in full.)

And this, then, is the reason why nonviolence is not just more ‘successful’ than violence, but in fact is the only truly successful response.

Meeting violence with violence can only ever deflect the energy of violence. Transforming violence through grace and love allows for the vibrations of violence to be wholly absorbed.

I am not for a moment saying that this is easy. In fact, it remains a truly extraordinary act (and one that I’m not sure I can fully appreciate, given that my life has been relatively free from violence).

It is also fact, however, that it remains the only way to truly defeat violence.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile to conclude with the words of Dr King:

Probably no admonition of Jesus has been more difficult to follow than the command to love our enemies. Some people have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you…?

Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love for even our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist; the is the practical realist…

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.

Holy Saturday Vigil for Asylum Seekers – Love Makes a Way

On Holy Saturday of this year (April 19, 2014), more than 100 people came together for a peaceful, public, Christian prayer vigil for asylum seekers, outside (Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) Scott Morrison’s office in Cronulla Mall.

The event—organised by a group called ‘Love Makes a Way‘—included elements of lament, confession, a statement of faith, readings from the scriptures, and prayer. Below is the text of the short sermon I delivered as part of the proceedings, reflecting on what it means to stand in solidarity with asylum seekers with a ‘Holy Saturday faith’.

Image sourced from the 'Love Makes a Way' public Facebook page.
Image sourced from the ‘Love Makes a Way’ public Facebook page.

That first Holy Saturday was a time of confusion and shattered hope. The disciples, having walked with Jesus for three years, had now seen their expectations—their dreams—come crashing down around them.

Would God—could God—still come through? Somehow? Some way?

This is what a spirituality of Holy Saturday looks like.

On Holy Saturday, there is nothing to do but wait. Holy Saturday is “…the day of waiting, without knowing what will come next.” It’s a time of waiting in patient hope for the miraculous in-breaking of God’s love and justice.

It’s when we sit—and wrestle— with unanswered, uncomfortable questions.

It’s a day when we allow ourselves to think about the situation of asylum seekers—trapped between death and life: between the death that forced them from their homes and the possibility of a new life; between the despair of a perilous journey on a leaky boat—surrounded by death on all sides—and the life that awaits them on the other side; between the hell of being indefinitely trapped in an off-shore detention centre and the possibility of life that comes with resettlement.

It’s a day for us to hear their voices; when we hear—and acknowledge—the fear, and the desperation, and the despair, and the confusion as to why they are being punished for committing no crime.

It’s a day when we ask why our political leaders seem so intent on dehumanising vulnerable people, and why we allow them to do it.

And we wait. And we pray.

But Holy Saturday is not a day when nothing is happening.

It’s the time when God takes into Godself the pain and the anger and the sadness and the violence and the godforsakenness of the world.

It’s the day when the Creator of all stands in full solidarity with broken humanity.

And so today we stand, with God, in full solidarity with asylum seekers; our brothers and sisters.

In the words of N.T. Wright, “Our part, then, is to keep Holy Saturday in faith and hope, grieving over the ruin of the world that sent Jesus to his death, trusting in the promises of God that new life will come in God’s way and in God’s time.”

Today we keep Holy Saturday in faith and hope, grieving over the ruin of a nation that sends asylum seekers away to Nauru and Manus Island, trusting in the promises of God that change can come in God’s way and in God’s time.

But in the present, there is something we can do.

We live in faith and in hope, but especially in love.

We must love. We must do love. We must be love. We must welcome the stranger. If ever there was a time for the Church in Australia to stand up and to embody an alternative, it’s now.

And we cannot fall into the trap of dehumanising those who dehumanise, for to do so is already to have lost.

Though we stand today in Holy Saturday, we look back to Good Friday and Jesus’ magnificent words on the cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Forgive us all, Father, for we do not know what we are doing!

We seek redemption, then, for all; for Scott Morrison (who is responsible for the current policy measures) and our other political leaders (of both sides—this is not a partisan issue!), as well as for asylum seekers…and for ourselves.

We seek to recover our own humanity, which is being marred in this process of dehumanising the other.

 

So we need to remind ourselves today that it’s ok to live in the tension, as we seek to be faithful as we wait for our faithful God to break-in to the current situation.

We can’t run ahead to Easter Sunday and the fullness of the resurrection, but rather we need to embrace what it means to live in the unresolved reality of Holy Saturday. Like the confused disciples running to the tomb of Jesus (but not yet having encountered the risen Lord) on that first Easter Sunday morning, we’re not quite sure what it all means, what God is up to.

