Some thoughts on nonviolence post-Charlottesville:
TLDR: White Christians, if you aren’t willing to personally take a bat to the head, shut up about antifa.
My FB feed, podcast feed, workplace conversations, and church chit chat are circling around Charlottesville, antifa, violence/nonviolence, white folks quoting Dr. King, white supremacy, neo-Nazis…It’s hard to get away from it. There’s part of me that doesn’t want to, that wants to keep refreshing the feed, taking in more, trying to read the next thing and the next thing. Maybe if I keep myself submerged here, what I saw will make sense.
Since coming back from Charlottesville I have been physically disconnected, emotionally disabled, and spiritually chaotic. I’m told this is normal, and I’m not judging myself for it. (Well, that’s not quite true – impostor syndrome is real, even in times like this. Who am I to be affected by what I saw, heard, and felt, when others “deserve” their reactions so much more authentically?) I wake up and remember what happened, and it settles heavily in my chest, pressing on my throat. But I get up, I go to work, I show up at meetings, get a beer with a friend. My cat is fed and my laundry is put away and yesterday I successfully talked myself out of eating an entire pie, so…yeah, I’d say things are looking up.
I’m ok. I really am. I’m gonna be able to get back to normal; I have so many resources and so much love surrounding me. Thank you to everyone who’s reached out, given me a massage, let me talk at them, prayed with and for me, given me a ride, sent their love, and sat in quiet to keep me company.
One disquieting aspect of this experience has been how I think about pacifism and nonviolence. I’ve always considered myself a pacifist, though I recognized that it was an untested, hypothetical kind of pacifism. Weak sauce, really. In Charlottesville, my “nonviolent” stance was met with heavily armed men. They came with bats, clubs, plywood shields painted with swastikas, brass knuckles, tear gas canisters, and wooden sticks. Not to mention the guns. The heavily armed militia were everywhere. They liked that they made you feel nervous. It was fun for them.
They came to hurt people, and they did.
Let me take a moment to be clear – I do not advocate for violence. I trust, however pig-headedly, that all of creation – including all people – is both capable and worthy of salvation. That there is no such thing as a lost cause with God. I cannot explain this trust; it is a part of me deeper than rational faculty. To commit violence against another human being is to commit violence against the image of God in them. To me, it is a sin. I do not believe God requires us to sin. But it seems apparent to me that the world sometimes does.
I never felt safer than when I was near antifa. They came to defend people, to put their bodies between these armed white supremacists and those of us who could not or would not fight. They protected a lot of people that day, including groups of clergy. My safety (and safety is relative in these situations) was dependent upon their willingness to commit violence. In effect, I outsourced the sin of my violence to them. I asked them to get their hands dirty so I could keep mine clean. Do you understand? They took that up for me, for the clergy they shielded, for those of us in danger. We cannot claim to be pacifists or nonviolent when our safety requires another to commit violence, and we ask for that safety.
And so I come to this – white liberal Christian friends, I’m talking to you. I’ve seen a lot of condemnation of “violent response,” lots of selective quoting Dr. King, lots of disparagement of antifa and the so-called “alt-left,” a moral equivalency from the depths of Hell if I ever saw one. You want to be nonviolent? That is good and noble. I think…I think I do, too. But I want you to understand what you’re asking of the people who take this necessary stance against white supremacy, the people who go to look evil in the face. You’re asking them to be beaten with brass knuckles, with bats, with fists. To be pounded into the ground, stomped on, and smashed. You’re asking them to bleed on the pavement and the grass. Some of them are going to die. And you’re asking them to do that without defending themselves.
Are you willing to do that? Are you going to to go out when the Nazis come here, to the Bay Area, next week? Are you going to offer your body to them? No? Are you willing to take a bat to the head? To be surrounded by angry young men who want nothing more than to beat you unconscious, like they did Deandre Harris? Are you going to rely upon a different type of violence – that imposed by the state – to protect you – even knowing it is a danger to your neighbors? To outsource the violence your safety requires to someone else? Or are you just not going to show up, at the rally or afterward? To choose passivity over pacifism – because let’s be clear, nonviolence is still about showing up.
If you are unwilling to risk your bodily integrity to stand against literal Nazis, but you are willing to criticize the people out there who are taking this grave threat seriously but not in a way of which you approve….I just don’t know what to say to you. Truly. Your moral authority is bankrupt and you’re not helping. You’re a hypocrite.
Everyone wants to feel safe. You are not safe. Your Muslim neighbors are not safe. Your immigrant neighbors are not safe. Your black neighbors are not safe. Your disabled neighbors are not safe. Your indigenous neighbors are not safe. Your Jewish neighbors are not safe. Your transgender neighbors are not safe. If you feel safe now, it’s an illusion born of your relationship to power. But make no mistake – you may not be the canary, but we’re all in the same coal mine. These people have been “community organizing” for DECADES. They are base-building and they have the White House. They have infiltrated law enforcement. They are in every legislative body and on every school board. You are not safe.
How can the sleeping white church, of which I am a part, mobilize the church militant? How can we spiritually prepare and discipline the followers of Christ to put their bodies on the line? It’s an earnest question; I don’t know the answer. We don’t have a lot of time to equivocate, though. It’s time to move.
“The issue is not, “What must I do in order to secure my salvation?” but rather, “What does God require of me in response to the needs of others?” It is not, “How can I be virtuous?” But, “How can I participate in the struggle of the oppressed for a more just world?” Otherwise our nonviolence is premised on the self-justifying attempts to establish our own purity in the eyes of God, others, and ourselves, and that is nothing less than a satanic temptation to die with clean hands and a dirty heart.”
—Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way