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Social Justice and Progress: Guarantors of Riot Prevention

from Rev. Rick Mixon

Right around the time of the rioting in Baltimore, I posted on Facebook a meme with a picture and quotation from, James Lawson, a well respected and beloved figure, active in the US Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

Lawson says, "Violence has no practical results – toward building a strengthened community or solving the problems of human prejudice, bias, and injustice. People accept the ideological or even religious myth that if you want to get things done, violence is the way. But violence is not even the faster way. It complicates issues, increases and escalates the pain, postpones the hard work of facing the problem and healing it. Violence can kill somebody and destroy buildings. But it cannot build a house or create a community that is more just and fair."

I found these words timely, instructive and inspiring.

Since last fall, when American Baptist Global Peace and Justice Specialist, Dan Buttry, visited our congregation, I have been thinking about the practice of nonviolent resistance. Using one of Dan’s books, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, which focuses on stories of people who have dedicated their lives to making peace – both famous and hidden heroes – our Adult Spiritual Formation group spent time meeting some of these figures in the fall. We also took the opportunity to share with each other our own peacemaking heroes. Then, in January, one of the texts we read in my Spiritual Direction program was Walter Wink’s The Powers that Be, again with an emphasis on peacemaking and the genius of nonviolent resistance. Eventually, we also used this resource in Adult Spiritual Formation. 

The challenge of nonviolent resistance is that it takes incredible discipline and planning. It asks that we contain our anger in such a way that we can then channel it creatively and constructively rather than acting it out in spontaneous combustion. This is not easy. I have known anger in my life and I have lashed out more than once in ways that were unhelpful and only fueled the fire. Perhaps my early commitment to pacifism (I registered as a conscientious objector in 1965 at age 18) was an attempt to contain angry feelings and destructive impulses in the service of a greater good – the fulfillment of the Beloved Community of God in my own life and in the world around me.

Pacifism in our world often seems as quixotic as Jesus’ proclamation of the Beloved Community. “Get real! No one can live like that. What would you do if someone was raping your sister or threatening your own life?” “What do you mean, ‘love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself,’ ‘love your enemy, ‘love Samaritans and tax collectors and prostitutes?’ You’re a fool. You have to take care of number one first. It’s hard enough just to get along with our own kind.” This is such a common world view. Let’s not upset the status quo.

And isn’t it just this commitment, or at least default, to protecting the way things are that led to the rioting in Baltimore as well as to demonstrations elsewhere? People are angry, fed up with a system that clings to security for some of us while others suffer the pain and indignity of injustice and inequity. When people are in pain they cry out. They lash out. They act out. I get that. But what I’m looking for is a better way to express frustration and suffering, a way that will lead to real systemic change and not just polarize us into extremes.

In In the past couple of weeks, I have seen Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words posted a number of times, “…a riot is the language of the unheard.”

It is a powerful perspective. It insists that we look for, listen to, walk with those who have been silenced, forced to the margins, trampled on and ignored. Yes, right here in “greatest country on earth,” there’s work to be done. But let’s look a little more closely at King’s comment. Let’s put it in the context in which he first embedded it.

"I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.“

“Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

To me this speaks to the wisdom and rich possibilities of nonviolent resistance and peacemaking. In fact, I believe these are crucial dimensions of Christian theology, drawing on the life and witness of Jesus as he attempted to bring God’s Beloved Community fully into existence. This is Gospel. There is no peace, there is no freedom, there is no Beloved Community when we fail to be just and fair.

How do we resist injustice, inequity, evil without resorting to violence? How do we make real peace in a world dying for it? How do we learn to love our enemies and our neighbors and ourselves enough to turn the world right side up and bring to life the Beloved Community God imagined from the foundations of creation?

I have no simple answers nor can I promise the work will be easy, but as a disciple of Jesus (along with Lawson, King, Thurman, Mandela, Gandhi, Wink, Dorothy Day, Dorothee Soelle, and so many others in the great cloud of witness,) I want to commit myself to this discipline because I believe it is the only real hope we have of a different, better future. “We make the road by walking” has been our journey this year. If this is so what sort of road do we want to make and leave as a legacy?


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