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by Niyi Adeogun
MYTH STATEMENT

Nonviolence doesn’t fix the problems of the world

THE MYTH OF REDEMPTIVE VIOLENCE

Drew Strait

Drew Strait teaches New Testament at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. His writing focuses on peace/peacemaking in early Christianity, along with the arts of discursive resistance among early Jewish and Christian communities. He is a member of Keller Park Church in South Bend, IN.

The 20th century is known as the “age of murder.” No less than 170 million humans lost their lives to direct violence—mostly at the hands of state power.[1] Why do humans repeat this vicious cycle while fully knowing its devastating outcomes of suffering, death, and destruction? Does the gravitational pull of the universe really drag us toward armed conflict and murder? Can human difference peacefully coexist? The cycle is venomous. Who will interrupt and stop the madness? 

The Mechanics of Violence

The repetitive pattern of direct violence can be traced back through every generation of human existence. What stands out about the 20th century is the development of technologies to more effectively orchestrate mass killings. Two World Wars and the Holocaust culminated in the United States inventing and dropping a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. In the blink of an eye, an estimated 180-200 thousand innocent civilians lost their lives.[2] What was intended to stop evil perpetuated more of it, including a nuclear arms race that remains one of the greatest threats to human existence and world peace. 

In stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, we tell ourselves we are safer. We are told that violence is redemptive—that our moral conscience and nationalistic exceptionalism is a force for good in the world. But is military domination really beneficent? If so, whose interests does it represent? The United States military is among the largest consumers of oil in the world. This is why it polices oil fields in the Middle East while turning a blind eye to violent conflicts elsewhere. Here I’m especially thinking of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, where more than 500,000 Tutsis were brutally murdered while wealthy nations looked the other way. Compare this to the United States’ 2 trillion dollar preemptive “Operation Iraqi Freedom” after 9/11, where nearly 200,000 innocent Iraqi civilians lost their lives.[3]   Why Iraq, but not Rwanda? Militarized violence is not the machinery of justice. It is, rather, the machinery of ethnocentric interests at the altar of money. 

If we reduce our understanding of violence to physical violence in the 20th century we will miss the ways non-physical forms of violence impact everyday life. Violence in everyday life is multidimensional and sneaky; it is structural, cultural, and symbolic. Structural violence normalizes oppressive systems without necessarily inflicting death. It is encrusted in our systems of finance, law, education, politics, health, food, clean water, transportation, housing, interpersonal relationships, and even houses of worship. It is still defined as violence because it brings about harm, creating the conditions for the systemic flourishing of some while minimizing or denying that same flourishing to others. Structural violence forms dehumanizing social hierarchies across weaponized lines of human difference such as class, race, gender, age, sexuality, and ethnicity. Fueled by the interests of the dominant culture, it fabricates social stigmas to organize power around the privileged and undermine power around the underprivileged. There’s a reason why the north shore of Chicago is predominantly white and rich, and the south side Black and under-resourced. Structural violence doesn’t always kill but it always dehumanizes, segregates, and impoverishes. 

The sneakiness of structural violence is that those who benefit from it either deny it exists or don’t see that it exists at all. Structural violence is oppression camouflaged as the way things just are in one’s culture. This leads to cultural violence, which is a worldview and language of power that sanctions direct and structural violence against the marginalized. Here in the United States, the legacy of enslaving Africans to build a nation with free labor cast a long shadow of cultural violence fueled by white supremacy. White supremacy is cultural violence. It legitimizes the exploitation of Black bodies through an artificial racial caste system that is policed through structures (law, segregation, armed police) and direct violence (lynching, police brutality, mass incarceration). As Isabel Wilkerson writes of the Jim Crow era, “The dominant caste devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people on the bottom rung ever more tightly….People on the bottom rung could be beaten or killed with impunity for any breach of the caste system, like not stepping off the sidewalk fast enough or trying to vote.”[4]  The cycle is vicious: cultural violence can lead to death, but it can also create the conditions for long-term poverty and marginalization, stimulating what Johan Galtung calls a “silent holocaust” that slowly erodes a community’s well-being.[5] 

Violence, then, is direct, structural, and cultural—but it is also symbolic. Symbolic violence is non-physical violence that lurks in the shadows of our social relations. Symbolic violence normalizes the imagined underdogs’ subordinate place in one’s culture. So women are inferior to men (patriarchy). Wealthy businessmen just work harder than the so-called poor (capitalism). America is more blessed and powerful than Mexico (ethnocentrism). Black bodies are inherently more violent than white bodies (racism). Immigrants increase crime (xenophobia). Taken together, these egregious social stigmas create power imbalances that normalize oppressive relationships. This can lead to direct violence against the imagined underdog, including sexualized violence and cultural marginalization.      

Interrupting the Spiral of Violence

How do we interrupt the kaleidoscopic nature of violence, make its sneakiness visible, and stop its cruel cycle? Can violent retaliation stop the cycle?

Hélder Câmara, a Brazilian Catholic Archbishop and liberation theologian, called this cruel cycle the “spiral of violence.”[6] The spiral of violence, according to Câmara, manifests in three forms: Violence No. 1, where the privileged oppress the underdog; Violence No. 2, where the oppressed underdog retaliates with violence; and Violence No. 3, where the privileged preserve their power by responding with overwhelming violent repression. In Câmara’s own words, “Violence attracts violence.”[7] The attraction is a magnetic and death-dealing force. 

