I am a pacifist (a conflicted one during Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan, but a pacifist). I also like to think of myself as a realist. My friend Garry used to joke that I said “There would be no Martin without Malcolm” so often we should just give that speech a number so I wouldn’t have to waste the breath on it.
I had the chance to lead some discussions on liberation theology with masters students at Aizawl Theological College a couple of weeks ago. In case you’re interested, we took on the following topics, one a day:
An overview of Black Liberation Theology
Liberation theology and the “historic project” (a 3rd generation critique and challenge)
Liberation theology and the challenge of postmodernity
Liberation theology and violence
Liberation theology and land, women and Native Americans
(I did one-page conversation-starting summaries of each of these if you’re interested in any of them)
During the conversation on liberation theology and violence, I found myself arguing against that exact same notion from one of the students.
Most liberation theologies either explicitly or implicitly endorse armed rebellion against forces of oppression (and they are not without biblical backing, if they bother to look for it). Most liberation theology also emerges from dire situations and secular responses to it (Cone’s Black Power Black Theology was written as cities all over America burned during riots/rebellions, for example). I commented that the internal active rebellions against the Indian government today were happening within Christian communities in many instances. Was violence necessary, I asked, in liberation theology, and if so, what was the theology behind it? (I also made the arguable statement that Dr. King’s theology isn’t really considered liberation theology partly because it was integrationist, and largely because it was nonviolent in philosophy as well as strategy, and talked about the different roles of King and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement.)
One student in particular said with the situation this dire, there is no other option. I explained why King might disagree and put forward the (arguable) case that more civil rights were gained under King’s nonviolent movement than the armed black power movement that followed it, even though it emerged out of frustration with the lack of effect of Dr. King’s work. I also said many pacifists point to Gandhi (again arguably) as proof of passive resistance as a powerful force against oppression and brutality. And one of the students said, “But would they have listened to King if they weren’t scared of Malcolm X as the alternative?” In other words, could there be King without Malcolm X?
In one hour, we weren’t going to resolve this issue, so I just said he was in a distinct majority on this issue, and I just wanted to know what the theological rationale was for this position if they did in fact endorse violence (which none of them endorsed in the concrete so much as in the abstract). I also mentioned that in Malcolm X’s FBI file, the FBI expressed little concern about him until he moved away from the Nation of Islam and towards engagement with the existing civil rights movement. Nonviolence can be more threatening to oppressive regimes.
I don’t think they bought it, and for the same reasons people in the US don’t buy it—we think of pacifism as a luxury good. We think of it as a nice idea that isn’t very realistic.
I visited the Gandhi memorial museum in Delhi last week. There were a lot of freedom fighters. There were a lot of people working to overthrow the government. But his ideas were so radical AND SO EFFECTIVE that he’s the one with the museum and the statues and people still struggling to live into his ideals. And in no small part, we wouldn’t have had the civil rights movement in the form it took had it not been for Dr. King’s mentors learning directly from Gandhi and teaching a generation of leaders at Morehouse those same principles. From my vantage point, that’s power.