Who Would Jesus Punch?
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X did not see eye to eye. Both were fighting the same battle against racism, segregation, and bigotry but they differed wildly in their methods. Dr. King, influenced by the work of Ghandi that helped India throw off British rule, advocated nonviolence and peaceful resistance. Malcolm X advocated achieving equality by any means necessary, including violence. I share this because we are mired in a debate about free speech, violence, and the best way to respond to that violence. President Trump has been roundly criticized this past week for stating that there is blame for the Charlottesville violence on “many sides.” He was not entirely wrong in that assessment, but then continued to speak about the white supremacist demonstrators including “many fine people.” (Nazis, by definition, have disqualified themselves from being “fine people” by calling for the subjugation and elimination of other people.)
The spotlight has been turned this past week on an aggressive ant-fascist group called “Antifa” which, like Malcolm X, is open to doing whatever is necessary. Emily Rose Nauert is a member of Antifa interviewed by the New York Times on August 17, 2017. Authors THOMAS FULLER, ALAN FEUER and SERGE F. KOVALESKI write:
“Unlike most of the counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville and elsewhere, members of Antifa have shown no qualms about using their fists, sticks or canisters of pepper spray to meet an array of right-wing antagonists whom they call a fascist threat to American democracy. As explained this week by a dozen adherents of the movement, the ascendant new right in the country requires a physical response. “People are starting to understand that neo-Nazis don’t care if you’re quiet, you’re peaceful,” said Emily Rose Nauert, a 20-year-old antifa member who became a symbol of the movement in April when a white nationalist leader punched her in the face during a melee near the University of California, Berkeley. “You need violence in order to protect nonviolence,” Ms. Nauert added. “That’s what’s very obviously necessary right now. It’s full-on war, basically.”
It is that last quote that I'm stuck on:
“You need violence in order to protect nonviolence.”
I'm struggling with that because it runs counter to everything I believe as a follower of Jesus. Jesus not only taught nonviolence, he practiced it. The Golden Rule of ”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” would seem to make violence impossible for us. Jesus’ wisdom is based on the principle of Reciprocity, or an even trade. You give what you get and you get what you give. The ancient Hebrew teaching of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” makes sense to us. If someone knocks out your tooth it is only fair that you return the favor. Reciprocity. Harm is caused and a debt needs to be paid to even it all out. But once harm is caused to settle the first matter, it creates a new debt that will be repaid. The cycle never ends. Sometimes the only thing a bully understands is force. I get it. Things were different in the neighborhood after Ralphie Parker decked Scutt Farkus. Seeing a Nazi screaming for the death of Jews, immigrants, and Black Lives Matter quieted by a broken nose is emotionally satisfying on many levels. But is it good? Is it just? Is it helpful? We are taught not to return evil with evil but to return evil with good. Why? There are some very strategic, practical reasons why.
First, we know that anger and conflict have a way of escalating, which is why so many voices in human history have warned against it. Proverbs 15:1 teaches “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Nastiness is contagious. Yell at someone in traffic and they'll probably yell back. A man comes home from work after being chewed out and humiliated by his boss. He enters the front door and trips over the dog. Cursing, he kicks the dog. The dog runs to the next room where he bites the child. The child cries and yells at the dog. Mom enters the rooms and yells at the child for yelling at the dog. Dad returns and explodes demanding to know why everyone is yelling. It started with the abusive boss whose humiliating words started this mess in motion. I truly believe that this is one way evil stays alive in the world, passing from person to person like the flu. It is sobering to think that some piece of anger, some unkind word I uttered twenty years ago might still be out there circulating from person to person in an endless chain. Maybe it is overly simplistic to view it this way, but what if some outburst of mine from twenty years ago has been passing from person to person this whole time and it landed last week on a disgruntled white supremacist who reached his last straw at Charlottesville? Sin is not just the simple things we do in a specific moment in time but also the inflamed scar tissue these actions have left of the world around us. It is the guilt we share.
Nonviolence is the way we prevent nastiness from circulating further. Jesus taught us not to retaliate but to hold onto unkindness to take it out of circulation. We mustn't poison ourselves with it, so we smother it with kindness the way a hockey goalie smothers the puck under all those pads. This is the work of the Kingdom, waging peace rather than war, taking evil out of play rather than passing it on. Jesus called it "loving our enemies" but since that word "love" is sometimes problematic the word "respect" may be more helpful to us. Paul described love as patience, kindness, humility, and grace (I Corinthians 12 ). These are concepts we already know and are practicing. They are the same ways we show respect, de-escalate conflict, and show our acceptance and interest in even the nastiest enemies. Author Paul K. Chappell is an advocate for peace and a practitioner of the skills and tactics necessary to achieve it. He writes:
"… There are two major differences between waging war and waging peace…Waging war tries to turn human beings who oppose you into corpses, while waging peace tries to turn human beings who oppose you into friends." (Paul K. Chappell "The Art of Waging Peace")
To wage peace, we treat "enemies" like they are already our best friends despite how they are treating us at the moment. If my friend is having a bad day and takes her frustration out on me, I can take it graciously because I know her and know that she respects me. Instead of getting offended and defensive, I place myself in her shoes and support her as a friend. We can do the same with everyone on the planet even if they are complete strangers. After all, in Christ, strangers are just friends we haven't met yet. Enemies are future friends who are having a bad day. We choose not to take it personally. Many a person in pain has cursed at the emergency room doctor who is simply trying to help. Hurt people often hurt people. It's not personal. We remain calm and focused on our goal in this situation: to make and help a friend. I have no doubt that the Nazis and klansmen in Charlottesville are very broken people on the inside who desperately need healing. Like a patient who lashes out at the ER doctor, they will be incredibly unpleasant, even dangerous. The question I have for counter-demonstrators who are also followers of Jesus is this: Why are you attending this rally? Is it to punish and repay, or is it to heal? Who would Jesus punch? No one. Who would Jesus help? Everyone, even the nastiest people in the crowd. I don't like it any better than you do, but Jesus really does want to straighten out what's wrong with ALL of us.
After comment from a friend, I'd like to add an important point. I draw a distinction between the presence of police who are poised and ready to respond to the heavily armed militia members on the streets, with force if necessary, to protect and defend the innocent and the unarmed, and the presence of protesters who are speaking out against hate. We must stand up. We must speak out. We must share truth. The discipleship point I am exploring here is the role of any follower of Jesus who may choose to attend a hate rally to counter racism. Are hate and violence fought better by more hate and violence or is love a better alternative? Many people shrink away from these teachings of Jesus as being "naive or unrealistic." Jesus actually means it when he says "love your enemy." It is the Way of the Cross. Being a disciple is not always safe. Yes, Jesus once lost his cool and drove out the money changers but is that permission to "kill them all and let God sort it out?" Where are you in your faith? Do you think revenge is OK? Can war really be "holy?" What do you feel is God's desire for each one of us? What is God's desire for the members of the KKK? What is God's desire for you?
This is a difficult subject. It is hard to write that part about becoming friends with enemies, but it is the Christ-like ideal. I struggle with this, too. Let's have a conversation. Please feel free to comment.