Nonviolence, privilege and grief. Thoughts on South Carolina and a child I love.

Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest
Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest

This morning I sat down to write a letter to a beloved recent teen in my life, a newly minted thirteen-year-old. We go to protests a lot, and museums where we learn about farm workers and the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.

This beloved recent teen has been to hell and back, and the amount of resilience that is demanded of her is, to my mind, stupid. By which I really mean unjust. By which I mean I wish I could protect her and it makes me furious that I can’t. And by furious, I mean helpless.

I debated whether to mention the shooting in South Carolina. I debated it because she may not be watching the news these days and I don’t know that it is helpful for her to know about more suffering in the world. Mostly because I don’t want her to have more to be sad about or to be scared of or to hate the world for.

I’ve been reminded recently that it is hard to talk about any issue in a way that speaks to everyone’s lived experience, and when talking about anything related to race, it is that much harder, because we do have the same amount of skin in the game, but the way the game goes does not affect us the same way. (That is, even White people who HATE racism benefit from it, and Black people don’t, and the rest of us have a very complex terrain to navigate.) A great illustration of how privilege and oppression shape our responses to racial issues is that popular Facebook meme about police brutality and Black Lives Matter that reads “Black people are saying ‘STOP KILLING US!’ and White people’s response is ‘But…'”
More recently, though, my light-skinned and introspective self wanted to convey to White people that there was some White privilege mixed into their quick accolades for the survivors of the AME shooting, as if forgiveness is something automatically deserved, and without acknowledging that everyone who benefits from White supremacy had a role in these murders and need to repent without the expectation that they deserve forgiveness.


My deeply valued colleague Rev. Dr. Maurice Charles was finishing up a blog post as I posted this and reminded me that my post still read as an endorsement of what Dietrich Bonhoffer called “cheap grace,” grace that asked nothing of the offender and involved no transformation. I was still potentially glorifying those who forgave when the murderer has not yet expressed remorse.

Maurice’s blog post was incredibly powerful, and it was illustrative of one theological difference between him and myself: I’m a pacifist. There are plenty of times I wish I weren’t, but I am. Maurice takes the much more nuanced position of being a just war theorist, which requires an incredibly deep wrestling with when violence is necessary for the wellbeing of humankind or particularly those who are most deeply marginalized. (I’m MLK to his Huey Newton, or I’m Gandhi to his Subhas Chandra Bose, depending on where you grew up.)

What Maurice wrote in his blog post reminded me of what is most complicated about the discussions I’ve witnessed and participated in this week regarding grace and forgiveness: they take into account neither the urgency and arbitrary nature of the threat to Black life nor the relative power that many of the people celebrating the survivors’ forgiveness enjoy. Take the time to read Maurice’s whole post, but in particular I want to highlight the following:

As I watched those families struggle to offer a costly forgiveness, I beheld a people with their backs against the wall–faced with the hellish choice of lashing out in a destructive rage or freeing themselves from the power of hell by reaching into their ravaged souls and finding there a shred of forgiveness.  I applaud them for choosing life when their backs are against the walI. But I do not walk away from such a horrible sight filled with pious sentimentality or especially the inclination to make of them a moral example.  The kumbaya moment has not yet arrived for those who do not have their backs against the wall.

Insofar as this young man made war on my people, without following his conscience when treated with compassion and hospitality, and insofar as he has not sought forgiveness, but spoken of his mission, he has apparently identified himself as an enemy combatant.  And at this juncture, I have no inclination to offer cheap grace.  As the blood of my people calls out from the ground, my inclination, from a position of privilege and strength, is to support those who examine him, investigate how he became radicalized, and see to it that he answers for his crimes. I am livid that the families of the martyrs have their backs to the wall.

When I told Maurice how much I appreciated his post, he responded, “I am not certain whether this is a more difficult moment for a pacifist person of color, or just war person of color.” Which shows that he knows me.

I am a pacifist. I believe that nonviolent resistence is the greatest threat to empire. I regularly quote the rigorous scholarship of military historian and nonviolence convert Erica Chenoweth. I have nonviolence literally tattooed on my arm.

"Satyagraha," or "soul force," in Bengali.
Satyagraha,” or “truth force,” in Bengali.

But there’s something else that is tattooed all over my body. My light skin.

I’m not White, and that’s important to this story because I know what it is to fear for the safety of family. The days after 9/11 were very different for South Asians and Arab Americans and Muslims from Africa than the rest of America remembers it. When the attack on the AME church happened last week, the murder of six Sikhs at the Oak Creek gurudwara in Wisconsin three years ago was all but forgotten until the solidarity vigil held by survivors there.

