Nonviolence for White People

Sometime in the mid-60′s, when America’s black-led freedom movement was at the center of daily news, a white man asked Malcolm X why he did not accept and teach the nonviolence of Martin Luther King. Malcolm replied that he had not experienced a great deal of nonviolence in America. “If you believe in nonviolence,” he said, “why don’t you go teach some nonviolence to white people.”

More and more, I’m convicted that Malcolm’s challenge is something of a call to me. Gandhi taught nonviolence to colonized Indians, which was a great gift to the world. King demonstrated the power of nonviolent love at the heart of the black church’s experience in America. This, too, was a gift.

But I am not Gandhi or King. Still, the longer I live and pray against the realities they sought to change, the more convinced I am that white repentance–white conversion–is absolutely necessary if we are to become the beloved community they point us toward.

Maybe the most important thing is for some of us to learn what nonviolence means for white people.

Here’s a start on my working list:

1) Demystify yourself of the myth of the white hero. I went to see Lincoln after Thanksgiving, and I enjoyed it as a story. It’s well told. Spielberg is good at what he does. But let’s be honest: Lincoln didn’t free the slaves because he knew from the start that it was his moral duty, come hell or high water. (The first meeting Lincoln ever held at the White House with African-Americans was to discuss a plan to move black folks back to Africa.) And I don’t mean to disrespect Mr. Lincoln. Lyndon Johnson didn’t stand before Congress and say “We Shall Overcome” out of the goodness of his heart either. In his case, we have the White House tapes to prove it.

White men in American history are not Messiah figures. We’re Pharaoh in this story. At best, we “harden not our hearts,” step down from the throne, and admit that something’s wrong with the whole system.

2) Get in touch with your hidden wound. On the wall here at Rutba House, we have a quote from the aboriginal sister Lila Watson: “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your salvation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.” Sure, we’ve got to give up trying to be the hero. But, more than that, we have to learn to see that addressing histories of oppression and systems of injustice is about liberating our own souls from the death-dealing, schizophrenic patterns that we’ve inherited. White people have to learn how to name the ways racism has hurt us too.

3) Decide who you’re going to follow. Part of learning the new way of nonviolence is learning to listen to the leadership of people who’ve experienced the “other America.” White people have to figure out how to put this into practice. Join your local NAACP. Listen to some of our best thinkers and leaders today: Michelle Alexander and Cornel West; James Forbes and Marian Wright Edelman; William Barber and Bernice Johnson Reagon; Vincent Harding and Diane Nash. Go where these people are leading, even if you don’t yet understand why it matters to you.

4) Don’t call the police. In all of our cities today, we’re experiencing a new attempt at integration in the form of gentrification. John Perkins often says that integration was that time between the day when the first blacks moved into a neighbor and the day when the last whites moved out. But in scores of neighborhoods today, it’s us white folks moving back in. And when we feel threatened, we do what we’ve been told to do. We call the police.

But here’s the problem: when we call the police on neighbors we haven’t taken the time to know, we participate in a system of mass incarceration that sends one out of three black men from neighborhoods like ours to prison.

I’m not saying that we don’t have neighborhood safety concerns that we all have to work on. I’m saying that we cannot trust the institutionalized violence to fix our neighborhoods for us. So before you call the police, get to know your neighbors, join the community association, and learn why some people have legitimate reasons to not trust the police.

5) Don’t confuse nonviolence with powerlessness. Maybe the worst thing white people can do in neighborhoods like ours is to act like we have no power. We need to repent of the ways we’ve abused power. We have to listen to people who’ve had a very different experience. We must learn to follow. But we also need to tap the resources we have access to, call on friends we know, leverage our generational wealth, and spend our social capital on behalf of our friends and neighbors. Anything less than real redistribution is disingenuous. Our friends will notice.

Well, that’s a start. What would you add to this list?

