In an article titled “The Future of Nonviolent Resistance,” author Erica Chenoweth says,
“Armed struggle used to be the primary way in which movements fought for change from outside the political system. Today, campaigns in which people rely overwhelmingly on nonviolent resistance have replaced armed struggle as the most common approach to contentious action worldwide.”
A recent Christian Century article describes how a vision of nonviolent resistance is taking hold even in places as remote as Nigeria. It says:
In November 2008, violence broke out among Muslims and Christians in Jos, Nigeria, a city in the country’s middle region. About 760 people were killed. Samuel Sunkur, a Christian who was 13 at the time, said he was devastated when his aunt’s house was destroyed and razed by mobs.
Afterward, Sunkur started thinking of ways to take revenge.
“My reaction was that violence must be met with violence,” he said. “After all, even the Bible has it that ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’”
In these conflicts, young people like Sunkur are almost always on the front lines. But after participating in a one-day workshop in May organized by the Africa Faith and Justice Network or AFJN, a Washington-based social justice organization, Sunkur, now 26, said he has recommitted to nonviolence.
Sunkur, who is studying sociology at the University of Jos, said he hopes to continue working with AFJN and other local organizations to advocate for peace across the country. The AFJN training also inspired him to resume work on a book about how to end religious violence through dialogue and collaboration—because, he said, he realizes there’s a need for him to take action in order to change society.
“One way of doing this is writing books to de-radicalize our people so that they accept dialogue and collaboration as the best approach to violence.”
We also saw in the Time for All Ages story how women and children in India turned away men with axes by hugging trees, which led to a sustainable and equitable solution for everybody.
Thoreau and Ballou through Tolstoy
In the reading, we learned about the trajectory from our Unitarian and Universalist forebears Thoreau and Ballou through Tolstoy, Ghandi and King to us today. There is a long and respectable history of nonviolent resistance to injustice that comes not only from our own religious past, but more importantly, from a religious or spiritual grounding in the leaders of these movements worldwide.
My friend and college, Rev. Meredith Garmon, writes, “The heroes of nonviolent social change [like] Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, weren’t just effective political organizers who happened to tell their followers, “Oh, and, by the way, no hitting.” They were at the forefront of social change that we call nonviolent because they each had the emotional and spiritual grounding to understand the essence of violence as in the heart.”
“Nonviolence is a spiritual commitment that comes from a spiritual understanding.”
Garmon says further, “It’s the dehumanizing hatred that is the essence of violence. What we call acts of violence are merely the manifestation of a heart that hates. Nonviolence, then, is not merely refraining from shooting, stabbing, clubbing, kicking or hitting others – as important a step as that is. Nonviolence is a heart committed to softening instead of hardening. Nonviolence is a heart that loves, that respects, that reveres life, that connects and wants to connect. And we are violent to each other – whether we ever raise a hand or raise our voice to each other – whenever we fail to respond to each other out of reverence for the wonder of the life that is before us.
Martin Luther King and Nonviolence
Again and again [King] urged his followers and all those working for justice to set aside the impulse to riot, to burn, to strike back. Keep the righteous energy of anger without letting that anger make its home in hatred. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us:
‘Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.’” (sermon 2014-02-04)
Nonviolence is a spiritual commitment that comes from a spiritual understanding.
Nonviolent resistance has become the expected way to speak out for justice in our nation today. People take to the streets when unarmed Black people are killed by police or citizen vigilantes. People risk arrest when protesting environmental destruction by putting their bodies on the line. People speak out, hold demonstrations and strikes, gather followers on social media, and attempt to effect change through legislation and the courts.
Is nonviolent resistance successful? Chenoweth looks at the totality of campaigns over the past 120 years, and concludes that “Nonviolent resistance thus outperforms violence by a 2-to-1 margin.” And furthermore, that “in countries where civil-resistance campaigns took place, chances of democratic consolidation, periods of relative post-conflict stability, and various quality-of-life indicators were higher after the conflict than in the countries that experienced civil war.”
It can help to have leadership that comes from a spiritual understanding. Who are the leaders today who inspire us by their spiritual commitment to nonviolence? Who are the leaders we can look to as we once looked to Martin Luther King?
Leaders of nonviolence today
I know of two in particular who I see as embodying the kind of leadership that comes from the heart.
One is William Barber III. Barber was president of the North Carolina NAACP, and started the Moral Mondays movement in 2013. In 2016, he delivered a speech at the Democratic National Convention as well as speaking at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. Also that year our UU Beacon Press published his book, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, which I highly recommend. In 2018, he launched the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, picking up the unfinished work of a campaign by the same name from Dr. King and his associates. This movement has a Covenant of Nonviolence, which draws on lessons from historic nonviolent social movements.
The other leader I want to lift up today is Rev. Markel Hutchins
On Friday, I attended a Pastors and Police breakfast at the Grand Concourse, hosted by the Faith and Blue movement in Pittsburgh. The guest speaker was Reverend Markel Hutchins of Atlanta, the visionary founder of the national Faith & Blue movement. He has been repeatedly compared to Dr. King, whom he admires and whose legacy he intentionally continues.
Here is an attempt to summarize what he said on Friday.
Hutchins has been in the forefront of the protests and demonstrations, but has found that they are counterproductive. People stay fixed in their Black Lives Matter/ Blue Lives Matter camps. Traditional activism hasn’t been getting us anywhere. People march and march, and the injustices keep happening. Hutchins saw that the tensions between police and the communities were rising, and the problems got worse.
Faith and Blue Movement
He had a vision that our nation needs to do something different.
He says the answers won’t happen by policies and procedures, that some things you can’t fix through legislation. We need relationships, we need a change in culture.
The mission of the Faith and Blue movement is to facilitate safer, stronger and more unified communities by connecting law enforcement officers and residents through local houses of worship.
They’re creating a national movement to bring law enforcement and congregations together. The model of leadership this movement employs is one of empowering the local community through the faith communities. Faith communities are built on love, which is what is needed. We can’t ground the resistance in anger alone. It needs a spiritual commitment that comes from a spiritual understanding.
It is important for the community to support law enforcement. He says the national discussion of defunding the police is not popular with the vast majority of people of every color and background.
Hutchins seeks to reduce tensions by building bridges. When people are in relationship, the level of accountability goes up, and the level of support goes up too. We have an obligation as people of faith to work with police.
Faith based organizations know what’s going on in the communities. They can help law enforcement, and vice versa. Working together can build relationships, can build trust, can help facilitate better outcomes.
I was heartened to see a large attendance at Friday’s breakfast. There were representatives of law enforcement, Black and White, and there were many, many members of Black congregations. There were people with impressive titles, both in the churches and in government. (I wish I had caught the names, but the introductions went quickly!) We were told that Mayor Bill Peduto, Mayor-elect Ed Gainey and Police Chief Scott Schubert were unable to be present, but support the movement. Outside of a few of the police, I saw only one other white face besides mine.
It seems to me that the leaders of nonviolent resistance throughout history have been people of faith, and that their faith is what prompts them to act from love. From Thoreau and Ballou to Tolstoy, Gandhi and King, the line continues through religious leaders like Barber and Hutchins.
Whichever leaders we choose to follow, may we continue to seek justice through nonviolent resistance. May we refuse to hate, to seek revenge, to lash out in uncontrolled anger. May we instead channel our anger, tempered with love, to speak truth to power and, through collective action, move toward an end to oppression in all its forms. May we make a spiritual commitment that comes from a spiritual understanding.
May it be so. Blessed be and amen. Rev. Jane Thickstun