Violence begets violence. 

Violence + violent retaliation = more violence. 

Shooting your enemy means his/her friends might shoot back.

Violence is a cyclical diseased social imagination in need of repair.

What is the solution?

Nearly two thousand years ago a revolution of cosmic proportions took place to interrupt the spiral of violence. This revolution was not led by armed insurgents. It was led by God’s unarmed human one, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus claimed that God’s kingdom—a sphere of liberation, peace, and justice—was drawing near. The nearness of this kingdom stood in stark contrast to the palpable nearness of Rome’s military occupation of Jesus’ home country. Under the guise of “peace,” Rome pacified distant peoples, including Israel, through military domination (direct violence), taxation (structural violence), enslavement (cultural violence), and racialized stigmas (symbolic violence). Together, the empire called these mechanisms of violent domination the “Roman peace” (pax Romana). The propaganda of the Roman peace, however, referred to peace through coercion. Rome’s peace-ification of subordinate peoples is best exemplified in Roman crucifixion, a torture apparatus used to make subjects peaceful.

Jesus was not the first Jew to resist Rome’s manufactured peace through coercion. Jewish messianic pretenders, armed guerilla warriors, and prophetic movements sought to overthrow Rome with Violence No. 2. Rome’s overwhelming military strength easily suppressed these resistance movements, culminating in Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE through Violence No. 3. Violence begot violence. It is into this vicious spiral of violence that Jesus injected his own life and teachings. At every point of Jesus’ public ministry we witness God incarnate calling into existence a people who will interrupt pax through coercion with radical acts of neighborly love and nonviolent resistance. 

In teaching to turn the other cheek, Jesus shamed Violence No. 1.

In teaching enemy love, Jesus disrupted Violence No. 2.

In teaching the things that make for peace, Jesus stymied Violence No. 3.

In proclaiming freedom for prisoners, Jesus interrupted structural violence.

In practicing inclusive table fellowship, Jesus flustered cultural violence.

In including women among his disciples, Jesus disoriented symbolic violence.

In proclaiming good news to the poor, Jesus undermined economic caste systems.

In eating with tax collectors, Jesus practiced enemy love.

In speaking woes to the rich, Jesus condemned hoarding and exploitation.

In blessing peacemakers, Jesus contested the efficacy of violent resistance.

In healing the diseased, Jesus showed the limitations of state and military power.

In forgiving sins, Jesus redefined power.

In publicly dying on a Roman cross, Jesus exposed the spiral of violence.

In rising from the dead, Jesus publicly disarmed and made a public spectacle of the pax Romana.

Far from a call to passivity, the way of Jesus is a call to direct action and nonviolent resistance. It is an invitation to boldly step into the living rooms of empire and proclaim that peace is through Jesus Christ (Acts 10:36). As Martin Luther King Jr. recalls, “True nonviolent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart” (My Trip to the Land of Gandhi, 1959). 

Discipleship to Jesus is God’s way of repairing our diseased social imaginations. It is God’s way of reconciling humans to God and humans to one another. The way of Jesus is a social movement. It is an invitation to join this movement in a community and a covenant of peace. The way of Jesus is anti-violent. It exposes the myth of redemptive violence.

The 20th century is known as the “age of murder.” No less than 170 million humans lost their lives to direct violence—mostly at the hands of state power.[1] Why do humans repeat this vicious cycle while fully knowing its devastating outcomes of suffering, death, and destruction? Does the gravitational pull of the universe really drag us toward armed conflict and murder? Can human difference peacefully coexist? The cycle is venomous. Who will interrupt and stop the madness? 

The Mechanics of Violence

The repetitive pattern of direct violence can be traced back through every generation of human existence. What stands out about the 20th century is the development of technologies to more effectively orchestrate mass killings. Two World Wars and the Holocaust culminated in the United States inventing and dropping a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. In the blink of an eye, an estimated 180-200 thousand innocent civilians lost their lives.[2] What was intended to stop evil perpetuated more of it, including a nuclear arms race that remains one of the greatest threats to human existence and world peace. 

Does the gravitational pull of the universe really drag us toward armed conflict and murder? Can human difference peacefully coexist?

In stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, we tell ourselves we are safer. We are told that violence is redemptive—that our moral conscience and nationalistic exceptionalism is a force for good in the world. But is military domination really beneficent? If so, whose interests does it represent? The United States military is among the largest consumers of oil in the world. This is why it polices oil fields in the Middle East while turning a blind eye to violent conflicts elsewhere. Here I’m especially thinking of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, where more than 500,000 Tutsis were brutally murdered while wealthy nations looked the other way. Compare this to the United States’ 2 trillion dollar preemptive “Operation Iraqi Freedom” after 9/11, where nearly 200,000 innocent Iraqi civilians lost their lives.[3]   Why Iraq, but not Rwanda? Militarized violence is not the machinery of justice. It is, rather, the machinery of ethnocentric interests at the altar of money. 