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I come from a family of 2%-ers and married a black man who was born to a 15 year old mother and spent part of his childhood living in a housing project in Chicago. Obviously, I’m not a prejudiced person, but I often feel like I’ve had to travel a very, very long road (with probably more to go) from the assumptions I started with and was taught to something closer to reality. Probably the thing which I have struggled most with and I think is a problem for most white people is persistent inability to accept other people’s understanding and account of their own experiences. I think that especially when you come from people who have been sucessful in navigating the system, the assumption is that the system works – after all, it worked for you. So whatever the problem, the answer is to learn to navigate the system. Where there’s a will there’s a way and all that. I think that it took me about a decade of watching my husband struggle and strive and experience on set-back after another while my very successful, well-connected family refused to offer any help to get me to really understand how unreasonable the “learn to navigate the system and you’ll be fine” concept actually is.

    I’m not sure why white folks have such a hard time understanding how broken, unfair and capracious our system is. Even someone like myself struggles to let the scales fall so I can see life as it really is rather than how I was taught it was.

    • Amy

      Well said. No one wants to accepted up the fundamental notion that he/she and their ancestors got ahead because of a system that aided their advancement. It takes something away from the “hard work” American dream theory. As a black woman, I am very quick to state, I’ve been fortunate and successful and took advantage of opportunities given to me; however, I didn’t start at an even playing field with most Americans. My father has an MBA from Harvard and my family was college educated. That was ‘luck of the DNA draw’ and where I fell…an innate advantage that I attribute to God and not my brilliant hard work and navigation of a equitable system. I made the most of what was given to me, but it was GIVEN to me.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Thanks for sharing this story, Rebecca. Conversion is hard, but it’s so important to know–and remember–that it’s possible.

    • Sharon

      Thank you for sharing your story of painful growth into valuable insight. I am the oldest child of an interracial couple who married in the early 1950s. They divorced when I was young. You have described accurately, the attitudes I experience from my family, as I struggle to survive as an woman outspoken of color in America. Thanks again.

  • Jeff Kursonis

    Wow, really well said. It seems you have really listened and learned and I appreciate the wisdom. I’d love to see a whole trending movement of white conversion. For emerging leaders to preach a new gospel of repentance – if Jesus has changed your life, here’s how you repent…you join the Beloved Community. And here’s what you do to change your life accordingly…then give ‘em a tract with the above points in your post :)

  • Julie Holm

    Listen to the stories of the others, no matter who they are. Consider Black (or Asian-American, or Latino) history as important as mainstream (i.e. White) history. Go in with the concept that they are telling you the truth as they experience it, and really believe it; don’t just retreat to white preconceptions.

  • Larry Bumgardner

    Suggestion: Get to know some black folks as friends. Once you get into a serious conversational mode with them and begin to listen to their experiences, it is eye-opening. I volunteer taking inmates out into the community…a program the prison system offers that few are aware of. Talking to these men and getting an idea of how they got where they are and talking to them after their release to see the obstacles they now face, I’m convinced that Jim Crow is alive and well.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      This is a good one, Larry–esp the notion of crossing the prison walls with folks. Here in NC, folks can go in to learn with residents via our Project TURN classes:

  • melissa

    great article. Well said.

  • Joshua Gill

    These are some powerful thoughts! How do you think the institutional church can come to terms with their systems of oppression? The longer I live the more oppression I see, I see seeds of hope but little change.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      I met yesterday with the first ever Af-Am pastor of a large university chapel congregation. His very presence in a space that has been controlled by white elite for generations is giving rise to conversations that have not happened before. Of course, calling a black pastor doesn’t change everything. But it is a first step that can lead to genuine systemic conversion.

  • TR

    Thank you so much for this.

    One thing I would add is: learn to differentiate between intent and impact, particularly when someone is voicing an example of racism or racial pain. It is common for us to want to absolve one another from perceived racism by focusing on what the intention was, rather than the impact felt (“He didn’t mean it to come out that way,” “The police are just trying to do their jobs,” “It’s not a racist system, it just so happens that people in certain communities commit more crime than other people.”). Worrying about (ostensibly) good intentions is a way of silencing articulations of pain and critique, and thus perpetuating an unjust, often-violent status quo – while placating ourselves with delusions of saintliness or victimization at the same time.

