Nonviolence after Charlottesville

Nonviolence after Charlottesville
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The bible passage John 8:2-11 tells the story of how the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking whether he agreed with Mosaic Law that an adulterous woman should be stoned to death. It also points to a nonviolent way of seeing and acting beyond the crisis in our society and our world. The story communicates the complicity of us all in the world’s problems and also affirms that we all are made in the image of God.

Jesus is doing two things in the story. He is saying that we all are sinners. “Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” Jesus requests. Jane Addams, the settlement house leader in Chicago, said much the same thing in her 1902 book, Democracy as Social Ethics. “We are all involved in this political corruption,” she wrote. “None of us can stand aside; our feet are mired in the same soil, and our lungs breathe the same air.” Addams was challenging not actions but people like the Pharisees who stand outside the “common lot” and judge. In her case it was the rising group of professionals who saw themselves as outside experts, fixing fix communities from the outside. She contrasted such professionals negatively with the corrupt ward boss in the Chicago political machine whom she constantly battled. The ward boss’s corruption did real damage to the neighborhood. But he was involved with the life of the people. Jesus does not ignore the act of adultery. He is also asking us to see in the woman our own entanglement in the soil and air of humanity.

Jesus is also saying something else: We have an immensity within. “Neither do I condemn you,” he told the woman. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” This capacity to leave sin and pursue something better flows from the divine image within us. John Nelson, the 18th century English poet and clergyman who converted to Christianity and gave up captaincy of a slave ship called it “Amazing Grace,” the song he wrote. Just as we have a hard time acknowledging our sins, too often we ignore our inner immensity.

In his book Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King called such love the “center of nonviolence” “Hate corrodes the personality and eats away at its vital unity,” wrote King. “The nonviolent approach does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.”

A particular kind of love is at work. “We are not referring to some sentimental or affectionate emotion,” said King. “It would be nonsense to urge people to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense.” King called nonviolent love redemptive goodwill, using the Greek agape. King proposed that “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people. It begins by loving others for their own sake.” The best expression, King said, is love of the enemy.

I like the term public love, which includes more than refraining from hating. It is a way of knowing, an epistemology. As King puts, nonviolence calls us to understand our enemies not seek to defeat or humiliate them. Public love sees past the misdeeds of our enemies and discerns the immensity within them. This is respect for the potential of others. Nonviolence is an epistemology of respect.

It may sound simple. But in fact it is a profound challenge to us all in the aftermath of the Charlottesville march by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the Klu Klux Klan.

I should note a personal connection. In 1962, less than sixty miles away from Charlottesville, my father, Harry George Boyte, worked for the American Friends Service Committee and lived in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Public schools had been closed rather than integrated and he was placing children, black and white, in northern schools. Southwestern Virginia has long been a hot bed of the Klan and the Neo-Nazis. In June, I drove into Farmville and passed Nazi swastikas on signs. They ended with a giant swastika painted across from my father’s apartment. Later that summer a group of men grabbed my father outside his apartment, stripped him naked and threatened to castrate him. He had a nervous breakdown.

I was furious at white supremacists and also at my father’s family, southerners who disowned us when dad became one of a handful of southern whites who spoke out against segregation. I was also fortunate to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SCLC taught how to discipline anger, like confronting violent abuse, physical or verbal, with strength, dignity, and boldness.

But such experiences did not immunize me from dominant ways of thinking and acting. In the early 1970s I was involved in developing the mobilizing culture of activism. I defended sophisticated techniques and technologies used to activate allies against enemies. It took me a long time to understand that the mobilizing culture generates a Manichean mindset, posing every issue as a struggle of good versus evil.

In 1974 Citizens for a Better Environment invented the canvass powered by a formula. The canvass involves paid staff going door to door on an issue, raising money and collecting signatures. The formula identifies an enemy and defines the issue in reductionist, good- versus-evil terms in order to produce majority support. It makes mass activation of citizens efficient because hatred is an uncomplicated emotion to manipulate. “We’ve discovered how to sell progressive politics door to door, like selling encyclopedias,” was the boast of the canvass creators. Canvassers are usually barred from having any serious discussion with those they meet at the door. In 1986, I co-authored a book, Citizen Action and the New American Populism, which was a justification of the canvass.