If we reduce our understanding of violence to physical violence in the 20th century we will miss the ways non-physical forms of violence impact everyday life. Violence in everyday life is multidimensional and sneaky; it is structural, cultural, and symbolic. Structural violence normalizes oppressive systems without necessarily inflicting death. It is encrusted in our systems of finance, law, education, politics, health, food, clean water, transportation, housing, interpersonal relationships, and even houses of worship. It is still defined as violence because it brings about harm, creating the conditions for the systemic flourishing of some while minimizing or denying that same flourishing to others. Structural violence forms dehumanizing social hierarchies across weaponized lines of human difference such as class, race, gender, age, sexuality, and ethnicity. Fueled by the interests of the dominant culture, it fabricates social stigmas to organize power around the privileged and undermine power around the underprivileged. There’s a reason why the north shore of Chicago is predominantly white and rich, and the south side Black and under-resourced. Structural violence doesn’t always kill but it always dehumanizes, segregates, and impoverishes. 

In stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, we tell ourselves we are safer. We are told that violence is redemptive—that our moral conscience and nationalistic exceptionalism is a force for good in the world. But is military domination really beneficent? If so, whose interests does it represent?

The sneakiness of structural violence is that those who benefit from it either deny it exists or don’t see that it exists at all. Structural violence is oppression camouflaged as the way things just are in one’s culture. This leads to cultural violence, which is a worldview and language of power that sanctions direct and structural violence against the marginalized. Here in the United States, the legacy of enslaving Africans to build a nation with free labor cast a long shadow of cultural violence fueled by white supremacy. White supremacy is cultural violence. It legitimizes the exploitation of Black bodies through an artificial racial caste system that is policed through structures (law, segregation, armed police) and direct violence (lynching, police brutality, mass incarceration). As Isabel Wilkerson writes of the Jim Crow era, “The dominant caste devised a labyrinth of laws to hold the newly freed people on the bottom rung ever more tightly….People on the bottom rung could be beaten or killed with impunity for any breach of the caste system, like not stepping off the sidewalk fast enough or trying to vote.”[4]  The cycle is vicious: cultural violence can lead to death, but it can also create the conditions for long-term poverty and marginalization, stimulating what Johan Galtung calls a “silent holocaust” that slowly erodes a community’s well-being.[5] 

Structural violence doesn’t always kill but it always dehumanizes, segregates, and impoverishes. The sneakiness of structural violence is that those who benefit from it either deny it exists or don’t see that it exists at all. Structural violence is oppression camouflaged as the way things just are in one’s culture.

Violence, then, is direct, structural, and cultural—but it is also symbolic. Symbolic violence is non-physical violence that lurks in the shadows of our social relations. Symbolic violence normalizes the imagined underdogs’ subordinate place in one’s culture. So women are inferior to men (patriarchy). Wealthy businessmen just work harder than the so-called poor (capitalism). America is more blessed and powerful than Mexico (ethnocentrism). Black bodies are inherently more violent than white bodies (racism). Immigrants increase crime (xenophobia). Taken together, these egregious social stigmas create power imbalances that normalize oppressive relationships. This can lead to direct violence against the imagined underdog, including sexualized violence and cultural marginalization.      

Interrupting the Spiral of Violence

How do we interrupt the kaleidoscopic nature of violence, make its sneakiness visible, and stop its cruel cycle? Can violent retaliation stop the cycle?

Hélder Câmara, a Brazilian Catholic Archbishop and liberation theologian, called this cruel cycle the “spiral of violence.”[6] The spiral of violence, according to Câmara, manifests in three forms: Violence No. 1, where the privileged oppress the underdog; Violence No. 2, where the oppressed underdog retaliates with violence; and Violence No. 3, where the privileged preserve their power by responding with overwhelming violent repression. In Câmara’s own words, “Violence attracts violence.”[7] The attraction is a magnetic and death-dealing force. 

Violence begets violence. 

Violence + violent retaliation = more violence. 

Shooting your enemy means his/her friends might shoot back.

Violence is a cyclical diseased social imagination in need of repair.

What is the solution?

Nearly two thousand years ago a revolution of cosmic proportions took place to interrupt the spiral of violence. This revolution was not led by armed insurgents. It was led by God’s unarmed human one, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus claimed that God’s kingdom—a sphere of liberation, peace, and justice—was drawing near. The nearness of this kingdom stood in stark contrast to the palpable nearness of Rome’s military occupation of Jesus’ home country. Under the guise of “peace,” Rome pacified distant peoples, including Israel, through military domination (direct violence), taxation (structural violence), enslavement (cultural violence), and racialized stigmas (symbolic violence). Together, the empire called these mechanisms of violent domination the “Roman peace” (pax Romana). The propaganda of the Roman peace, however, referred to peace through coercion. Rome’s peace-ification of subordinate peoples is best exemplified in Roman crucifixion, a torture apparatus used to make subjects peaceful.

At every point of Jesus’ public ministry we witness God incarnate calling into existence a people who will interrupt pax through coercion with radical acts of neighborly love and nonviolent resistance.

Jesus was not the first Jew to resist Rome’s manufactured peace through coercion. Jewish messianic pretenders, armed guerilla warriors, and prophetic movements sought to overthrow Rome with Violence No. 2. Rome’s overwhelming military strength easily suppressed these resistance movements, culminating in Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE through Violence No. 3. Violence begot violence. It is into this vicious spiral of violence that Jesus injected his own life and teachings. At every point of Jesus’ public ministry we witness God incarnate calling into existence a people who will interrupt pax through coercion with radical acts of neighborly love and nonviolent resistance. 

In teaching to turn the other cheek, Jesus shamed Violence No. 1.

In teaching enemy love, Jesus disrupted Violence No. 2.

