Non-Violence as Ruse

Non-Violence as Ruse April 30, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates When Oppressor Preaches Non-Violence

The above words are from an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Non-Violence as Compliance,” which appeared in The Atlantic. They seemed to deserve the wider circulation that a meme image sometimes brings, and so I made the above.

As the background, I used a photo of him from the Lavin Agency website.

I would be interested to know what readers of this blog think about the use of violence – against property or against people. Is it ever justified? Did Jesus call his followers to strict non-violence? Does overturning tables in the temple constitute “rioting”?

What are your views on this subject?

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  • histrogeek

    I had one of those tedious Facebook discussions on this yesterday. I agree with Coates that the morality of violence in this case is somewhat beside the point. Worse liberal condemnation of it comes across as a condescending scold to the peasants to please keep your voice down and be polite. Violence in a situation like this was pretty much inevitable, especially if the Mother Jones report is true ( My real fear is that property damage in Baltimore will be used to discredit the entire series of protests against police violence.
    A real non-violent movement, as opposed to a few marches and demonstrations, takes a good deal of organization, training, and discipline, not the sort of thing that happens in a few days planning. Under circumstances like in Baltimore, the best that can be hoped for is that everyone, police included, will act in good faith.

    As far as the more abstract question of “Is violence ever justified?,” paradoxically I’m pretty close to pure pacifism. Morally violence should never be considered or planned except in very, very limited cases where it is the lesser of two evils (which means that, yes, it is evil).

  • Jeff Carter

    I have always been impressed by the Berrigan brothers – and their destruction of draft records, pouring blood (their own) over them, or burning them with homemade napalm. Violence (perhaps) against property as a symbolic action.

    • Ultimately, what discredited the Vietnam War was not protests (there were plenty of those against the Iraq War in 2003), but lack of a decisive victory.

  • Michael Wilson

    I really don’t get what Coates is trying to say. It would be good to look past the looting to look at the issue, but the violence should stop, and those seeking justice should ask that it stop or disavow the violent actors. Why is that bad? It does no good for the protesters, it robs them of sympathy, it hurts their community economically, and is thus weak leverage against an oppressor. Why would white oppressors care if black neighborhoods in Baltimore are torched and looted? And if they target out side their community they will be far out gunned by the forces of white opposition.

    Regarding revolutionary, or protest violence and Jesus, I’m glad you brought it up. I have thought that the community that Jesus preached to in Galilee were very much in a simular situation as Baltimore’s blacks. While the Mayor of Baltimore may owe her position to the black community, unlike the Herodians, they are still a community that feels out of touch with those that control them, police and property owners. I have wondered if Jesus’s pacifism was aimed at Galilee’s extensive zealot presence. Now some of it may represent a sort of hyperbole aimed at those that demand all insults be avenged. Jesus seemed to like hyperbole. So turn the other cheek some suggest means one should ignore insults, not accept beatings and murder with open arms. But I wonder if Jesus is urging compliance with Roman authority over rebellion. I find it interesting that two of Jesus’s apostles nay have had Zealot back grounds and the names in Jesus familly suggest nationalist sympathies. Galiee was subject to a zealot rebellion when Jesus young and I wonder how it affected him. I wonder if his own father might have died or even fought in it. Jesus’s advice to carry packs, pay tax, surrender garments, and so forth are lousy tools to subvert authority but great to gain sympathy and respect. Both MLK and Ghandi’s movements succeded I think because they played to sympathies of benevolent oppressors, people, who unlike Hitler, would care about the happiness of their subjects.

    When Jesus’s attacked the tables, I think here he was engaging in violence. Not hideous violence, he wasn’t slitting throats, he and his crew may have destroyed some property and roughed up some people. But I don’t think he was intending to get his way by force. It was vandalism as a message about the true temple of God, perhaps an incitement to be martyred. That sort of thing I feel can be justified so long as we accept that such vandals should still be punished. We can’t accept that destroying any property is free speech, but I can support morally vandalism to get attention to a cause. I would look at Baltimore differently if vandalism was restricted to government institutions or symbolically meaningful private ones. But robbing a shoe store seems self indulgent. Do you think Jesus pocketed money from the market?

    Regarding violence and state actors or revolutionaries, I have to point out Paul, who seemed to be in touch with early Christian teaching, praised his authoritarian states use of violence as a good against evil. Might Jesus have thought the same? And also note that rather than be executed Paul did use various methods including legal appeal to protect him self. Perhaps if some force with reasonable hopes of victory and just and benevolent aims gad sought to overthrow Rome Jesus may have supported that as an extension of a states mandate to enforce law.

    • Straw Man

      “I really don’t get what Coates is trying to say. It would be good to look past the looting to look at the issue, but the violence should stop, and those seeking justice should ask that it stop or disavow the violent actors.”

