The Privilege of “Non-Violence”

A small group of “agitators” disrupted an otherwise “peaceful” demonstration and general strike in Oakland this past Wednesday with moments of “violence.” The swift disavowal of that violence by just about everyone but the agitators themselves raised some red flags for me. (Read about what happened here, and especially the remarkable notion that shutting down a commercial port qualifies as “peaceful” protest.)

We don’t know exactly who those agitators were. We don’t know precisely why they engaged in vandalism or why they incited the police. But apparently that doesn’t matter; their violence was wrong. The violence of the general strike itself, however, is perfectly acceptable. Why? What’s the difference?

Among the many peculiar stories in the gospel accounts, I can’t stop thinking about the one so often called the “cleansing of the temple” (see Mt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-19; Lk. 19:45-46; and Jn. 2:13-16).  Whatever Jesus did that day – overturning tables, driving people out, whipping bad religious bankers with a cat-o-nine tails – whatever it was, he disrupted a corrupt system and he got into a lot of trouble for it. And let’s be clear: what he did was violent. I mean, don’t you think it was? If not, what counts as “violent” for you?

There are lots of squishy words running through our public and private speeches these days, whether in Congress or at the water cooler or in our living rooms. “Anarchists” is a favorite one of late as it lumps all those people together who don’t behave in public the way the rest of us would prefer. “Wealth” is another notoriously squishy word. Compared to the vast majority of people on this planet, if you don’t worry about where your next meal is coming from and you have a roof over your head, you are wealthy.

“Violence” is just as squishy. We use it in all sorts of ways, as if they all mean the same kind of thing. We “do violence” to a text by misinterpreting it. We “do violence” to ideas when we misrepresent their meaning. If you eat meat of any kind, you are responsible for doing violence to an animal. We “do violence” to humans in all sorts of ways as well, some horrific and physical, others far more subtle, emotional and relational.

So what counts as acceptable and unacceptable violence, and who decides, and why?

I don’t know. But I’ll offer two observations, though I’m not sure yet how to connect these to my peculiar faith in the supposedly “non-violent” Jesus.

First, a “general strike” is not an instance of non-violent protest. A general strike, if successful, disrupts the economy of an entire city, and that hurts both businesses and people. Sure, the hurt is temporary, but let’s not pretend that a general strike is merely “harmless” protest. It is, in my view, a form of violence. Both the religious and civic authorities in Jesus’ day apparently thought so, too. Disrupting systems of monetary exchange is a violent act – and those first century authorities responded with violence in return; they crucified Jesus.

Second, the privilege I enjoy because of my class, race, and gender makes it very unlikely that I will ever engage in acts of vandalism. My comfortable job and cozy home blunt what would otherwise be a far sharper disgust and anger toward the corruption of both our financial system and politicians.

But if my house had been foreclosed on by a bank that was later charged with fraudulent mortgage practices and that reaped huge profits without paying hardly any taxes at all – well, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t be out on the streets smashing that bank’s windows.

In short, I worry that even defining what counts as “non-violence” is yet another realm that belongs to the privileged.

I’m thinking about this at all because something is going on in my own backyard – not because of the decades-long struggle in Israel/Palestine, not because of the conflict between China and Tibet, not because Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square in much the same way that my own neighbors are gathering in Oakland – and that speaks volumes about the privilege I currently enjoy.

I wonder how long that privilege will last. I wonder how that privilege shapes my reading of the Gospel. I wonder if I would care so terribly much about defining “violence” so precisely if I lost my job, my house, my health insurance, my credit cards, and the ridiculously easy access I have to food at the local Safeway. The definition of violence varies, I should think, depending on whether you’re defining it next to a cozy fireplace or seeking shelter beneath a freeway overpass.

These are peculiar quandaries for a peculiar faith. At the very least, I think they ought to lead Christians beyond our usual comfort zones and into something like “transformation.” What will that look like? Offer your suggestions here…please.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

9 thoughts on “The Privilege of “Non-Violence””

  1. Jay-
    I really appreciated your musings about violence and privilege. As I was reading, I realized that in my mind, people who commit violence (whether criminal acts or more public acts) are somehow in the category of “other.” “Those people” are on the other side of the world or the other side of town, and I have not thought much about the need to understand what drives the violence. I have just reacted to such people and acts as “wrong.” Period.

    However, I now think that seeking to understand the context for violence is really important. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and some storm victims looted stores to get access to food and water, I reacted to that with compassion. I mean — if FEMA and all of the other powers that be weren’t going to hurry up and help, then I would not have let my children starve either!

    I have been entranced with the “Occupy” movement – hoping that the voice of the people might finally be heard. I have not yet been to any protests due to my job and kids – but then – I think that is partially what you are saying. I have a CHOICE of whether to show up at a protest or not —because although my life is not financially cozy, it is not life or death. It is not eat or starve. If my situation were more dire, I, like you, would be a whole lot more angry.

    It is so easy for me to pontificate about how we are all being preyed upon by big banks and corporate interests and how the fees and despicable lending practices are eating our checkbooks alive. I really do feel that pain, and it does make me want to protest. But perhaps we all need to get even madder than that. As in FURIOUS! I do not know how to do this – but if the people who are suffering the worst and who are the most disenfranchised felt that more of us “got it” and were on their side, then maybe we could all get utterly furious together. Such anger on a bigger scale might lead to fewer words, more community action, hopefully drive more economic justice — and just maybe the people on the other side of the world or town might express less violence — if they did not feel so utterly alone.

  2. Jay: Some food for thought–

    “To act justly is to take no more than one’s fair share of the Earth’s resources, including the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb carbon dioxide without causing major climatic change. Simply take the population of the Earth and divide it into the available resources; the resultant number will tell you the share of resources you can fairly claim. Unfortunately, if you are an average American, this number will be approximately one-fifth of your current use.” From Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson (Trinity University Press, 2010).