But there is a difference. To be Black in America, said one clergy colleague to me the other day as she bounced her toddler in her lap, “is to walk around with a target on your back.”

She is Black.

Her daughter is Black.

Maurice is Black.

And the beloved recent teen in my life is Black.

Anyone who insists they choose the path of nonviolence had better have a directly correlative experience of that centuries-long culture that does not value Black lives, or s/he had better have a whole bunch of humility. People who are not suffering, I hear in Maurice’s post, do not get to instruct those who are suffering how to respond. In fact, this is not too different from my own reflections in the wake of the death of Freddy Gray in Baltimore, and not too different from Martin Luther King’s reflections about Autherine Lucy in his sermon “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.” I do not have a directly correlative experience. So at best I had better be pretty humble with my pacifism in such a moment as this.

editorial addition: And a problem in America is that pacifism is often framed as the only acceptable action for people of color while violent action is completely acceptable in the stories of White liberation we learn. On the Radical South Asian History Walking Tour of Berkeley last week, our guides mentioned that we get taught about Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent overthrow of the British empire, but we never learn about the Ghadar Party. They analogized this to how we learn about Martin Luther King but not the Black Panther Party. And yet we celebrate Independence Day, a violent insurrection against British colonialism. I am a pacifist, but I am a pacifist with a deep suspicion of the single story, and it is clear that the narratives we learn suggest people of color have only one option when our hidden histories show that is not true. I want my pacifist movement to be freely chosen for its capacity to build Beloved Community, not used as yet another weapon against us as people of color. There is little that is humble about how nonviolence is used by people in power.

As I thought about what to write to the beloved recent teen in my life, I thought about James Lawson, the big brother of my mentor, Phil Lawson. James Lawson was instrumental in the trainings of the students who staged nonviolent sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville in the early 1960s. The last time I heard Rev. James Lawson speak, it was with a certain amount of frustration at the lack of understanding among activists in my generation who embrace a “diversity of tactics” rather than strict nonviolence. He said, as best I recall, “they don’t get why we did it. We didn’t participate in nonviolence for the wellbeing of our opponents. We didn’t do it just for how the television would cover it. We did it to save our souls.

The cost of violence was too great, in Rev. Lawson’s estimation, to be worth entertaining in even the most grave of situations.

So what I wrote to the beloved recent teen in my life was insufficient, as has been everything written about these deaths, and it was not out of a drive to shape her to join my movement for nonviolent resistence as the most effective and most moral path. It was out of a desire for her soul to remain as healthy as is possible given all she has lived through.

I wrote, as best I can remember, the following:

“It’s been a sad few days, because a man shot nine people at a Black church in South Carolina. It has me thinking about how powerful words are, the words that taught him to hate. It makes me grateful that you have so many people here who love you so much and who offer you words of love instead of hate. It makes me grateful that your mother has made sure you are always in churches that teach love, love of all people, and that she reminds you how loved you are. The only good thing about the shooting is that people are really talking about how we need to end racism. It reminds me that I am so proud of you for joining me in those marches for the environment and for workers’ rights and for poor people and for Black lives and racial justice and for LGBTQ equality. You are part of the solution. I love you very much.”

Today seems not to be the day for a rigorous defense of nonviolence. But it seems urgently the day to fight in whatever small ways I have for the soul of the beloved recent teen in my life, her beautiful Black soul. And right now the only tool that seems to fit that situation is love. May God help me balance that impulse with the urgency that this racist country teaches me over and over to discount, and may the result be an urgent and passionate love that looks a lot more like justice than like sentimentality.



5 thoughts on “Nonviolence, privilege and grief. Thoughts on South Carolina and a child I love.

    1. Thanks for raising that point, George! Forgive me for quoting James’s younger brother in response, but something Phil Lawson wanted me to understand about the civil rights movement was that it wasn’t just about Black people’s rights, it was about “saving the soul of our nation,” which indicated a deep investment in White people even though White people were the ones benefitting from Black people’s oppression. If we cannot love our neighbor if we do not love ourselves, it seems like doing the painful and self-sacrificial work of not fighting back against your attacker is grounded in a sense of self that preserves both self and other, even if the other doesn’t deserve it. So perhaps it CAN be, but I’m not sure it WAS in that instance.


    1. James, I promised my young friend’s mother that I would keep that post anonymous. Suffice it to say, some children bear far more than any person should have to. There is too much violence and abuse and assault on our planet.


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