“We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
My parents were both pacifists. My father’s brothers were also pacifists and as young men in 1939, at the start of World War II, they had to defend their Christian beliefs that would not permit them to kill a fellow man, their brother, no matter what side of the war they were on. One of my father’s brothers (nickname ‘Ras’ short for Erastus – a family name, his uncle was nicknamed Era) was so eloquent at his hearing, that he was permitted to continue his university education. My father and his other brother were not forced to enlist, but they had to postpone their education and contribute to the ‘war effort.’
The urge to non-violence extended to the upbringing of the family. We could argue (except on Sundays – no raised voices permitted), but we were not allowed to have physical altercations. It was probably a good thing that we only had one brother – he would not have been allowed to hit a girl anyway, but if he had a brother? Of course my own children were raised quite differently (three of the four are boys), their father believed in defending himself vigorously, and they should do the same. When one of the kids came home and told his father that somebody had hit him, his father reminded him loudly that he was only supposed to come home and report who he had beat up! (I believe the language was a little stronger than that!)
It took me a while to get used to the philosophy of meeting might with might, force with force. I had been raised with concepts like ‘Love thine enemy’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. In fact, when I was a teenager I had actually experienced the cheek turning myself – although in my defense I let the girl slap me twice mostly because I was too shocked to respond! I am not even sure what I did to provoke it, though I had probably made some slick comment. Later in life I followed the principle of treating an enemy well, (and in so doing you are heaping burning coals of fire on their head – as Proverbs told us). It was a friend who turned against me, later I suggested her for a promotion (she was perfect for the job), and she knew that I was instrumental in her getting the position. It made her crazy! That was not my main intention, but it was an added bonus!
What is the best way to fight injustice? These turbulent times are filled with stories that make our hearts ache and our blood boil. In the Navajo nation, elders are left without food. They don’t have running water (yes Virginia, even today in the great USA) and so the simplest of preventive measures is a challenge. The First Nation people (I much prefer this title to other derogatory terms) have been left in primitive conditions, and have been paying the price for centuries. The inequities of our social system are manifest in the uneven rates of infection and death among communities of color. How could it be otherwise, since health and wellbeing require basics of good nutrition, housing, opportunity, education and access to healthcare which have been systematically denied over centuries, despite laws and so-called good intentions.
My children grew up in a household where they were forced to ‘stay woke’. Their father taught them in no uncertain terms about their history, the history of an enslaved people who have been systematically denied justice and equal rights. They could quote Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Claude McKay and Kwame Nkrumah before they knew any nursery rhymes. He had worn his hair in ‘dreadlocks’ for political not religious reasons way before it was fashionable to do so. He mostly tucked them away in caps and tams when profiling brought him too much attention. As an angry revolutionary living in the USA he knew the system well, and never showed the police anything but the most deferential respect. But I have no idea how he would have responded if confronted by two gun toting white men trawling behind him in a vehicle while jogging.
There are no words strong enough to describe the gross injustice which is heaped upon young black men in America. From the systemic to the personal, they are judged by a whole different set of standards, expected to respond to these injustices in a way no white man has ever had to. It is impossible to look at a crowd of automatic weapon-toting white men charging a government building (in defense of what?) and imagine what would happen if that were a group of black men (even if they were armed only with an attitude and a hoodie or two). And half the story has never been told.
This particular time in history, this pandemic, this leader, they have all combined in this (im)perfect storm of tensions all bubbling to the surface. But with great challenges come great opportunities. I once saw a lecture by a holistic physician. His audience was a group of ‘survivors’, I prefer to think of them as ‘warriors’ – people who had resisted the enemy cancer. He told them that they had been given the opportunity to reinvent their lives. They had been brought to an existential crisis, had been given a stark reminder of their mortality, and now they could look at the rest of their life in a totally different way. Why put off? Why deny? Why keep quiet? Why accept? What could they do differently now that they recognized how suddenly life could change?
This Friday morning I am calling, begging, hoping for the people of vision who can reinvent our world in a meaningful way. I am praying that the tensions that have been brought bubbling up to the surface will provoke those who have accepted the status quo (especially if injustice wasn’t affecting their immediate circle) to rethink their role in the maintenance of an unjust, disparate world. Come on white people! This might be our best chance.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!