In teaching the things that make for peace, Jesus stymied Violence No. 3.

In proclaiming freedom for prisoners, Jesus interrupted structural violence.

In practicing inclusive table fellowship, Jesus flustered cultural violence.

In including women among his disciples, Jesus disoriented symbolic violence.

In proclaiming good news to the poor, Jesus undermined economic caste systems.

In eating with tax collectors, Jesus practiced enemy love.

In speaking woes to the rich, Jesus condemned hoarding and exploitation.

In blessing peacemakers, Jesus contested the efficacy of violent resistance.

In healing the diseased, Jesus showed the limitations of state and military power.

In forgiving sins, Jesus redefined power.

In publicly dying on a Roman cross, Jesus exposed the spiral of violence.

In rising from the dead, Jesus publicly disarmed and made a public spectacle of the pax Romana.

Far from a call to passivity, the way of Jesus is a call to direct action and nonviolent resistance. It is an invitation to boldly step into the living rooms of empire and proclaim that peace is through Jesus Christ (Acts 10:36).

Far from a call to passivity, the way of Jesus is a call to direct action and nonviolent resistance. It is an invitation to boldly step into the living rooms of empire and proclaim that peace is through Jesus Christ (Acts 10:36). As Martin Luther King Jr. recalls, “True nonviolent resistance is not unrealistic submission to evil power. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart” (My Trip to the Land of Gandhi, 1959). 

Discipleship to Jesus is God’s way of repairing our diseased social imaginations. It is God’s way of reconciling humans to God and humans to one another. The way of Jesus is a social movement. It is an invitation to join this movement in a community and a covenant of peace. The way of Jesus is anti-violent. It exposes the myth of redemptive violence.

1 See American Historical Association: https://tinyurl.com/2ycddp5o
2 See www.atomicarchive.com/resources/documents/med/med_chp10.html
3 See www.iraqbodycount.org
4 Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), 4 8.
5 Johann Galtung, “Twenty-Five Years of Peace Research: Ten Challenges and Some Responses,” Journal of Peace Research 22, no. 2 (1985): 146-147.
6 Hélder Câmara, Spiral of Violence (London: Sheed and Ward, 1971), 25-36.7 Câmara, Spiral of Violence, 30.

Does the gravitational pull of the universe really drag us toward armed conflict and murder? Can human difference peacefully coexist?
In stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, we tell ourselves we are safer. We are told that violence is redemptive—that our moral conscience and nationalistic exceptionalism is a force for good in the world. But is military domination really beneficent? If so, whose interests does it represent?
Structural violence doesn’t always kill but it always dehumanizes, segregates, and impoverishes. The sneakiness of structural violence is that those who benefit from it either deny it exists or don’t see that it exists at all. Structural violence is oppression camouflaged as the way things just are in one’s culture.
At every point of Jesus’ public ministry we witness God incarnate calling into existence a people who will interrupt pax through coercion with radical acts of neighborly love and nonviolent resistance.
Far from a call to passivity, the way of Jesus is a call to direct action and nonviolent resistance. It is an invitation to boldly step into the living rooms of empire and proclaim that peace is through Jesus Christ (Acts 10:36).
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The Problem of Misogyny and Sexual Violence: A conversation with survivor advocate, Jean Nangwala

Jean Nangwala

Jean Nangwala is a singer, speaker, creator and survivor-advocate. She was born and raised in Lusaka, Zambia. Her passion for social justice stems from her personal experience of injustice and witnessing the same inequality across the globe.

Nikole Lim

Nikole Lim is a speaker, educator, and consultant on leveraging dignity through the restorative art of storytelling. Author of Liberation is Here, Nikole shifts paradigms on how stories are told by platforming voices of the oppressed—sharing stories of beauty arising out of seemingly broken situations. Her heart beats for young women whose voices are silenced by oppression and desires to see every person realize the transformative power of their own story. In 2010, Nikole founded Freely in Hope, an organization that equips survivors and advocates to lead in ending the cycle of sexual violence in Kenya and Zambia. Nikole has been deeply transformed by the powerful, tenacious, and awe-inspiring examples of survivors. Their audacious dreams have informed her philosophy for a survivor-led approach to community transformation.

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by Mondo Scott
.

American Altar

Michael Stalcup

Michael Stalcup is a biracial Thai American missionary living in Bangkok, Thailand. His poetry has been published in Sojourners Magazine, First Things, Faithfully Magazine, and more. He co-leads Spirit & Scribe, a workshop integrating spiritual formation and writing craft. Read more of his poetry at michaelstalcup.com

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What if, instead,

we had a monstrous steel statue,

a modern-day Molech,


its bloodstained stainless steel

altar rimmed with polished wood,

serviced by priests and acolytes


inviting us, demanding now,

our money and fresh sacrifices

to appease its appetite,


and children were pulled

at random from our streets, 

our parks, our playgrounds,


groups of them, even,

from elementary schools—

but mostly from homes,


led out one at a time

by a family member

or a thoughtless friend,


the child’s cries unheard

beneath the frenzied worship

of that insatiable god?


Would we call

our guns

an idol 

then?