  • Deborah Arca

    Jonathan, I am so grateful for your blogging, and for your sharing your wise and humble voice with us at Patheos. Your words are so important.

  • Doc

    Look, I don’t mean to be rude…my family never owned fact all my great-grandparents all ‘got off the boat’ after 1900. We’re not rich and you’re laying on this generalized guilt trip on all of us is nonsense. I do see your point about not making super-heroes out white leaders who sometimes only did what was morally right more for pragmatic reasons than for the morality.

    I do think the Kennedys though did, despite risk to themselves did take steps towards the right track. There are others among
    I don’t accept your guilt trip. Please keep it to yourself. I am in favor of equal opportunities for all, but I don’t need nor do I accept your guilt trip.

    Historically people have been taken advantage of by others in power. I wish it were different, but we don’t live in a

    If I am in danger and not just bothered by neighbors, I will call the police, whether whoever is causing the disturbance is hispanic, white, black, Bosnian, Russian, German, Indonesian, whatever.

    I am against all violence except in cases of self-defence be it institutional or those who think they are justified because they are a minority…such as Malcolm X’s group.

    Honestly, I am busy with taking care of my family and trying to pay my bills as I think a majority of Americans be they be hispanic, black, “white” (whatever that by definition is…as historically ‘whites’ are from various origins which is not a block of people from the same source that “all think alike’

    I do like what one true researcher on the issue is that the real fight should not between ‘whites’ and blacks, but the rich vs. the poor. The rich find new ways to exploit the poor.

    Take for example , philosophically, this other example of wasted flesh (just like the Kardassian bimbos and Paris Hilton)…


    Even when her daddy was alive and ‘earning’ the money, it was at the expense of people who worked in his mines.

    Pardon me, but please keep your implied guilt trip. I don’t have time to join a NAACP org, although I will try to work for the best for all of us.

    • wkdkween

      Thank you Doc for finally saying what most of us feel. My ancestors came over from Ireland as indentured servants. My other ancestors came over from Italy. I did not come from a rich, white family. We did not own slaves, we probably at one point were slaves (Romans). So don’t give me the gulit trip!

    • bdsnyder

      Doc, I agree with you. I think this kind of ideology only fans the flames of racism, does nothing to truly remedy the injustices we see.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Doc et al, I don’t imagine I can convince you here that race matters, but if it does–that is, if unjust powers have deceived all of us to believe that white is better than black–then it doesn’t matter whether your ancestors owned slaves or not. Speaking to a poor white man in rural Mississippi during the 1960′s, a journalist asked why he was so determined to keep black folks who were, like him, poor farmers from voting. His reply: “Well, if I ain’t better than a nigger, who am I better than?”

      God is inviting all of us into a diverse and beloved community where on one’s self-worth depends on being “better than.”

    • Rebecca Trotter

      Here’s the problem: it matters not one whit whether your ancestors owned slaves or not (fwiw, mine did not). The issue is that the damage has been done. And the damage is carried on the backs of minorities – particularly African Americans in a way it is not carried on the backs of white people. That damage eats out country from the inside out and cannot be undone by carrying on as if nothing is wrong. It’s not a matter of blame that is being discussed here. It’s a matter of recognizing that some of our brothers and sisters carry burdens and damage which are not a problem for white Americans. It’s not your fault or my fault. It just is.

