Thoughts on nonviolence and how it’s organized

A few years ago, when Ferguson, Missouri was all in the news, I remember various people saying to me, “Those people are bringing in outside agitators from other places.” It was a criticism, suggesting that if “outsiders” weren’t riling up the populace, we wouldn’t be having these racial protests at all.

I wasn’t prepared to answer that argument at that time, and I haven’t heard it again since the Black Lives Matter protests swept the country. But as time goes on, I realize that the entire Civil Rights movement was structured the same way: national organizers identifying places where their presence could make a difference, and going there to support the local population.

(What we learn about history really does get distorted—whether it’s a concerted effort, or whether it’s because there’s so much of it and it gets oversimplified in an attempt to boil it down to its most important message, is another question. I’d hazard a guess the answer is “both.”)

In “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean quoted from another book, “Wild Justice,” by Susan Jacoby, which appears now to be out of print. This passage really struck me.

Nonviolence, as employed by Gandhi in India and by King in the American South, might reasonably viewed as a highly disciplined form of aggression. If one defines aggression in the primary dictionary sense of “attack,” nonviolent resistance proved to be the most powerful attack imaginable on the powers King and Gandhi were trying to overturn. … King was even more explicit on this point: the purpose of civil disobedience, he explained many times, was to force the defenders of segregation to commit brutal acts in public and thus arouse the conscience of the world on behalf of those wronged by racism. King and Gandhi did not succeed because they changed the hearts and minds of southern sheriffs and British colonial administrators (although they did, in fact, change some minds) but because they made the price of maintaining control too high for their opponents.”

Susan Jacoby, Wild Justice, pp. 336-337

Every once in a while, someone points out that Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek was the polar opposite of passive acceptance of injustice. (Read this for that mind-blowing take on a very familiar passage.)

This passage from Wild Justice also turns on its head the idea of nonviolence as passive. It made me rethink the whole movement. This describes a whole new level of courage: to go in, intending to provoke violence against oneself, which you will consciously not react to, in order to show the violence inherent in the system? Wow. Just… wow.

It was what Jesus did, too. Of course, Jesus’ crucifixion was about salvation beyond the things of the world. But God could have accomplished that any way he liked. The fact that the chosen way to get there was through nonviolent resistance to earthly injustice has to mean something for us.

Rugged Individualism as heresy

I am sharing multiple times from America’s podcast interview with Bro. Guy Consolmagno, because it kept blowing my mind. My last post, in which he pointed out that you can’t have a well formed conscience without FIRST listening to authority, leads naturally into another quote:

“That’s the great American heresy: that we’re all rugged individualists. And the truth is there is nothing we can do that doesn’t affect the people around us.”

HERESY. That’s a strong word.

But it’s so true! We have this (idealized, not terribly accurate) vision of what it means to be American. But who among us has ever stood ruggedly on our own? Not one person I’ve ever met, that’s for sure. We are all standing on the shoulders of parents, grandparents, aunts & uncles, teachers, mentors, etc. People who sheltered us and provided for our needs while we developed the skills we needed to fly the nest.

Even in adulthood, we don’t stand on our own. When we get knocked off our feet (death, hospitalizations, loss of income), our resilience depends in large part on the community around us, who fill our refrigerators, watch our kids, mow our lawns, and pitch in financially. I’ve been on the receiving end more times than I can count—some very recently. And I’m also giving that same support to other members of my extended community—at this very moment.

Being a Christian is the opposite of being a rugged individualist.

But the second part of that quote is the part that brings it all home. Rugged individualism is actually impossible, because everything we do impacts others. Both this quote and the one about conscience & authority were shared in the context of resistance to vaccines and masking. Whatever decisions we make in those areas are not about us alone; they have implications for the life and health of others.

Of course, that’s just the most obvious application. Brother Guy’s words resonate across all the questions that plague us. But if we want to interact with the world as Christians, that truth is important to keep in sight.

Being a Christian is the opposite of being a rugged individualist.

A house divided…

I have not been posting much the last few months. I keep chewing over the same baffling questions again and again, and feeling that I am shouting into a void. So I’ve focused my energy instead on my fiction. There’s precious little time in my life for splitting my focus these days, anyway.

But the US bishops’ daily reflection Friday morning was on the topic of division and unity. A house divided cannot stand, Jesus cautioned. If good work is being done, it can’t be of the devil. And if there’s division, it is not of Christ.

The Church is a hot mess of division right now, just as our nation is. Every time I come up against an entrenched position that baffles me, because it is so clearly contrary to my faith, and it’s being held by people who are using their faith as justification for their beliefs, I think of this question of division. I think, “How can this be, when we all claim to believe the same things?”

Spoiler alert: if you’re reading this post in hope of there being an answer at the end, prepare to be disappointed.