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America, guns and the way of Jesus: An Interview with Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is a prominent speaker, activist, and best-selling author. Shane worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and founded The Simple Way in Philadelphia. He heads up Red Letter Christians, a movement of folks who are committed to living "as if Jesus meant the things he said." Shane is a champion for grace which has led him to jail advocating for the homeless, and to places like Iraq and Afghanistan to stand against war. Now grace fuels his passion to end the death penalty and help stop gun violence. Shane’s books include Jesus for President, Red Letter Revolution, Common Prayer, Follow Me to Freedom, Jesus, Bombs and Ice Cream, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers, Executing Grace, his classic The Irresistible Revolution, and his newest book, Beating Guns. He has been featured in a number of films including "Another World Is Possible" and "Ordinary Radicals." His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Shane speaks over one hundred times a year, nationally and internationally. His work has appeared in Esquire, SPIN, Christianity Today, TIME, and The Wall Street Journal, and he has been on everything from Fox News and Al Jazeera to CNN and NPR. He’s given academic lectures at Harvard, Princeton, Liberty, Duke, and Notre Dame. Shane speaks regularly at denominational gatherings, festivals, and conferences around the globe.

Michelle Ami Reyes

Michelle Reyes (PhD) is the Co-Executive Director of Pax and the Vice President of the Asian American Christian Collaborative. She is also the Scholar-in-Residence at Hope Community Church, a minority-led multicultural church in East Austin, Texas, where her husband, Aaron, serves as lead pastor. Michelle's work on faith and culture has been featured in Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, Missio Alliance, Faithfully Magazine and more. Her forthcoming book on cross-cultural relationships is called Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures (Zondervan; April 27, 2021). Follow Michelle on Twitter and Instagram.

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by Mondo Scott

PURSUING NONVIOLENT CHANGE IN A RACIALLY VIOLENT WORLD

Dominique DuBois Gilliard

Dominique DuBois Gilliard is the Director of Racial Righteousness and Reconciliation for the Evangelical Covenant Church. He is the author of Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, which won a 2018 Book of the Year Award for InterVarsity Press and was named Outreach Magazine’s 2019 Social Issues Resource of the Year. Gilliard also serves as an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary and serves on the board of directors for the Christian Community Development Association. In 2015, the Huffington Post named him one of the “Black Christian Leaders Changing the World.” Gilliard’s forthcoming book, Subversive Witness: Scripture’s Call to Leverage Privilege comes out in August.

In 1967, after civil unrest broke out in Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “A million words will be written and spoken to dissect the ghetto outbreaks, but for a perceptive and vivid expression of culpability I would submit two sentences written a century ago by Victor Hugo: ‘If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’”[1]

King expounded, 

The policy makers of the white society have caused the darkness; they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also declare that the white man does not abide by law in the ghettos. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison.[2]

King’s words help crystalize how difficult it is for disenfranchised BIPOC to discern what it means to live nonviolently in a violent word. As King notes, this difficult question only becomes more challenging to answer when we honestly assess how violent our society’s systems, structures, and laws are. Far too many of us have become desensitized to violence and too many Christians have conformed to the patterns of this world (Rom. 12:2). We see evidence of this in the violent language we use and/or condone that slowly but surely dehumanizes our neighbors. We call people convicts, aliens, and use labels that forever define them by the worst offense they have ever committed (rapist, murderer, pedophile). We support policies that embolden physical violence in our communities like Stop-and-Frisk, ICE Raids, and No-knock warrants. We lack courage and integrity to emphatically denounce legislation like the death penalty that epitomizes violence. 

This article offers tangible suggestions for Christians seeking to subvert oppression through nonviolent means. To faithfully do this, we must coherently define violence and name the inconsistencies in our approach to this subject, especially as it pertains to racial violence.   

Critiquing the Symptom Rather Than the Cause

Striving to wage peace amid oppression is convoluted and nuanced. Yet, many of the questions about the methodology of militant, nonviolent civil disobedience and the merit of active nonviolent resistance that emerges from those who do not bear the weight of systemic sin and structural racism—while they may be well intended—lack the nuance needed to actually address the root cause of violence. Theologian, James Cone, highlights the problematic nature of the questions that too many of our white sisters and brothers in Christ ask as they try to interrogate the activism of Black Christians striving to pursue freedom, justice, and shalom. Cone writes: 

What many white people fail to realize is that their questions about violence and Christian love are not only very naïve, but are hypocritical and insulting. When whites ask me, “Are you for violence?” my rejoinder is: “Whose violence? Richard Nixon or his victims?” “The Mississippi State Police or the students at Jackson State?” “The New York State Police or the inmates at Attica?” If we are going to raise the question of violence and Christian love, it ought to be placed in its proper theological perspective. Violence is not primarily a theoretical question but a practical question, and it should be viewed in the context of Christian ethics generally and the struggle of liberation in particular.[3]

Cone’s words are instructive. They reframe how we should think and dialogue about violence. He names the racial and economic lens—implicit or explicit—through which we validate or critique violence. And Cone implores us to engage in a more faithful, Christian analysis of violence.  

There is a fundamental difference between racist vigilante violence (e.g., the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Mother Emanuel, Ahmaud Arbery), state-sanctioned violence (e.g., Kathryn Johnston, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor), and what is described as violence when oppressed people resist systemic oppression amid freedom movements. The former are acts of racial terror and violence perpetuated against vulnerable people. When oppressed communities actively affirm their dignity, humanity, and personhood in nonviolent ways, in the midst of a structurally violent world, they function as blessed peacemakers.

