When I see and hear pleas for justice, dignity or even mere recognition rising up against long odds, I empathize with the range of emotions that have broken through the surface tension of years past into a rolling boil.
As a matter of personality, I tend toward anger, which partly explains why Christian ethics gripped me from the start.
Given the nearly boundless opportunity I have enjoyed thus far in life, my anger around justice issues is mostly compassion – anger about the unjust, unfair, undue treatment of other persons and the inequities structured into human systems.
All the same, my pendulum swings between two questions: What will I do about it? And how do I prevent this anger from eating me alive inside?
Nonviolence, as I understand it, is the answer to both, but people flirt with various reasons and possibilities for it.
While engaging in public action to effect real-world change, a strategic commitment to nonviolence can heighten the drama while exposing underlying injustices. That’s about “optics.”
Yet the results of such actions (nonviolent or otherwise) are not guaranteed, and a lot depends on who holds the opposing line – sometimes even the activist’s plan to demonstrate nonviolently.
We can trust that former heavyweight boxing champion of the world Mike Tyson knows his stuff when he advises, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.” This is when one’s commitment to nonviolence ceases to be academic.
Encouraging resolute nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Many hear in this line a confidence in the certainty of humankind’s progress into the future. King’s hope, however, seems to spring from a deeper well, as expressed in the poetic line he also liked to cite, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”
God’s kingdom is real and unshakeable, always operating just beyond the space-time curtain. Even when we lack the eyes to see it, one may trust the living God who is actively bending the moral universe’s arc toward justice.
Humankind is not sure to make progress such that history will read like a progress chart with an arrow pointing up and to the right. Rather, history as we experience it is riddled with holes through which the Spirit attempts to draw us – and by extension the very ground on which we stand – into alignment with God’s all-encompassing reign.
Perhaps too many of us have been lulled into a false sense of security by superficial human progress in the world. But the fact remains that everyone who has ever lived has started from the same place in the task of faith – of loving God completely and one’s neighbor as oneself.
Truth will rise again and again, to be sure, and yet it is recurrently trampled underfoot, even if in more advanced and increasingly refined ways than in generations past.
So, we might be keen to understand how we can really live into what Gandhi called “truth-force” (satyagraha), which King translated into the Christian vernacular as “soul-force.”
Transformed by the reality of God’s love reaching through history’s pores, the human soul feels its worth.
And from this sense of dignity arises a self-love committed to honoring one’s own dignity as well as the dignity of all other persons.
When this love extends to the perceived enemy, King does not prescribe self-denial or ceaseless (and mostly passive) submission.
Confident in my own worth, I can assert it in the face of others who refuse to recognize it; in that process, I demonstrate my inner strength by disallowing an opponent to draw me into their game of hate.
Though they may express hatred toward me, though they may try to do me harm, the opponent cannot make me say or do anything. What’s more, I can express a greater commitment to their dignity than even they do. I love myself, and that frees me to be for you too.
I visualize my opponent as a person of inestimable worth, refusing to demonize them and instead seeing evil itself as my enemy.
This picture also sets the baseline from which nonviolent work for dignity can be scaled up to social action for justice.
Yet, as I assert my own dignity, my active love for the opponent may draw poison from their wounds, eliciting violent spasms.
At the human level, my nonviolent action is not merely about drama and public image.
Such incidents can make clear the need for personal change by surfacing the moral distance between the nonviolent person who recognizes her own dignity and the self who cannot handle the presence of soul-strong opponent and lashes out to defend a notion of the self that fails to truly dignify the self (with a sense of self-awareness, self-control and so on) or others.
The harsh reality is this: Sometimes, only a fist-to-mouth connection will hold up a mirror for the opponent to see how little progress, how sparse the moral ground they have to rest upon.
In everyday life, our opposition to one another draws mostly hard words and some degree of intimidation.
Yet, turning this back upon ourselves, when we locate our security in ourselves, in our sense of our own identity as we understand it, any attack on this self-system is perceived as an attack on my person – and proportionate response is almost out of the question.
As persons who may be offended by others’ ideas, we must care enough about ourselves and others to try with them anyway, to practice openness and humility.
Self-love helps us entertain others’ opinions and see what is valid in their direct actions without losing our cool. And when we do lose it, self-love is why we explore and deliberate on our intuitions.
A just peace is never about the delicate maintenance of my conscience within myself; it can only be found on the other side of productive conflict with others in community.
This rings true in all sectors of life, from parenting to starting conversations in your church as an intentional if unlikely ally for the oppressed to marching down the street for justice.
The plentiful and varied work in God’s peaceable kingdom is for every generation to take up in their time, from the individual to the social-structural levels, such that God’s kingdom may reach through the pores of history to bend the arc of the moral universe all the more.
The task of nonviolent direct living – for our neighbor’s sake, for our own sake, for God’s sake – is for all to take up in our sometimes-brutal world. In this work, no one gets to start ahead of generations past.
Humans have always had fists, and those who work toward justice, fairness and equity in this world can expect to be punched in the mouth. If the former describes us, we would do well to consider what kind of inner life would help the truth rise when the latter happens.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for the U.N. International Day of Non-Violence (Oct. 2). The previous articles in the series are:
Resolving Conflict Through Nonviolent Means | Anthony Taylor
For Judaism, Why Nonviolence Doesn’t Work All the Time | Jack Moline
When Nonviolent Protest Worked | Jim Smith
Assistant professor of religion at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. His first book, Evangelicals and Identity Politics, is in review with Fortress Academic, and he has published chapters on Christian identity, peacemaking and ecological theology.