As the river of toxic spew from Washington DC grows deeper and wider by the day, so does the frothy scum of hand-wringing outrage from white liberal progressives. We lash ourselves into a sweaty ecstasy of sound and fury, from which we emerge exhausted and despairing, only to re-boot the cycle with the next headline, the next revelation of just how far the world is from how it ought to be.
While understandable, our natural desire to strike out at those immediately responsible for our pain is not especially helpful. Nor is it useful, as many progressives suggest, to blame ourselves individually for failing to alter the course of this election, this particular flowering of deep-rooted cultural and political forces. These tactics ease emotional discomfort temporarily, but do little to promote reflection or lasting change. They leave us essentially as we were, except tireder. What we need is a response to this moment that transforms us into the people that can improve it. What will that response look like?
Consider the tiger. Is there a more formidable warrior in the natural world? Armed with teeth and claws, powered by unmatched muscle and speed, driven by the ravenous hunger of a large predator, even her name makes us tremble. Yet her teeth and claws aren’t weapons in the human sense, to be picked up and laid down; they are simply a part of her, like eyes that see in the dark, ears keen enough to hear the stir of a leaf, and great, silent paws. Her purpose, to eat and mate and sleep and raise cubs, is inseparable from her existence. She is implacable; even before it’s unleashed, we find ourselves paralyzed in the face of such raw, unequivocal power.
Martin Luther King envisioned a moral force as fierce and authentic as a tiger’s attack when he outlined his principles of nonviolence. He saw nonviolent resistance as the transformation of fearful, angry people into committed, unwavering champions of justice, drawing upon profound spiritual commitment the way a tiger draws upon instinct. He understood that violence-begotten power struggles between groups of damaged, grasping men only prolong the arrival of legitimate peace. His genius proposed a deeply counterintuitive path to justice, wherein every participant “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.”
WTF? Is this even American? Doesn’t God Himself tell us to repay our enemies an eye for an eye? Shouldn’t the punishment for bigotry, hatred, oppression and murder be more of the same? Aren’t we entitled to inflict suffering on those who wish to inflict it on us? If we’re struggling for justice and peace for the world instead of merely redistributing oppression, the answer must be no. We must allow ourselves the moral simplicity of being wholly aligned with our purpose. We must understand that our power is grounded in our refusal to be turned aside by coercion, intimidation, or the comforting moral upholstery of privilege. Our courage and strength, untainted by hatred, are the moral equivalent of the tiger’s teeth. They are the means to humanity’s survival, practical and moral.
Those who embrace conflict as an opportunity to gain power over others like to mock nonviolence as cowardly, and dismiss its ultimate goal of the Beloved Community as naive. We know better. King described nonviolent resistance as “mass political application of the ancient doctrine of turning the other cheek.” No one understood or exemplified better than he how radical an idea this is, how dangerous to any regime based on frightening its citizens into compliance. King quoted Gandhi as saying, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.” King’s willingness to shed his own blood for justice while sparing that of his enemies is partly what made him so incomprehensible—and thus so unpalatable— to the establishment in life and in death . Yet it is exactly this kind of courage, at once aspirational and immediate, that we must seek and cultivate within ourselves. We must ask ourselves why we sheathe our moral teeth and claws, why we tolerate this execrable backwash of history’s ought-to-be-forgotten.
The answer, if it’s a true one, will give many of us pause. At best it will reveal our fear, our complacency and our selfishness. At worst it will show us that we are no better than those we revile and who revile us. No wonder we expend such energy avoiding the question, pretending that justice can be achieved by pointing fingers and spreading blame. It is only when we take this halting, resentful first step, though, that we can begin to see what King was getting at. By looking squarely at our flawed and shadowed selves, we can acknowledge the flaws and shadows in those who oppose us. We can understand that we are all participants in a long moral and historical unfolding of forces, and direct our actions “against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.”
Which leads us to the great question: what do we do? King gives us a blueprint in this sentence from Letter From Birmingham Jail:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.
Many of us are able to complete the first two steps reasonably well; the second, in particular, is made easier by the refusal of many in power to negotiate. It’s the third and fourth steps that require the most difficult, outside-the-comfort-zone work.
First, we must continually explore and expand our awareness of ourselves as transformed and transforming agents in a struggle that far exceeds our lifetime. We must honestly appraise our own comfort with the injustices from which we benefit. We must listen to voices we prefer to silence and be open to lessons we prefer to avoid. We must exercise great care with our tongues and keyboards, which so often mask well-rationalized versions of the same fear and prejudice that inspire our opponents. We must actively cultivate courage, hope, confidence and unfeigned love of our fellow human beings by whatever means we can find. We must discern and uproot our internal obstacles to peace and justice, including shame and fear. We must find others to share the journey and revel in the joyous energy of common endeavor. We must learn and re-learn how to listen, how to be accountable, how to deepen our analysis and assist others in deepening theirs. We must clear our paths to spiritual clarity and keep them open and well-lit.
When our inner eyes are clear, it’s time for direct action. These may help:
Indivisible Guide (methods to influence elected officials directly and via locally-organized groups)
Large organizations like the ACLU are actively promoting grassroots and higher-level resistance. Local organizations, particularly those led by marginalized groups, need increased support to make their voices heard. Elected officials need to be pressured, un-elected, and replaced. Neighborhoods need to be united and organized for the protection of the most vulnerable. Churches, clubs, schools and businesses need to be engaged. We need to educate ourselves about the history and scope of the problems that face our racist, sexist, capitalist culture, as well as the best ways to fight poverty, environmental threats and the decline of education and public discourse.
Every day we must re-gird ourselves for love’s battle against hate. Every day we must find not only the strength to turn the other cheek but the courage to place ourselves in the path of that first blow. The forces of injustice seduce us to join them; we must put the teeth into the tiger of our resistance if we are to be victorious in this highest of battles.
©Mary Braden 2017