In 1946, Dr. King said, “Nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.”[4] As Christians who are seeking social transformation through nonviolent means, we need to sit with the four essential questions W. E. B. DuBois asked: 1) How shall Integrity face Oppression?, 2) What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception, Decency in the face of Insult, Self-Defense before Blows? 3) How shall Desert and Accomplishment meet Despising, Detraction, and Lies?, and 4) What shall Virtue do to meet Brute Force?[5] DuBois explains, “There are so many answers and so contradictory; and such differences for those on the one hand who meet questions similar to this once a year or once a decade, and those who face them hourly and daily.” [6]

The Example of Moses

When discussing nonviolence, we must always remember that God summoned Moses to protest imperial oppression and empowered him to lead a movement of militant, nonviolent, civil disobedience that became the archetype of righteous resistance throughout time. Protest must disrupt the oppressive status quo, expose evil, and dismantle the structures that stabilize it. The God-inspired civil disobedience Moses led elucidates that even spirit-led resistance movements where protestors are nonviolent have injurious outcomes. 

The protest God called Moses to lead and directed him through destabilized Egypt’s economy—which was rooted in oppression—resulting in property damage and the destruction of natural resources. While damage, devastation, and death are certainly not God’s original intent, this passage shows that there may be consequences for societies built on injustice, repression, and sin. In tyrannical contexts, God will induce liberation by any means necessary, and Scripture shows that the great I Am frequently chooses to use flawed but faithful leaders like Moses as instruments of divine peace to end systemic sin and oppression.

Do not misconstrue Moses’ example as a promotion of looting, rioting, or arson, but rather understand it as an explanation illuminated in Scripture that a society built on oppression and injustice will not stand. Unjust societies will crumble by God’s hand. A clear difference exists between God’s supernatural acts that cause destruction and the destruction that emerges from disgruntled anarchists or disenfranchised protestors. The exodus clearly illustrates that when God calls a leader to resist evil and they follow the Spirit’s lead, property destruction may very well be part of God’s restorative justice.

Subverting Oppression Through Nonviolent Means

So how do we subvert oppression through nonviolent means? We strategically organize, civically engage, put skin in the game, and choose love in the face of fear as well as sacrificial solidarity in a culture of rugged individualism. We embody 1 Corinthians 12:26, functioning as one interconnected Body, such that when one part suffers, every part suffers with it. 

One of the least talked about ways that we can nonviolently work to bring about systemic change is through ending prison gerrymandering. Incarcerated people, who are disproportionately BIPOC taken from the urban core are not counted as residents— within the U.S. Census—of the communities they resided in when they were incarcerated. Instead, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are confined, though they are barred from voting in the vast majority of these states and return to their homes after being released. The practice also defies most state constitutions and statutes, which explicitly state that incarceration does not change a residence.

The Prison Gerrymandering Project explains:

The Bureau’s approach to counting incarcerated people dates back to the beginning of the census, when it was important only to count the number of people in each state to ensure equal representation in Congress. Congressional apportionment relied on the comparative populations of the states, not where people were relative to each other within each state. Now that Census data are used for redistricting at all levels of government, the specific location of populations is critical. The prison population has risen exponentially in the past couple of decades; counting the people in prison in the wrong place now undermines the Supreme Court’s requirement that political power be apportioned on the basis of population. The process of drawing fair and equal districts fails when the underlying data are flawed. [7]

Prison Gerrymandering dramatically distorts political representation on the local, state, and federal levels, creating an inaccurate picture of community populations for research and planning purposes. Prison Gerrymandering impacts the U.S. Census, political representation, and resource allocation. We cannot afford to allow BIPOC communities to continue to be systemically divested from in this manner.  

Other practical ideas for pursuing nonviolence include:

  • Fight to end the death penalty nationwide.
  • Stop the use of private prisons and immigrant detention centers in every state.
  • Remove the clause “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime” from the 13th Amendment.
  • Divest our retirement portfolios from entities that fiscally aid the expansion of mass incarceration.
  • Struggle for a permanent path to citizenship for DREAMers and other immigrants.
  • Revitalize Second Chance Pell Grants and create more access to higher education behind bars.
  • Too many companies continue to unethically profit from prison labor. These companies economically incarcerated workers, and then deny returning citizens access to employment after they have served their time. Too often men and women who have worker for years, sometimes decades, for a company behind bars, upon being released, return to these companies and apply for a job that they have five, ten, or fifteen years of experience doing are commonly denied access to the job because of their criminal record. This literally says their labor is only desirable when it is economically exploitable. We should require companies that have commerce made behind bars, to allocate a percentage of their jobs outside of carceral facilities to returning citizens.
  • Fight to make the minimum wage, a livable wage.
  • Show up and speak up when injustice impacts our neighbors, not only when it directly impacts us.
  • Close the education equity gap between white and BIPOC students, and uncouple school funding from property taxes nationwide. 

Amid the racial violence and systemic sin that abounds, we are afforded an opportunity to bear witness to who and whose we are. Scripture calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation, people who seek the peace and prosperity of our communities, and John 13:34-35 explains that the world will come to know that we are Jesus’ disciples because of our sacrificial love for one another. We express this sacrificial love through pursuing cruciform solidarity and nonviolent change in a violent world.   