Over the past four decades many canvass operations have developed, used by major environmental and consumer organizations and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) network on college campuses. The Manichean formula and the disrespect for opponents which its practices produce have spread like the southern creeper kudzu. Mobilizing practices polarize civic life, objectify and abstract “the enemy,” erode citizenship, and communicate that politics is warfare. A handbook called “Heroes Narrative,” used by progressive groups around the country, teaches how to frame every issue as a struggle of heroes versus villains.

New technologies dramatically increase the reach of polarizing methods. They are used on both right and left, in robo-calls, internet mobilizations, talk radio, cable news, Michael Moore’s documentaries, and Karl Rove’s “axis of evil” framework after 9-11. A report by Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann, “How Big Data Broke American Politics,” details the increasingly polarized campaigns and politics over the last two decades. “Polarization isn’t new, but it’s definitely worse than it was 20 years ago,” they write.

Leading advocates of nonviolence have adopted the polarizing approach, shifting from nonviolence as a philosophy to nonviolence as a tactic. Gene Sharp first outlined this shift in 1973 in The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Sharp argued that the rule of despots and dictators rests on at least the tacit consent of their subjects, propped up by “pillars of power” such as authority, material resources, norms and values, and expert knowledge. When these are knocked away, dictatorial power beings to crumble. His list of 198 nonviolent tactics is creative but omits any practices of public love like listening to enemies. He argues that efforts at what he calls “conversion” to a nonviolent philosophy are misguided. Mark Engler and Paul Engler develop Sharp’s framework in This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century.

The shift from nonviolence as a philosophy to nonviolent as a tactic is based on a theory of power operating in the world as it is. Like the canvass, it gets results. “Power may be briefly defined as the capacity to control the behavior of others,” writes Sharp. The Englers argue, “Disruptive protest forces observers to decide which side they are on…disruptive actions are polarizing. But this is not an unintended consequence. It is central to how they work.”

One way power leads to polarization based on the notion that opponents are enemies who must be defeated. It neglects understanding of power as relational, power to, not power over. This is the capacity to act across radical differences to accomplish a common task. In our work we call this power “civic agency.”

Martin Luther King again helps us understand the relevance. Ten years after Stride Toward Freedom, King called for combining love and power. “One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as polar oppositions,” he said. “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.” The Canadian mediator Adam Kahane has developed King’s framework in Power and Love. Kahane describes his work over decades in designing, facilitating, and organizing social change processes on King’s dialect. Some initiatives had striking results, as in the Canadian initiative on climate change, the birth of the sustainable agriculture movement, and ending the bloody conflict in Guatemala. They testify to the power of nonviolent philosophy when developed to bring together groups who hate each other.

Another example is the One America Bus Tour. Our long-time colleague Bill Doherty, working with the Better Angels group, is a leader in this effort. The Bus Tour brought together equal numbers of “Red” and “Blue” Americans in 18 communities, beginning in rural Ohio. Groups like the Citizen Climate Lobby and the global anti-poverty organization that gave it birth, RESULTS, develop policy initiatives carefully designed to appeal across the partisan divide. They are another illustration.

A final example is the theory and practice of nonviolent citizen politics of public work which we developed through partnerships of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. It is expressed in our youth civic education and empowerment initiative, Public Achievement. It has also taken other forms like the Citizen Leadership Program of the African democracy group, Idasa. The forthcoming book Pedagogy of the Empowered recounts many stories from the United States, Africa, and Europe.

Stirrings of nonviolent philosophy speak to the fierce urgency of now in the aftermath of the bitter polarizations after Charlottesville. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” is more relevant than ever.

We can’t diminish the dangers of renewed violence, racism, and xenophobia now surfacing. But we also can’t ignore the fact that violence and hatred affect us all. We need a movement of nonviolent politics of public work that taps the immensity within.


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