NOTE 11/7/14: I originally wrote this post after a group of friends and I made a trip to Ferguson for the Weekend of Resistance. Recently, I caught wind of a cool project dedicated to discussing “The New Pacifism” going on over at the Political Jesus Blog and I decided to join conversation. All that to say, while this post is an older one, my hope is that it will spark some conversations where pacifist seriously reflect on some of the problems that have recently come to the fore.
I am 4 days removed from participating in the “Weekend of Resistance” in St. Louis, MO. I was honored to go with a group of friends (Ben, Brian, Jay and Nathan) who, like me, are outraged at the current events surrounding the executions of young, black men. This post serves two purposes: 1) to summarize my experience and 2) to offer an exhortation to other Christians to do more than simply pray, “Go in peace; stay safe and be well” (James 2:14-18).
A new movement has come upon us. As it goes with most movements, those of us who occupy a place of privilege were unprepared. Yet those on the underside of history demonstrate for us that systemic racism has not gone away–mystically disappearing via Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I went to St. Louis to listen and learn from grass-root organizers who have become all too familiar with the forces and machines of death. As it has been shown on major news outlets, some of these activists have taken up arms against their oppressors in hopes of a reckoning.
Yet, in my own opinion, the media drastically over exaggerates this violent faction while a peaceful majority trek on. As I reflect on our marching this past Sunday night, images of peaceful youth leading the charge stand out in my mind. I myself marched next to one of these youth for a good portion of the night. But this does not dismiss the realities of the riots and looting that have occurred en lieu of Michael Brown’s death. These events have added an element of tension and danger that have resulted in unprovoked violence towards peaceful protestors. Tef Poe, a local activist and rapper, offered an indictment against the religious leaders Sunday night as he explained that in these dangerous times they have looked by the wayside while the local gangs offer protection from police barbarity.
This indictment is the insight I wish to explore. Should not the church take special care to protect those in society who are pushed to the margins (Gal 2:10, Jam 1:27)? It is tempting to engage in a game of semantics when answering this question. “Yes,” some might respond, “But the individuals in St. Louis and Ferguson, MO are not truly being oppressed. They are bringing the violence upon themselves.”1 Or there are those who piously retort that Christians should defend the disenfranchised but, as a caveat, they insist that the movement must take on a more nonviolent ethos before these protestors get their nod of approval. Only the privileged of society make such an obtuse observation such as, “They are bringing the violence upon themselves,” or “None of this would be happening if they just obeyed the laws.” I have already critiqued this group in a previous post. It is the latter group, the group that wishes to maintain their nonviolent-purity by remaining uninvolved, that I turn my attention to now.
I myself am an ardent pacifist.2 So I believe I have a responsibility to critique those who remain aloof from the movement. It seems to me that in our pursuit for peace, we pacifists can become disincarnate from those Christ identified with the most. Stated differently, I as a pacifist often times worry about my involvement in acts of resistance because I want to avoid associating with those who seek justice “By any means necessary.”3 This, I tell myself, is a way for me to remain faithful to my “convictions.” In reality, I am only erecting a boundary between me and a group of people who are in desperate need of justice. My refusal to associate with those who could compromise my religious purity prevents me from seeing the Imago Dei in even the most “radicalized” individuals.4
Jesus Christ, Messiah and King, allows himself to be scandalized by those in society who “tarnish” and “contaminate” his character (Mt 11:19). If one looks in the Gospels, Christ continuously associates himself with the wrong crowd. The act of table fellowship is Christ provocatively suggesting that one need not subscribe to the way of Jesus in order to be included into the fold (Mt. 9:10-13; Lk 14:1-14). Perhaps more to our point, Jesus Christ, who was undoubtedly a pacifist,5 chooses at least one disciple that can be identified as a Zealot (Lk 6:15)!6
So where then do these insights leave us? I am not suggesting, in any way, shape or form that Christian pacifists need to compromise their moral convictions concerning nonviolence. Instead, what I wish to emphasize is that Christ was a “man for others” and Christians therefore have a duty to “exist for others.”7
I am convinced that this means we, Christians, are to engage those who use questionable tactics to ascertain their liberation. Our engagement with them serves two purposes: 1) we identify with those Christ identified with and 2) we invite them to embark on an adventure where evil is scandalously overcome by good (Mt 5:43-44; Rom 12:21). Therefore, I do not mean that we condone violent actions. Rather we must take this opportunity to practice a faithful presence where we continuously point to YHWH’s shalom.
This faithful presence requires us to risk our reputations and, if need be, our very lives. Perhaps if more Christians were willing to be “in the fray” Tef Poe’s indictment would be less cutting. Imagine Christians, en masse, protecting protesters by standing in front of police tanks and rubber bullets–all along, reminding the world that, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”8
Dedicated to Rob & Ruthie Daniels
1. I have already offered my thoughts concerning Christians who foolishly and sinfully insist that race and socioeconomic background make little difference in how one is treated here in the US. See my Michael Brown, Tupac and God. Also see Geoff Holsclaw’s new series Deeper Than We Thought: Part 1 and Part 2.
2. For more on my position regarding Christian pacifism, see my The Cross of Discipleship.
3. See Malcolm X’s By Any Means Necessary (Malcolm X Speeches and Writings).
4. See Christena Cleveland’s post The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail for more on this.
7. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, 499-503.
8. See Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Strength to Love, 47.
Photo courtesy of CBS News.