In 1967, after civil unrest broke out in Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “A million words will be written and spoken to dissect the ghetto outbreaks, but for a perceptive and vivid expression of culpability I would submit two sentences written a century ago by Victor Hugo: ‘If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’”[1]

King expounded, 

The policy makers of the white society have caused the darkness; they created discrimination; they created slums; they perpetuate unemployment, ignorance and poverty. It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society. When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also declare that the white man does not abide by law in the ghettos. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison.[2]

Far too many of us have become desensitized to violence and too many Christians have conformed to the patterns of this world (Rom. 12:2).

King’s words help crystalize how difficult it is for disenfranchised BIPOC to discern what it means to live nonviolently in a violent word. As King notes, this difficult question only becomes more challenging to answer when we honestly assess how violent our society’s systems, structures, and laws are. Far too many of us have become desensitized to violence and too many Christians have conformed to the patterns of this world (Rom. 12:2). We see evidence of this in the violent language we use and/or condone that slowly but surely dehumanizes our neighbors. We call people convicts, aliens, and use labels that forever define them by the worst offense they have ever committed (rapist, murderer, pedophile). We support policies that embolden physical violence in our communities like Stop-and-Frisk, ICE Raids, and No-knock warrants. We lack courage and integrity to emphatically denounce legislation like the death penalty that epitomizes violence. 

This article offers tangible suggestions for Christians seeking to subvert oppression through nonviolent means. To faithfully do this, we must coherently define violence and name the inconsistencies in our approach to this subject, especially as it pertains to racial violence.   

Critiquing the Symptom Rather Than the Cause

Striving to wage peace amid oppression is convoluted and nuanced. Yet, many of the questions about the methodology of militant, nonviolent civil disobedience and the merit of active nonviolent resistance that emerges from those who do not bear the weight of systemic sin and structural racism—while they may be well intended—lack the nuance needed to actually address the root cause of violence. Theologian, James Cone, highlights the problematic nature of the questions that too many of our white sisters and brothers in Christ ask as they try to interrogate the activism of Black Christians striving to pursue freedom, justice, and shalom. Cone writes: 

What many white people fail to realize is that their questions about violence and Christian love are not only very naïve, but are hypocritical and insulting. When whites ask me, “Are you for violence?” my rejoinder is: “Whose violence? Richard Nixon or his victims?” “The Mississippi State Police or the students at Jackson State?” “The New York State Police or the inmates at Attica?” If we are going to raise the question of violence and Christian love, it ought to be placed in its proper theological perspective. Violence is not primarily a theoretical question but a practical question, and it should be viewed in the context of Christian ethics generally and the struggle of liberation in particular.[3]

When oppressed communities actively affirm their dignity, humanity, and personhood in nonviolent ways, in the midst of a structurally violent world, they function as blessed peacemakers.

Cone’s words are instructive. They reframe how we should think and dialogue about violence. He names the racial and economic lens—implicit or explicit—through which we validate or critique violence. And Cone implores us to engage in a more faithful, Christian analysis of violence.  

There is a fundamental difference between racist vigilante violence (e.g., the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Mother Emanuel, Ahmaud Arbery), state-sanctioned violence (e.g., Kathryn Johnston, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor), and what is described as violence when oppressed people resist systemic oppression amid freedom movements. The former are acts of racial terror and violence perpetuated against vulnerable people. When oppressed communities actively affirm their dignity, humanity, and personhood in nonviolent ways, in the midst of a structurally violent world, they function as blessed peacemakers.

In 1946, Dr. King said, “Nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.”[4] As Christians who are seeking social transformation through nonviolent means, we need to sit with the four essential questions W. E. B. DuBois asked: 1) How shall Integrity face Oppression?, 2) What shall Honesty do in the face of Deception, Decency in the face of Insult, Self-Defense before Blows? 3) How shall Desert and Accomplishment meet Despising, Detraction, and Lies?, and 4) What shall Virtue do to meet Brute Force?[5] DuBois explains, “There are so many answers and so contradictory; and such differences for those on the one hand who meet questions similar to this once a year or once a decade, and those who face them hourly and daily.” [6]

The Example of Moses

When discussing nonviolence, we must always remember that God summoned Moses to protest imperial oppression and empowered him to lead a movement of militant, nonviolent, civil disobedience that became the archetype of righteous resistance throughout time. Protest must disrupt the oppressive status quo, expose evil, and dismantle the structures that stabilize it. The God-inspired civil disobedience Moses led elucidates that even spirit-led resistance movements where protestors are nonviolent have injurious outcomes. 

When discussing nonviolence, we must always remember that God summoned Moses to protest imperial oppression and empowered him to lead a movement of militant, nonviolent, civil disobedience that became the archetype of righteous resistance throughout time.

The protest God called Moses to lead and directed him through destabilized Egypt’s economy—which was rooted in oppression—resulting in property damage and the destruction of natural resources. While damage, devastation, and death are certainly not God’s original intent, this passage shows that there may be consequences for societies built on injustice, repression, and sin. In tyrannical contexts, God will induce liberation by any means necessary, and Scripture shows that the great I Am frequently chooses to use flawed but faithful leaders like Moses as instruments of divine peace to end systemic sin and oppression.

Do not misconstrue Moses’ example as a promotion of looting, rioting, or arson, but rather understand it as an explanation illuminated in Scripture that a society built on oppression and injustice will not stand. Unjust societies will crumble by God’s hand. A clear difference exists between God’s supernatural acts that cause destruction and the destruction that emerges from disgruntled anarchists or disenfranchised protestors. The exodus clearly illustrates that when God calls a leader to resist evil and they follow the Spirit’s lead, property destruction may very well be part of God’s restorative justice.