      What he’s saying is that the people deploring this violence are the same ones who perpetrated the violence that left a man dead in the back of a police wagon. It’s readily apparent that they’re not really against violence; what they’re against is poor and minority people getting uppity.

      • Michael Wilson

        Well what an idiotic observation. They and just about every one else are deploring the violence. It is deplorable and a greater harm to the community than the police. The rioters or freedom fighters our what ever the vandals are, they are the ones oppressing the black community. They kill more blacks than the police. These are not experienced members of the community. They are young men that don’t mind destroying lively hoods to enrich them selves, vent frustration, or satisfy a taste for thrill seeking. The black democratic mayor deplores the violence. The black president does. How do Sharpton and Jackson feel about the violence? The sister of the dead victim, the black mother who rescued her song from this activism. Are they all really the perpetrators of the event that left the young man dead? Perhaps the Mayor is complicate. She sets police policy. Now how much of the black community do you think voted for her? Does she appoint leaders for the cops? Are they elected? I think we should consider the prospect that many neighborhoods in Baltimore are divided between criminals and peaceful citizens. Police interactions are so negative and frequent, mostly by people out side their neighborhoods and race, that most of the poor have a low opinion of police. I certainly do. But people there still trust them enough to call for help, their chosen leaders approve their police enough to note vote for change. The blacks I mentioned that don’t support or condone the violence do not support capricious violence against poor or minority people that want to rise up.

        • Straw Man

          “Well what an idiotic observation. They and just about every one else are deploring the violence.”

          Really? It would be helpful if you’d be a little more conspicuous–not to mention helpful–in deploring the violence in which police murder minorities. Your pacifism seems a little… one-sided. Coincidentally(?), your ire is aimed at the mostly powerless, and away from the powerful.

          • Michael Wilson

            Yes, really.

            Sure, I’d like to let you know I despise murder and murderers. When police murder it is even worse. But the rioters are a greater threat to Baltimore’s black community than the police. If you care about about black people you will want to stop the vandalism ASAP, like Elijah Cummings,
            Of course Coates cares, but he is a fool, he is really hurting black people and supporting the conditions that lead to the deaths of people like Freddie.

            The vandals are not powerless. They are destroying the wealth of their community. It is the poor people of Baltimore who are powerless and need protection. I am no pacifist, I think people may defend them selves from injustice with force. If those cops are found to have committed murder or manslaughter it is just to forcibly imprison them.

  • So the British attempt at creating a peace deal with the U.S. in the middle of the War of Independence was a ruse? Hitler’s attempt at creating a peace deal with the U.K. in 1940 was a ruse? The South’s attempts in 1864-5 at creating a peace deal with the United States was a ruse?

    • PorlockJunior

      Why yes, yes, yes.


      OK, “ruse” is not le mote juste here in every case; but close enough that ruse or delusion is a hard distinction to make.

      And you omitted the German peace feelers in WW I. You remember, the proposal from members of the opposition party (ultra-liberal peaceniks, in current terms) that Germany should pursue peace on terms of keeping most of their conquests. Illustrates the ruse/delusion question pretty nicely.

  • I’m perfectly happy to say that the violence in baltimore “isn’t helping”, but most people who say that want to imply that something else was. Which it wasn’t. Violence isn’t helping. Nonviolence wasn’t helping either. Because no one is actually both interested in helping and empowered to do so.

    • I think the sheer social media attention to the case was helping. But the anti-White doctrines spouted on this blog brought much more heat than light.

      • Characterizing anti-racist statements as “anti-white” is only possible if one adopts a racist stance (and racist includes adopting pseudoscientific eugenics quackery).

        • Why do you call it “pseudoscientific” and “quackery”? I could, with the same amount of evidence (i.e., none) state that characterizing anti-white statements as “anti-racist” is only possible if one adopts a racist stance.

          • The fact that there is more variation within supposed races than between them, and that the very notion of “race” is problematic, is settled by the genetic evidence, and any attempt to insist on the validity of outmoded ideas certainly deserves labels such as these.

            Can you provide any example whatsoever of an “anti-white statement” that I made? Obviously people can claim anything whatsoever. But claims at odds with the evidence merely show oneself to be foolish, even if one cannot see it oneself.

          • “The fact that there is more variation within supposed races than between
            -Does not mean that the Black-White IQ (and criminality) gap in the U.S. is not, at present, mostly genetic.

            “and that the very notion of “race” is problematic,”
            -Does not mean that it’s not fundamentally hereditary.

  • charlesburchfield

    I get that if one lights a fire and there is fuel it will burn yeah?