But, as Christians, we do live on the other side of Easter Sunday. And so we allow ourselves a sliver of hope. We look back to the ways in which God has been faithful in history, and we dare to believe that somehow, some way, God will come through once more.

We urge ourselves to believe that, though it looks hopeless right now, it’s not the end of the story. We dare to believe that the broken rose can give bloom through the cracks of the concrete.

Help us, faithful Father, to wait for your victory, and in the meantime to serve you—and all those made in your image—in faith, hope, and love. Amen.

_______________
There are a couple of direct quotes in this short sermon that I need to go back and reference correctly. I apologise for any unreferenced quotes in the meantime.

Engaging Nonviolence

A few months ago I attended some nonviolence training workshops run by Pace e Bene Australia, centred around the Engage: Exploring Nonviolent Living workbook. These fascinating workshops touched on both the theory and practice of nonviolence, and the format of the sessions ranged from information sessions, to discussion groups, to role-playing and more. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, contacting Pace e Bene is a really good starting point (in my opinion).

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we covered in the sessions, and want to reflect on just a few points here. The sessions (run over three full Saturdays) covered such a broad range of topics that there is really no way that I can summarise it all, but I thought I might just reflect on four principles of nonviolence that have been especially important in my thinking since participating in the workshops.

1) Nonviolence is creative

If you really think about it, violence is never actually a very creative pursuit. Now, I will grant that human beings have come up with a remarkably diverse range of ways to inflict pain and death on one another throughout history, but the central purpose of violence remains (again) remarkably constant. Violence, it seems to me, is usually intended either as punishment, or in order to coerce. Not surprisingly, the results of violence are also (for the third time) remarkably consistent: death, or the desire for revenge (and thus the cycle of violence is perpetuated).

Nonviolence, however, by its very nature, is necessarily creative. If you can’t just point a gun at someone’s head in order for your point to be made, or if you can’t bully someone into submission, then the game is much harder indeed. As such, practitioners of nonviolence need to be extraordinarily creative in order for their point to be heard. When sometimes confronted with serious violence in response to challenging the status quo, practitioners of nonviolence must always think ‘outside the box’ in order for the situation not to descend into the usual violent categories.

Now, this does not mean that nonviolent actions or responses are always necessarily complex. In fact, many times nonviolent responses in history have been based on beautifully simple ideas; well thought-through, but at their core simple concepts. What it does mean, though, is that practitioners of nonviolence must open themselves up to creative possibilities in order to be able to respond to certain situations with great strength yet without violence (which may seem like an oxymoron to some, but certainly is not), and in order to make points in a way that cuts through the white noise of violence.

2) Nonviolence is active

Many times in discussions about violence and nonviolence, the idea of not responding to force with greater force is seen as ‘passive-ism’; i.e. just sitting back and letting the bullies of the world have it their own way. Not only is this seen as weak, it is (rightly) seen as a complete disintegration of the idea of justice.

It is really good, then, that nonviolence is not about being passive.

In fact, nonviolence is extraordinarily active in orientation, with the idea of speaking truth to power and engaging violence head-on with strength and determination but without resorting to meeting violence with yet more violence. Practitioners of nonviolence have many times put themselves directly in harm’s way as they have sought to challenge violent ‘bullies’ (individuals or groups or systems) or to highlight violence that general society doesn’t wish to acknowledge. Nonviolence is an active force that seeks to expose and confront violence of every sort; it is the very antithesis of inaction or the attempt to sweep the problems of violence under the rug of our collective consciousness.

To suggest that nonviolence is equal to being passive is a gross distortion of reality, and this understanding is perpetuated either out of sheer ignorance or as a deliberate attempt to undermine any other option than more violence. Obviously, this just leads us back to the first point, and the lack of imagination in violent actions or responses.

3) Nonviolence doesn’t assume that we have 100% of the truth.

This is a really interesting point. Obviously, when we really think about it, we know that this is true. None of us has all the information on any given point. Unfortunately, however, it seems to be becoming more and more easy (again, see point 1) for individuals and groups to argue their point in a way that, at least pragmatically, suggests that they truly believe that they are 100% correct. It is ridiculously easy from this point, then, to suggest that a particular opponent is essentially a beastly foe who simply cannot be reasoned with and will only ever understand the point if it is punctuated by force.

The problem is, we simply never hold 100% of the truth at any point in time on any given topic. This has been highlighted so many times throughout history that it’s really not funny (think, for just one example, of Iraq and WMDs…).

