Non-violently Bending the Moral Arc of the Universe

It is far too easy to believe that achieving true justice through active, non-violent resistance is just a pipe dream. That it is a lovely concept, but that it is mostly ineffective when placed within the context of the modern realities of power and dominance.

The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that active, non-violent resistance simply doesn’t capture the vast majority of the public’s attention enough to sale ads and commercials, so the majority of Big Media groups ignore it or underreport it. We can just look at the massively underreported Moral Mondays gatherings in North Carolina to see the reality of it.

And it may be that another reality is that this kind of change making, this kind of peacemaking, this active, non-violent resistance is such a threat to the Industrial War Machine and to those who leverage fear and violence and hate in order to continue to propagate their position that they will do everything within their power to prevent the mass distribution of reports that point to how effective it truly is.

As Mahatma Gandhi reminds us “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”

To begin understand why I, as a Christian minister, value active, non-violent resistance so much, I’d like to look at a teaching from Jesus that was the one of the most quoted verses in the first 400 years of Christianity and I’d like to introduce it with a quote from one of my personal heroes, Martin Luther King. Dr. King, one of the greatest leaders in non-violent resistance, gave this very simple, core understand of non-violence: “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”

One of the most quoted verse in the early Church actually is part of Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek, giving your cloak as well, and going the extra mile. Jesus continues that message of active, non-violent resistance by saying in Matthew 5:44-45: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Let’s consider that for a moment. For the first 400 years of Christianity, the years most closely following the actual teachings of Jesus, one of the most important verses in Christianity said, “love your enemies, pray for those who harass you – God treats us all equally and so should you.”

Once again, Dr, King, “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”

For the first 350 to 400 years, Christianity stood firmly on the side of love, the side of non-violence. For me, that begs the question, what changed? Our history since that point certainly includes many acts of violence, frequently in the name of religion.

Well, quite simply, the Roman government started giving Christianity preferential treatment. Quickly, Christianity went from being persecuted by the government to being protected by the government.

Theologian Walter Wink’s has this to say about Christianity’s move from being persecuted by the Powers that Be to being protected by them, “Once a religion attains sufficient power in a society that the state looks to it for support, that religion must also, of necessity, join in the repression of the state’s enemies.” He goes on to say about early Christianity’s relationship with the Roman government, “For a faith that lived from its critique of domination and its vision of a nonviolent social order, this shift was catastrophic, for it could only mean embracing and rationalizing oppression.”

The parallels with with modern politics and Christianity should leave us all shaking in our boots. Politicians are co-opting Christianity and using it as a rallying point for selling their modern-day, emotional equivalent of snake oil – trying to convince people that the fear, the hate, the violence is good for what ails you. And they claim to do it on the foundation of Christianity.

Yet the teachings of Jesus tells us, in one of the most quoted verse in the Church’s early history, love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you.

I’m left with the feeling that over the last 1500 years or so, we’ve drifted away from a part of our identity that was once foundational to our understanding of who we are and who Jesus said we should be.

Of course, the instinctive response is to say that it’s just a reality of the modern world that non-violent responses do not work. But the ACTUAL reality is that the thought process that says fear, hate, and violence bringing about peace are the real myth or as Dr. King puts it, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.”

Or as Gandhi put it, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

You see, it turns out that active, non-violent resistance changes things all the time. In his publication called Jesus’ 3rd Way, Walter Wink reminds us:

In 1989, there were thirteen nations that underwent nonviolent revolutions. All of them successful except one, China. That year, 1.7 billion people were engaged in national nonviolent revolutions. That is a third of humanity. If you throw in all of the other nonviolent revolutions in all the other nations in the twentieth century, you get the astonishing figure of 3.34 billion people involved in nonviolent revolutions. That is two thirds of the human race. No one can ever again say that nonviolence doesn’t work. It has been working like crazy.”

The reality is that non-violent resistance is actually part of the founding of the U.S. (That doesn’t mean there wasn’t horrific violence in the founding; it just means that part of the U.S. is actually built on the foundation of non-violence). You see, the American colonists initiated three major non-violent resistance campaigns against the British (against the Stamp Acts of 1765, the Townsend Acts of 1767, and the Coercive Acts of 1774) collectively they played a major role in independence for nine colonies by 1775.

The reality is there are example after example for this kind of resistance. Nonviolent demonstrations lead to the passage and ratification of the Constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. Using a variety of nonviolent methods, including bus boycotts, economic boycotts, massive demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, and freedom rides, the U.S. civil rights movement won passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Apartheid in South Africa was brought down in 1990 through non-violent protests and mass resistance. More recently we’ve seen the rise of the Arab Spring non-violent movement rise up in the Middle East.

For Jesus, for Gandhi, for Dr. King, for the 3.4 billion people who participated in non-violent resistance in the twentieth century, pacifism isn’t… well, passive. It is active and creative and frequently uses systems of domination against themselves. Those of us who wish to follow the teachings of Jesus should look to the early church and their non-violent practices and then spend more time understanding how this works and then, ultimately, replicate it in our lives.

So, let us march on, bending the arc of the universe toward justice. It will take the sweat of our brow, the creativity of our minds and the love of our souls if we hope sort out a non-violent way forward, but we must never lose sight of the reality that non-violence is the only way forward.

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