I have considered myself a pacifist since meeting a few wonderfully revolutionary souls in college that taught me that no issue needs to be solved with violence. They cited as examples, Jesus, Gandhi, and King. Looking at the evidence presented to me about them, I believed that non-violent direct action and turning the other cheek were the way to go.
Then the rioting started just up the road from me in Baltimore. The response that I saw from people on Facebook really upset me. A man died brutally at the hands of people charged not only with his care but also with the care of the whole city. People that should be trusted killed a man, and this is far from the first time. But the response from people safely behind their computer screens in safe and comfortable houses (which will never be broken into by armed and frenzied officers) was disgusting. They mocked, they jeered, they called for the death of all looters, they laughed and made memes about how the welfare office hadn’t been burned down yet, they totally lacked compassion. They totally missed the point. They did not care about Freddie Gray. They cared about broken windows.
I saw an article about how peace in this situation was a way to protect the status quo. The pacifist inside me read it thinking that it would be an opportunity to lay down a massive critique on those who resort to violence. Instead, I understood, and that scared me. This could not be true. I had been taught all my life that violence was never the answer, right?
Upon deeper reflection on Jesus, Gandhi and King, in light of the struggle that the Black community has always faced, but is now once again in the spotlight, I started to see new sides to my heroes. Now that this struggle has been picked up by the media, a lot of people have begun to quote my heroes as a way to shame those who have had violent reactions to the violence and injustice in their communities. It has been terrible to watch people who have not studied anything about Jesus, Gandhi, and King besides what they learned in grade-school try and use their voices against those who live in the reality of oppression, inequity, and gross misuse of power by those who have sworn to protect and serve.
So, what then do I think Jesus, Gandhi and King would do?
“But it is not enough for me to stand before you today and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight, that a riot is the language of the unheard”
-Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and excerpt from “The Other America” 1968
First of all, King would not start off by calling the rioters “thugs” or any other racially charged names. Secondly, let us think about the way the way King’s non-violent direct action works. In the face of grave injustice, a group of protesters stage a sit in or a March. Why do those things work so well? Because it is well known that it will provoke those who would stand against them. The protesters were taught how to poke bears, and then let the bear’s prejudice filled hatred and anger roll over them. It got people’s attention because it makes the bear look bad. The people are peacefully sitting at a lunch table, but they are provoking a violent response. And this violent response reveals the opponent’s barbarism.
Can we honestly classify this as non-violent when its effectiveness hinges on the violent response of others?
The same tactic is used by Gandhi. There are many documented times that he would send peaceful protesters out into a situation in which he knew that they could be harmed by not-so-peaceful people. Again, here we see that these actions helped to bring about change because the non-violent protesters provoked a violent response from counter protesters. If violence is still part of the goal of the protest, are we sure it is non-violent?
You may be thinking, even if this is all true, it can certainly not be said of Jesus. But, remember, he was not above some good table flipping and we even read about him brandishing a whip! Also, let’s dig into that “turn the other cheek” story. During the time that Jesus lived, an official slap on the cheek had to be delivered by the right hand. If someone were to slap you with the left, or on the right cheek then they ended up looking like the foolish ones. In that same passage, Jesus talks about giving away both your cloak and your coat if your coat is asked of you. Well, again, this ends up making the one who asked look foolish. If someone is asking you for your coat, it is because you owe them money and they want to shame you. If you give them both your coat and cloak, then because they have seen you basically naked, you have shamed them according to the custom. Then there is the matter about walking two miles of you are asked to walk one. Again, at the time that Jesus lived, a soldier could lawfully “ask” (more like command) you to walk a mile with them to help carry his belongings. He could not ask you to go for more than a mile. If you decided to keep going, it would make him look weak, and could also get him into serious trouble.
If you are still not convinced that the non-violent heroes we uphold may not be as peaceful as we like to say that they were, at least consider this. Non-violence and pacifism are not the same thing as being passive. Jesus, Gandhi and King all wanted to find better solutions to social problems than violence, and yet they all used violent situations in their favor, and all three deeply understood what would lead oppressed peoples to violent action. If they were alive, they may not be in the streets of Baltimore breaking windows, but I am sure that they would stand in solidarity with all of the people there who are being treated as if they were not human beings made in the image of God.
Personally, I have decided that I will not pray for peace before I pray for justice, I believe that my heroes would agree.