The antidote to this, then, is for the practitioner of nonviolence to approach all topics with a certain humility. This is a difficult thing to do, and a point that I find personally very challenging : )

But when debate is approached with this sense of humility, the possibilities of finding a nonviolent solution increase exponentially. Think of what it might mean, for just a moment, if Palestinian and Israeli leaders were to meet on the grounds that they genuinely agreed upon the fact that both sides had some real points to make and they each held part of the truth in the situation. The possibilities are truly amazing!

Building out of this (to a point that really deserves to be treated on its own, but I kind of wanted to keep it to just four points in this post…), nonviolence seeks to see one’s opponent as more than just the evil they may commit. So many times individuals or groups view the other as wholly evil, and it is very easy to inflict pain or death on the other once they have been dehumanised. However, when the beauty and sacredness of the other is recognised, when they are viewed through the lens of their sharing in the fullness of humanity, it becomes much harder to inflict suffering upon them. At the end of the day, our aim is to overcome evil and injustice, not to defeat people.

Of course, given the propaganda we are fed by our leaders (and I mean ‘we’ here as those on all sides of any given debate or conflict), this is a difficult thing to do. To be constantly reminding oneself of the full humanity of the other is hard work. It takes effort. And that leads me to the last point.

4) Nonviolence is a way of life.

Nonviolence takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of energy to be creative. It takes a lot of energy to be actively exposing and seeking to overcome violence and injustice. It takes a lot of energy to remind oneself that one’s opponent holds some of the truth in any given situation, and to refrain from dehumanising them in order to secure an easy ‘victory’.

Nonviolence takes a lot of effort.

It takes a lot of (often difficult) critical self-reflection.

It takes a lot of personal commitment.

And, it takes a lot of time.

The one thing I have discovered to be abundantly clear is that I really need to work at this whole nonviolence thing. In order for this all to become instinctual (i.e. not instinctively responding with violence in situations of high emotion or when the adrenalin is pumping), it is going to take me a lot of reading and reflection and meditation and effort. As will be clear to those who have been travelling the nonviolent journey for longer than myself, I don’t actually know that much about all of this. I’m very new to it, and I don’t offer these reflections in an attempt to show how knowledgable I am about it all. Rather, I offer these reflections as a way of trying to formalise some of my own thoughts, and as an attempt to create some discussion about these issues that might be helpful to myself and anyone else who wants to enter into the discussion.

I’m not good at this stuff. I find it very easy to respond to aggression with aggression, even though I don’t want to (when I really think about it). But, in the heat of the moment, I find it frustrating to try to think through creative ways of responding without adding more fuel to the fire. I’m a fairly big guy and, to be perfectly honest, it’s quite easy to use physical size to intimidate and get my own way.

Most of all, I’m fairly impatient. This whole nonviolence thing takes a lot of time. I find this both frustrating and beautiful. I live in a society where everything is instant, and so seeking to participate in things that take a lot of time and effort is somewhat daunting. It’s easy to get discouraged when things don’t have an immediate impact.

I’m convinced, though, that the best kind of change happens in very small increments. Change that happens in an instant, it seems to me, is quite often a shallow kind of change that is not deeply enough rooted in society to withstand the challenges that will inevitably come. Most of all, humans take time to change, so rapid change often leaves un-changed humans in charge of new situations and structures that require new ways of thinking.

However, when change happens through many small steps, it can be deep, and powerful, and beautiful. Though some may look at certain events in history where lasting change has occurred and think that it all happened in an instant, it is more likely the case that many small steps were happening behind the scenes for quite some time which set up the possibility of the ‘trigger’ event happening in the first place. Seeing the action of Rosa Parks on that bus in Alabama as the ‘beginning’ of the Civil Rights movement, for example, is a disservice both to Parks herself (and her strong committment to these issue well before this point in time), and to the many, many others over a long period of time who helped create the context for that event to have the meaning it did (and does).

In addition to this, and though it is frustrating to think about, nonviolence can rarely (if ever) overcome decades, or centuries, or millennia of violence in a moment. It takes time. It takes many small steps to move away from the ingrained violence of human history. What is frustrating, though, is that when and if one specific nonviolent action fails to fix all the problems of the world in one moment, nonviolence is often said to be a complete and total failure. If only violence was discredited for every time it fails to bring about lasting peace…

The point is, though, that it does take many small steps to move and individual, and a community, and a nation, and the whole world away from the easy-but-destructive use of violence.

The nonviolent journey is a long-haul, both individually and for communities and nations.

It is sometimes discouraging, but I am filled with hope at the extraordinary, creative, active, humble potential of nonviolence.

I do look forward to discussion on these points : )