      So, what do we do about that? How do we help a people who have suffered such egregious harm to heal? Or at least not make things worse than they have to be. One way may be that you don’t call the police because you see a young black man smoking a joint on the corner. Should he be smoking weed on a corner? No. But the damage done to that man if he gets picked up for drug possession goes way beyond any damage his actions cause. (The idea that Jonathan is talking about not calling the police for protection in the face of danger is a strawman, imo.) One of the reasons my family has given for not helping my husband out is that he doesn’t have a college degree. The fact that he has demonstrated his abilities in the workplace don’t matter. If they had been willing to let go of this “gate-keeping” requirement, it would not have been to anyone’s detriment as he’s smarter and more capable than anyone I’ve ever known. It’s things like that which can make a real difference in the lives of people who have largely not been allowed into, much less allowed to help shape the system which I think are being talked about here. But the whole notion of blame is a total red herring in the face of reality, imo.

  • Karen Hernandez

    The easiest way to make friends is by attending a predominantly Black church. You will be welcomed. We joined St. Monica’s Catholic Church in KCMO and the rewards are becoming a part of a Beloved Community that celebrates both our differences and our common humanity. Step out of your comfort zone and you will be blessed beyond measure!

  • dangerous christian

    I would say to get back to the Christianity of Jesus, that taught about unconditional love and sacrifice. Today’s American (read predominately White) Christianity embraces too much Old Testament patriarchy with its “subjugation” themes that don’t apply in today’s world, Paul (and his control issues with slaves and women), and of Revelation with its “Warrior Christ”-all which gave Whites the fuel for their “lower” living.

    I think the Beatitudes would be an excellent starting point. Peace.

  • Carl

    Interaction from a South African perspective –

  • Rebecca Romani

    Thank you so much of this article and for the dialog it has inspired! Did my ancestors own slaves? No. Were my ancestors (and grandparents) indentured to others? Yes. Did they “like” it? Hell, no. While I don’t necessarily feel I need to bear the brunt of the guilt, I do feel I need to acknowledge that the playing field is not always level and for some people that has to do with race and history. I do feel that in my lifetime, I have an obligation to engage with my “communities” and to support the teaching and knowledge of “our” history because it is precisely that history- Black, Latino, Asian, various White- that makes us us. I am incomplete without my other Others- or as is said in Spanish- mi otro yo- because if you are Other to me, I am also Other to you- and if we are all Others- then we are also us. And, as a member of this greater community- I have an obligation to listen to and honor the stories of your community- no matter how hard they may be for me to hear- just as I would hope you could hear mine. The “playing field” will always be unequal in one for or another- but I. for one, would like to lessen my participation in that unequal construct.

  • Nathan Hill

    Thank you for these words, Jonathan. Peace be with you!

  • Glenn

    Dude, No matter how hard we try there is no way we will ever really understand what it is to a member of the other race. As soon as we think we’ve got a clue there will always be someone there to require us to jump through another hoop to prove we’re not racist, insensitive, or ignorant, or whatever. There is no promised land on the other side of the hoop – only more hoops. Only more efforts to inculcate guilt. So much of what you write describes a desparate desire to keep racism alive. If I’m different than a black man because I’m white than I am a bad man, but not vice versa. Because I’m not black I can’t know what’s it’s really like. Ever. Because I can’t know it I am racist. That does seem to be the definition now. Not only are white people supposed to not be racist and all the stuff we’ve truly, honestly (honest) been working hard to do, but we’re supposed to become something we are not. We all know that’s impossible. Only when societies citizens become totally homogenized (boring, but maybe not a bad thing) will we have a chance of really really really understanding each other. But at that point we’ll all be the same so there will be no differences to ponder.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      Glen, you make a point that several folks here have made–that you don’t think it helps to feel guilty. I agree. Guilt doesn’t help much. But when a doctor tells a patient they have cancer, he doesn’t want them to feel guilty. He wants them to do what it takes to get well before they are consumed.

      This is my prayer for all of us: that we might heal from the wounds that racism has caused and become the community God made us to be.

      I’ve no doubt that this beloved community is one rich with difference. From what I have seen of it, though, I know that our differences do not have to alienate us from fellowship with one another as family.