  • Frank

    Sounds like an excuse to behave badly. Another person refusing to take personal responsibility.

  • Paul Tyler

    Since you asked, I’ll quote something I posted on Facebook a few days ago. What set me off was an article derivative of the Coates piece that argued non-violence may work as a tactic, but never as a strategy. My bias is for pacifism. My hope is for change. My admiration is for those who are effective as agents of change. Here’s my earlier post.

    ” have to say my piece to those who, on the one hand, celebrate the
    violence and destruction in Baltimore as the only reasonable way to
    oppose an oppressive state, while, on the other hand, proclaiming that
    non-violence has proven to be futile. Of course they are correct when
    they are talking about the non-violence counseled by those who hold all
    the cards of power. But they too carelessly confuse such pandering with
    the direct action, non-violent resistance practiced with great
    discipline by Ghandi, Dr. King, C.O.R.E, SNCC and many others. These
    all worked hard to organize campaigns that achieved change once thought
    impossible. When the smoke clears in Baltimore, then we will be able to
    ascertain whether violent destruction is a more successful tactic. I’m
    pretty sure we’ll discover that such “resistence to oppression” is just
    or even more futile.

    “You are perhaps correct that the change needed to sweep out the power
    structures of entrenched Euro-American colonialism may require violent
    resistence. But flapping your lips about that is not the same as
    organizing a campaign of direct action. Branding as heroic the
    hooliganism that breaks out under the cover of a populist protest is not
    organizing. It’s just more self-aggrandizing, empty rhetoric.”

    • The issue being addressed in this particular quote is not whether one personally advocates for and uses non-violent approaches to social change. The issue is whether it is appropriate to complain that victims of injustice engage in destruction of property because they are not using your preferred method. On the one hand, it seems to distract from the fact that they are the victims of injustice. On the other hand, it is probably only appropriate as a criticism if one is actively using non-destructive means to address the injustice in question. If not, it seems to be lending support for a return to the status quo.

      • Paul Tyler

        My problem is with your unquestioned ceding of the term non-violence to the oppressors. We’ve been through this before, most notably in the late-60s as many in SNCC began to impatiently urge the implicit cancellation of their organization’s name. Dr. King handled the situation with a great deal of elegance by asserting his understanding of the frustration that led to destructive outbursts. But he gave not an inch in asserting the efficacy and necessity of non-violence as direct action. Non-violence is not submission. It is resistance. Coates use of the term was more nuanced than the title you slapped on your post. Other writings appeared with similar titles that praised the destruction in Baltimore. One claimed that the burning of police cars was justifiable. Another pointed out that predatory payday loan sharks and others of their ilk deserved to be burned out. Neither of these scribes considered the cost of the rioting on a community member who owned a looted hardware store, or on those who’s jobs were lost when a chain store franchise was burned. My problem is that such careless rhetoric plays into the hands of those who hold the power in our oppressive system.

  • ChuckQueen101

    Great questions, James. While the overall pattern of Jesus’s life and the invitation into life in the kingdom is clearly non-violence, would Jesus allow for self-defense or violence to preserve the lives of those threatened by destructive forces is hard to know. There are a couple of sayings that can be understood in that sense – for example, when he tells them to take their swords. Of course, earlier when he sent them out to proclaim the good news of the kingdom they left with nothing. I preach and teach nonviolence on the basis of Jesus’ life – that is clear. What is not so clear is whether or not Jesus would endorse last measure forms of violence. I think he would be understanding, but come short of endorsement. I tell people, though, that I would use whatever force was at my disposal to preserve the lives of those around me threatened with death, but I would not justify it claiming endorsement from Jesus. I would ask for forgiveness – from God and from the families of those I harmed.

  • Yao Glover

    I think it is a question of getting stuck in a non-violent response to violence. The common approach given to African Americans is to always use non-violence. I think Coates is getting at the way rhetoric can trap a discussion in a set of limited options. I don’t think the question is one of advocating violence. It is a question of what is the appropriate actions capable of acknowledging violence everywhere and condemning it everywhere. Again, it seems rhetorical but has its power. As for Jesus-the point seems explicit. Though violence existed in the world, his message as I understand it, did not become centered or focused there. I am not that familiar with the particular portions of the Bible where he addressed it. However, it is clear a right path has to acknowledge violence, but to engage in debate or “action” from that perspective itself is demeaning to oneself and can only lead to difficult circumstances. The tragedy of Baltimore and the actions of the police and citizens (excuse the double and) is how much violence is a part of everyday life for some members of the country.

  • Eric Thorson

    I have been thinking of Martin Luther’s warning to the Princes on the eve of the peasant’s revolt. He doesn’t justify the coming violence. He just explains to the powers that be that they have only themselves to blame. Check it out: