The Violence of Demanding Peaceful Protest: The Missteps of Clergy in Ferguson

“We don’t want anyone getting arrested or lashing out in anger. It is your job to keep people calm.”


These are the words that a local clergy person shared with me before I traveled to West Florissant Ave. to participate in demonstrations in Ferguson. Throughout the night, clergy consistently congratulated each other that everything seemed to be going according to plan. On multiple occasions, I heard clergy shout down a young person for getting too angry or confrontational. I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the clerical collar on my neck. I wanted to be with the people, not above them. While not every clergy I encountered acted like this, I felt like many of the clergy I encountered functioned as appendages of the ruling class. I was not interested in being anybody’s appendage except God.

“If we remain peaceful then we will get what we want!” I will never forget those words. The statement struck to the core of my pacifist ideals and caused me to question the very nature of why I was even in Ferguson. I was told that clergy were needed to help calm the crowds. I saw what clergy being a voice of calm in the crowds meant first hand… clergy controlling the crowds. When people have every right to be angry, there is nothing of God about squashing their ability to exercise their birthright to civil disobedience. Clergy in Ferguson consistently tried to control the protest and steer it away from any civil disobedience. This consistent attempt to exercise power over a vulnerable group of people was an injustice and made me very angry.

I am not sure that these clergy in Ferguson would have let Jesus demonstrate in the temple. The false promise that “peace will get what you want” is absurd. Sometimes you have to shut things down in order to bring about justice. The work that I do is to ensure that acts of civil disobedience remain nonviolent, not that they remain nonexistent. We must not forget that civil disobedience is an unpeaceful act. Civil disobedience is not intended to create situations of calm. Civil disobedience escalates situations to a point where people have to pay attention to injustice. To try to squash civil disobedience in Ferguson is to try and squash a movement for racial justice in our nation that is long overdue. Anger must not be extinguished for the sake of maintaining calm. Anger should be utilized to create a racial revolution that brings all people in this nation and perhaps even around the world to the table for an honest conversation and a subsequent reformation.

I don’t think you can have an honest conversation about race in our nation when you are always telling people to calm down. If peaceful protest is about controlling people’s emotions, then I believe it to be violently taking away the agency of people who have every right to be angry and engaged in resistance. I am for nonviolence. I believe it is by far the most effective and moral way to confront injustice. I am not for the violence of clergy-controlled protests in a space where people have every right to exercise their anger. If we as clergy want to do something to change this nation, then we need to get up and capture the spirit of these angry demonstrators and nonviolently make life intolerable for those who want to keep perpetuating injustice.

Amen.

[Originally appeared at revjeffhood.com]

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  • Seth Little

    I hadn’t considered a distinction between anger and violence in quite this way before. Still, I’m not sure I see as clear a line as you do. Won’t unrestrained anger swell into physical violence at least 9 times out of 10? Humans aren’t conglomerations of rationality, emotionality, physicality but whole beings with tremendous overlap between our faculties. So it strikes me as naive to try and restrain physical behavior without similarly restraining emotional and even rational behavior. That doesn’t mean emotions have no place (I suspect we agree on this). But I think it may be self-defeating and impractical to reduce nonviolence to the sphere of mere physicality. Self-control is the essence of nonviolence and of peace, and it must be applied to the whole person, including the emotions, if it is to be the real thing.

  • http://www.www.patheos.com/blogs/andygill/ Andy Gill

    Seth, I’m not sure I’m following what you’re saying?

    If I’m reading/hearing you correctly – I think what you are saying is not in the same realm as to what Jeff was communicating. Jeff’s sole focus in this article was to to highlight the autonomy of black persons who have been wrongly portrayed as “thugs,” “villains,” or at the deepest level of bigotry unable to control themselves as whites would so send the clergy in to control them…. To reiterate this, they don’t need the clergy’s help, they’re adults, just like the clergy and white supremacists, and can control/decide what is moral and immoral.

  • Seth Little

    Hey, Andy. You’re point is taken that Jeff’s concern was more specific than mine. However, I do think the question I raise is relevant because there can’t be any serious conversation about social control and individual autonomy (as with this post) without defining the terms we’re using. There’s simply too much at stake in the potential clash of narratives.
    The author himself implied a differentiation between emotional anger and violent action. I find that questionable. I certainly share Jeff’s interest in a transformed social order in our land, one that realizes genuine equality and dignity for all people, so that much isn’t in question. But my concern is that his argument here isn’t compelling and may even be dangerous. I, for one, do not want to promote social change that simply shifts the abuses of power around from one offending party to the next, and I believe the way of Jesus offers hope. It’s that way that I think affirms the whole person and directs social action that is both self-controlled and nonviolent–at all levels: physical, emotional, rational.

  • http://www.www.patheos.com/blogs/andygill/ Andy Gill

    Yeah – I think that what might be missing, again only if I’m hearing you correctly, is that the acknowledgement of the fact that it’s already dangerously violent situation. But it’s NOT the oppressed persons being violent it’s the militarized police… and that for centuries there has been numerous [failed or fruitless] attempts to converse but it ends up with a redesigned version of slavery and hierarchies built upon racial castes.

    I guess what I’m hearing you say, and adamantly disagree with, is that “Oppressed people are at the one’s at fault and cannot be trusted because of their irrational emotions…” – which ignores the macro issue of systemic oppression, misses the responsibility of the violent oppressors, and UNINTENTIONALLY continues racist thought.

    [Are you familiar with Niebuhr’s thought on Christian Realism?]

  • james

    Andy, do you know if the clergy Jeff was talking about are the need to be seen white progressive variety? I’m getting very weary anytime a dude that looks like me tells others what to do and not do. Its getting to the point where I always defer and say listen to the people actually being oppressed or have the wisdom from facing real oppression. I seriously think white dude clergy (progressive to conservation) need to shut up for at least a generation or two.

    Keep up the great brave work.