    If this is the level of sacrifice of individual Americans, my sense is that the level of “sacrifice” for corporations and governments would be even greater.

    There’s no way an equitable sharing will come about short of catastrophic natural upheaval (and that’s where we ‘re heading) or hyperviolent uprising (and that may happen as the natural upheaval begins). Unfortunately, we’re competitive creatures by nature, so sharing isn’t very strong in our DNA, and the institutions we’ve created have been made in our own image.

    Sorry for the pessimism….

  3. Jay:

    i am so glad you have opened up this conversation. It helps to widen the perspective to include the — our — privileged interpretation of non-violence. i can’t respond from the position of “having answers;” i can only add my own struggle with it. i have always been, for whatever reason, personally uncomfortable with the notion of protest, although i had added my body and voice to expressions of protest throughout my life. Yet, if i really look at where my heart/mind is, i would probably feel more congruent with some form of “social shaming” — by which i mean, that way of standing and looking directly at perpetrators that exclaims, “What the hell are you thinking? Who raised you?” This is, of course, not very useful in our current age of, to some extent, sociopathic shamelessness. And, i think that, to some extent, our current protests are still rooted in that strident call to “act decently.” So, now i tend to be with the line of buddhists sitting in front of an embassy or on a hillside with a “Vigil for Peace” sign.

    i agree with you about the squishyness of the term “violence.” i think it is the buddhist in me that cannot overlook the inescapability of consequences: what we do has effects. As we draw our money out of the banks — not that i disagree with the action — i can only think that the 1st line of fallout of this will be the jobs of low-level employees at those banks. Just as the small-business owners of Oakland are losing income while Oakland is being occupied by well-intentioned, justified and righteous “non-violent” protest. There are no easy answers/changes to be made about this. But, perhaps as we own the upheavals to the vulnerable that our non-violence is causing, we will come up with more mindful — or, at least more-equitably-distributed — consequences to our actions.

    Perhaps what we all need to face is that our “non-violence” does not make us innocent of causing pain — a form of violence — to those who are already suffering. i am not talking about blame here; i think i’m talking about hubris. And, as i’ve heard attributed to Helen Keller: “Innocence is highly overrated.” Let us learn to be more aware of and stay present and responsible for our consequences.

    1. Grace, thank you so much. This is a really helpful reflection. You helped me to see a piece of this that I hadn’t quite articulated but was lurking around in my own fuzzy reflections — your last paragraph: our non-violence doesn’t mean we’re innocent of causing pain. For me, anyway, that really struck a chord. My own privilege is built on the back of lots of pain and suffering, which I don’t want to view. Lots to think about here. Thanks.

  4. In addition to being ‘squishy,’ my sense is that ‘violence’ is often one of those over-sized words used to keep ourselves clean, at a safe distance from messy or complex situations: objectifyiing at least one of the parties in the process.
    The addict who smashes a car window to steal ojbects which had been left out in clear sight is ‘violent’ and we are saved from engaging with the pain, fear and personal history which has brought him to such a desperate, frightened place.
    The protester who pushes back against the police line or refuses to disperse or maybe even torches public or private property is ‘violent’ and we’re ‘saved’ even acknowledging his loss of employment, the oppressive weight of his personal debt, and the messy terror of living on the street.
    Going even deeper, I can’t help but wonder if implicit in our objectification we’re not also shoring up our own comfortable realities: disconnecting the obscenely over-priced consumerism embodied by the store with the smashed window and our ‘right’ to purchase its goods from any responsibility for the reality of the protester being hauled away in shackles.
    And going even deeper, perhaps the quote Anthony offers calls out the core issue. As someone recently asked in another medium: which is our essential faith, the American dream or our Christian vocation to realizing the kingdom of God on earth? And what about when they clearly diverge?
    Thank-you Jay for this post, for giving voice to the inner struggle which nails our butts to the raw reality of each new day

  5. Hi Jay –
    I don’t know if this will be a helpful addition to this conversation or not, but I have been mulling over this topic since you posted it. In one conversation I had with a friend, Leslie Kirby, who is a psychotherapist and has done some study and writing about both white privilege and non-violence — she pointed out a couple of tidbits that were very enlightening to me. (And I have referred Leslie to your blog, so Leslie forgive me if I am paraphrasing your words inaccurately). Leslie was saying that her study has lead her to believe that part of our struggle with the ideas of protest, non-violence, societal change and the root causes for violence relate closely to the fact that in Western society we shy away from our individual and collective ANGER in a huge way and that we do so at our peril. Anger, she noted, is transformative. True change internally or outwardly cannot happen without it. She also made the incredibly helpful comment that there will always be people who are privileged and those that are not — AND that if we are to expect any change on a greater scale, then those who are in the position of privilege need to USE IT. There are people in that group who could truly turn some things around if they will be bold with their positions and actions. I walked away from that conversation thinking about how often the progressives whine about things and don’t take action that will work. I keep envisioning a boxing match where one person comes out swinging and the other just sits there and gets pummeled. I think that progressives so shy away from rocking the boat or from being perceived as unkind, that we do not take “disruptive” action. We and our leaders need to embrace our anger because it is exactly that anger that has the power to transform.

    1. I think that’s on target, Laura. A good number of years ago I recall someone like Robert Bly (the mytho-poetic men’s movement guy) gave a talk about the inability of men to grieve openly and how that has shaped our society of denial and repression around loss and anger. I don’t know how to quantify or measure all that, but something rings true to me in it. It’s like our society as a whole needs extended therapy….

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