  • Matthew

    Please pardon me in advance if I am over-simplifying this a bit, but the U.S. has a black president now. Some black men and women have risen to high levels in America — and some were from simple — even poor — backgrounds. Other people from other ethnic backgrounds can probably tell similar stories. So … doesn´t this prove that in many ways America has indeed overcome racism somewhat?

  • Chris Smith

    I’d add:
    Do not be afraid to do good, hard work
    Wendell Berry has noted that the problem of race in North America is intimately tied to the rise of a leisure class. In any culture there is work that nobody really wants to do (e.g., growing food, preparing food, handling our waste, etc.) The question is do we see that work as “beneath us” and relegate it to some other group, whom we try to oppress — through slavery, Jim Crow, immigration laws, poor wages, etc — into continuing into service to us in this way? And even if we are working class folks — as many of my (white) ancestors were — is our aim to move upward and be in a place where we don’t have to work (or work as hard)?

    These questions continually haunt me, especially that of how our churches nurture a people who are moving in this direction.

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      You’re right as rain, my brother. Now, back to work…

  • Doug

    I am looking forward to the day when people who claim to follow Christ will jettison their 20th century ethnic, gender, race- based humanist notions and surrender to the fact that they serve a God not shaped from this present age. This arrogant guilt- laden presumption that white Americans have a corporate calling to atone for something that exists in every individual heart is dangerous. Sin is the enemy and it has no bias, it is the air we breathe and the only oxygen is the personal conversation with Him who is the breath of life. God always calls everyone to freedom. It’s our fault if we don’t listen. Our personal liberation through turning away from the sins that bind us (ie. ethnic pride, coveting fame, envying leaders) is our responsibility. Are we so afraid to stand alone as an individual with no ancestral pride or justifications? It seems to me from my (yes old testament) studies that our ethnic pride is very often the reason God has to reset the table through events like the Civil War. Here’s a question: can a true Christian celebrate ethnic pride and say before God, ” it’s ok for me but not for him over there?” Remember now we surrendered ALL!

    • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

      While I’m deeply grateful for your personal commitment to not be deluded by racism, the problem with race is that it’s not a personal decision. It is what John’s gospel calls “the world”–what Dorothy Day referred to as “the filthy rotten system.”

      Racism isn’t just personal bigotry. It’s a value system that literally colors everything.

      I agree: guilt won’t get any of us very far. But love compels us, I do believe, to be transformed by the renewing of our minds as we lay aside the old patterns and learn the good ways of God’s new order. Liberation for those of us born into the so-called privilege of whiteness entails receiving a new imagination.

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  • Bill Grindstaff

    My partner is native American; nowhere here do I see any mention of the genocide that our “red” brothers and sisters faced and continue to attempt to deal with to this day. Nothing any of us can do will change any of our shared, brutal histories – whether our ancestor perpetrated the horror, or were the recipients of the horrors. Our only hope is that we honor and abide the teaching of Jesus; that we seek God with all our mind and heart and that we treat each other with the respect that we ourselves desire. We all have mothers, fathers, children, and families. We all have an array of needs that must be met even to sustain mere existence in this world. We are all placed here together on this good Earth by the Creator. All of us Christians have been singing for many, many years, “Red and Yellow, Black and White; We’re ALL Precious in His sight”. We can not know or understand each other based on our different racial origins or political or religious beliefs; we are ALL human; created in the Image of God with minds to think and decide – with hearts to love and to cherish – and with souls that crave fulfillment and unity. God put us here together and made us different in many ways; no one better than any other except by artificial accounting of our own imagination – we are all the same in God’s eyes – we are all His Beloved Children. If we live lives that honor God and abide the wisdom that He has imparted to us through His Word and His very presence among us, we have little hope. What better choice do we have than to love one another and treat each other with dignity and respect until He redeems us into His very presence?? Jonathan; I love you and am humbled and stimulated by your message. I agree that we have work to do here and now to begin to harvest the kinds of lives that He intended for us….