Subverting Oppression Through Nonviolent Means

So how do we subvert oppression through nonviolent means? We strategically organize, civically engage, put skin in the game, and choose love in the face of fear as well as sacrificial solidarity in a culture of rugged individualism. We embody 1 Corinthians 12:26, functioning as one interconnected Body, such that when one part suffers, every part suffers with it. 

One of the least talked about ways that we can nonviolently work to bring about systemic change is through ending prison gerrymandering. Incarcerated people, who are disproportionately BIPOC taken from the urban core are not counted as residents— within the U.S. Census—of the communities they resided in when they were incarcerated. Instead, the Census Bureau counts incarcerated people as residents of the towns where they are confined, though they are barred from voting in the vast majority of these states and return to their homes after being released. The practice also defies most state constitutions and statutes, which explicitly state that incarceration does not change a residence.

The Prison Gerrymandering Project explains:

The Bureau’s approach to counting incarcerated people dates back to the beginning of the census, when it was important only to count the number of people in each state to ensure equal representation in Congress. Congressional apportionment relied on the comparative populations of the states, not where people were relative to each other within each state. Now that Census data are used for redistricting at all levels of government, the specific location of populations is critical. The prison population has risen exponentially in the past couple of decades; counting the people in prison in the wrong place now undermines the Supreme Court’s requirement that political power be apportioned on the basis of population. The process of drawing fair and equal districts fails when the underlying data are flawed. [7]

Scripture calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation, people who seek the peace and prosperity of our communities, and John 13:34-35 explains that the world will come to know that we are Jesus’ disciples because of our sacrificial love for one another.

Prison Gerrymandering dramatically distorts political representation on the local, state, and federal levels, creating an inaccurate picture of community populations for research and planning purposes. Prison Gerrymandering impacts the U.S. Census, political representation, and resource allocation. We cannot afford to allow BIPOC communities to continue to be systemically divested from in this manner.  

Other practical ideas for pursuing nonviolence include:

  • Fight to end the death penalty nationwide.
  • Stop the use of private prisons and immigrant detention centers in every state.
  • Remove the clause “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime” from the 13th Amendment.
  • Divest our retirement portfolios from entities that fiscally aid the expansion of mass incarceration.
  • Struggle for a permanent path to citizenship for DREAMers and other immigrants.
  • Revitalize Second Chance Pell Grants and create more access to higher education behind bars.
  • Too many companies continue to unethically profit from prison labor. These companies economically incarcerated workers, and then deny returning citizens access to employment after they have served their time. Too often men and women who have worker for years, sometimes decades, for a company behind bars, upon being released, return to these companies and apply for a job that they have five, ten, or fifteen years of experience doing are commonly denied access to the job because of their criminal record. This literally says their labor is only desirable when it is economically exploitable. We should require companies that have commerce made behind bars, to allocate a percentage of their jobs outside of carceral facilities to returning citizens.
  • Fight to make the minimum wage, a livable wage.
  • Show up and speak up when injustice impacts our neighbors, not only when it directly impacts us.
  • Close the education equity gap between white and BIPOC students, and uncouple school funding from property taxes nationwide. 

Amid the racial violence and systemic sin that abounds, we are afforded an opportunity to bear witness to who and whose we are. Scripture calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation, people who seek the peace and prosperity of our communities, and John 13:34-35 explains that the world will come to know that we are Jesus’ disciples because of our sacrificial love for one another. We express this sacrificial love through pursuing cruciform solidarity and nonviolent change in a violent world.   

1 Martin Luther King Jr., “The Crisis in America’s Cities: Martin Luther King Jr. on what sparked the violent urban riots of the ‘long hot summer’ of 1967, The Atlantic, Republished, February 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/martin-luther-king-jr-the-crisis-in-americas-cities/552536/.
2 King, “The Crisis in America’s Cities.”
3 James Cone, God of The Oppressed, (Maryknoll: Orbiz, 1999), 180.
4 Martin Luther King Jr., “Acceptance Address for the Nobel Peace Prize,” Oslo, Norway, December 10: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/acceptance-address-nobel-peace-prize.
5 W. E. B DuBois, The Ordeal of Mansart: The Black Flame Trilogy: Book One (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 275.
6 DuBois, The Ordeal of Mansart.
7 Prison Gerrymandering Project, https://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/impact.html.

Far too many of us have become desensitized to violence and too many Christians have conformed to the patterns of this world (Rom. 12:2).
When oppressed communities actively affirm their dignity, humanity, and personhood in nonviolent ways, in the midst of a structurally violent world, they function as blessed peacemakers.
When discussing nonviolence, we must always remember that God summoned Moses to protest imperial oppression and empowered him to lead a movement of militant, nonviolent, civil disobedience that became the archetype of righteous resistance throughout time.
So how do we subvert oppression through nonviolent means? We strategically organize, civically engage, put skin in the game, and choose love in the face of fear as well as sacrificial solidarity in a culture of rugged individualism.
Scripture calls us to be ambassadors of reconciliation, people who seek the peace and prosperity of our communities, and John 13:34-35 explains that the world will come to know that we are Jesus’ disciples because of our sacrificial love for one another.
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