[N]o one can be non-violent in an unjust society.I had, even without knowing it, absorbed this idea so deeply that I uttered it, two years after first discovering it, in a seminar on liberation theology.
I read James Cone's best-known works - A Black Theology of Liberation and God of the Oppressed - my first semester at Wesley. His work was deeply affecting, shaping much of my ensuing considerations on theological matters. It was not until last night, standing in my wife's office and randomly scanning God of the Oppressed that I realized just how much I had absorbed so many of the lessons he taught me.
In a chapter on Christian ethics and liberation, Cone has a section on the issue of non-violence. From the perspective of black liberation in North America, and the issue of non-violent resistance in the pursuit of justice in any context, the matter of non-violence is of particular centrality because of the prominent place it held in the thought and praxis of Martin Luther King. Far more radical segments of the African-American community disparaged King's insistence on non-violence. Some preached outright revolution, although they were a small minority. By and large, however, the impatience of many in the face of white intransigence led them to see King's approach as ineffective.
Cone's discussion, seen in the context of the larger discussion within the African-American community over the question, begins, after some introductory remarks, with the observation in the epigram above. It can be shocking, I suppose, for those who believe that America is a just society, or that non-violence as a tactic is, or perhaps should be, the norm in the pursuit of justice. By stating baldly that such views hide the reality of systemic violence, Cone challenges the entire discussion at its heart.
Over a couple years of seminary education, I had kept a special place in my heart for Cone's thought, even as I moved on to so many others. My last semester, in a seminar on liberation theology, there was a discussion of the eschatological thought of Martin Luther King, the place it held in his broader program of the pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation, and, of course, non-violence. I made a small point - despite King's best efforts, the Civil Rights movement was anything but non-violent. From the streets of Montgomery, AL during the bus boycott through Little Rock to the waves of terrorism visited upon the Freedom Riders and the volunteers during Freedom Summer when folks, black and white, went to the deep south to register African-American voters to the fire hoses and attack dogs Bull Connor unleashed on school children, violence was at the heart of legalized white supremacy in the United States, and it wouldn't give up without a bloody fight.
I recall little more than the sense that the other members of the class acted like I had farted in church. The passing of a quarter century (at that point in time) had only set King's non-violent resistance in an ever-deeper and thicker foundation of stone. Saying, in essence, that this bright shining monument to American ethical exceptionalism was wrong was, for all intents and purposes, an indication of just how wrong I would always be.
Except, well, I wasn't wrong. The facts of the matter are simple enough. An entire system of entrenched social, cultural, racial, political, and economic power depends upon the threat and use of force to maintain itself. After chipping away at the edges of the legalized dehumanization of African-Americans, the on-going demands by more and more people for dismantling not only segregation but the entire structure that propped it up, from discrimination in hiring to laws restricting the African-American franchise, would only be seen as a threat to the entire order. The gears of American economic and social progress have been lubricated for much of its history with the blood of blacks, and the poor, and immigrants. Pretending otherwise doesn't make it any less the reality with which we have to live.
Sitting around discussing non-violence, whether tactically or as an end in and for itself misses the point made most clearly by H. Rap Brown: Violence is as American as cherry pie.
I have been thinking about these matters in the wake of the rising official violence against Occupy protesters in Oakland, CA; the tentative and sporadic violence in New York against Occupy Wall Street; scattered beatings and arrests at various Occupy sites in Maine and Tennessee. I suppose I have been thinking that one can gauge the success of the perceived threat of any protest movement by the reaction of the organs of state power to it. With the rising tide of anti-Occupy violence, it should be clear that the folks in charge see the threat to their perquisites and prerogatives as very real. Thus, the attempt to stifle them through the use of police power utilizing the para-militarized weapons and tactics developed over a generation of "law and order" policies.
I have no answer to those who insist on asking what other choices folks who are protesting have. The reality is, despite the best intentions and most thorough indoctrination in the methods and ideology of non-violence, the police are going to have no worries using any and all the methods and weapons at their disposal to thwart a threat to the existing order. It would be ideal to think that such tactics would or could end systemic injustice.
I just don't think so. Which breaks my heart.