Every time I come up against one of these, I think, “There’s no way God could be calling both of these sides to these beliefs. Is there?” Then I pause to search my own conscience and try to see how I could be the one who is wrong. I frequently find that I am wrong in my anger toward, judgment of, and assumptions about people who think differently than me. But I have rarely found the Spirit nudging me that I am, in fact, wrong in my beliefs. Not given the information I have.

So then I go and do research to see if my information could be wrong. I look at the sources, I think, “Nope, not going to read that, it’s too far left and I can’t trust it to be objective. Nope, not going to read that either, because that’s clearly a group with a dog in this fight. There, that’s a moderately-right-leaning source, that should give me a good counterbalance to my own biases.” Occasionally I moderate a position; I think, “this thing people are freaking out about on the left is probably not as big a deal as they’re making it out to be.”

But not often.

It is deeply disturbing to me that so much of our discourse these days is arguing over things that are so easy to disprove. It really isn’t hard to discern between credible sources and conspiracy-theories.

A good friend of mine recently left Facebook, because it was an exercise in scrolling through things that made her angry. “I feel like we’re conditioned to look for the next thing to get angry about,” she said. “I just needed to get away from that.”

How do we seek unity—Christ—instead of division—the devil—when it seems that so many of our conflicts are based, not on reason, but on appeals to all that is sinful within us—our selfishness, our lack of empathy for others?

Gullibility, Misinformation, and the Ninth Commandment

Long ago, I learned that Albert Broccoli, the producer of the original James Bond movies, was a gardener who invented the vegetable broccoli by crossing cauliflower and something else I’ve forgotten.

My reaction was: “Hey, that’s really cool!” I never even questioned it.

Sometime in the last five years, as political misinformation has become so blatant and unscrupulous, I’ve become unshakably committed to fact checking. But for whatever reason, it did not occur to me that my little interesting trivia about broccoli ought to be fact checked. Until one day a couple years ago when I stopped with my mouth open, prepared to share this interesting tidbit, and thought, “Wait a minute… could broccoli possibly really be that new? Hasn’t broccoli been around for hundreds of years? Come to think of it, this sounds an awful lot like a myth/urban legend. Maybe I should check this before I share it again.”

Shocker: broccoli has been around since the SIXTH CENTURY BCE.

I felt pretty stupid.

Then, a few months ago, my third-born came home from a scout campout. “Mom, did you know that daddy longlegs are THE MOST POISONOUS SPIDER OUT THERE? Except they can’t hurt you—“

“—because their mouths are too small to bite humans,” I said. “Yes, I know that.” Then I stopped. “You know what? I’ve heard that my whole life, but now that I think about it, it sounds like bunch of nonsense. Why don’t we look that up?”

Again, shocker: FALSE.

I’m sharing this kind of embarrassing story because it took me years—YEARS—before I recognized the sound of a falsehood masquerading as legit information.

It made me understand—a bit, anyway—how it is that so many good people, intending to follow Jesus, have fallen into the trap of embracing conspiracy theories. Of sharing memes and arguments so distorted, they’re actually lies. Of writing off fact checkers because if they challenge pre-existing certainties, they must, by definition, be biased and thus can be safely dismissed.

I understand… a bit… which is good, because it also still makes me very, very angry. And I need to cultivate compassion, not anger.

So I am sharing this again today, as a reminder to myself as well as anyone who reads this, that truth telling and integrity are fundamental to our faith. Implicit in the use of misinformation is the idea that the end justifies the means. But that’s not Christianity. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Facts matter. Context matters.

Freedom, Masks, and Vaccines

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

This summer, a good friend and I started a small faith group with our middle- and upper-elementary school kids. We’re using an old morality textbook to get them thinking about their faith in relation to the real world.

Any discussion of morality begins with freedom, and the words of the Catechism on that topic have been rumbling around in my brain ever since we encountered them:

1731: Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. … Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God.

I bold faced that latter part because we tend to focus on the first part and forget that the second is what gives meaning to it. Freedom isn’t meant to be “You’re not the boss of me!” It’s meant to be “I am capable of and free to choose GOOD.”

In other words, if I am addicted to alcohol, or opioids, or video games, or social media, or conspiracy theories, or political disinformation—if I am consumed by fear of socialists, or fear of death—then I am not actually free at all, because those things, rather than my free will, will direct my choices and words and beliefs. The same is true if I am a prisoner of my desires (food, sex, whatever).

Being free is not supposed to be about “you can’t make me.” We’re not toddlers. Freedom is SUPPOSED to be about the ability to choose good (i.e., God).

So much bandwidth is being thrown around these days on the subject of freedom. Of course I’m thinking about vaccines and masking. Some people have genuine obstacles to vaccinating and masking, some more profound, some less so.

But mostly, people are objecting on the basis of “freedom.” I even heard someone on the radio shouting “It’s my body, it’s my choice!” at school board members. An odd, odd juxtaposition, since the demographic of people objecting to vaccines & masks are almost entirely on the pro-life side of the political spectrum, and no prolife person has ever accepted that argument!

I don’t understand pro-life people protesting masks. The entire objection seems, to me, to rest upon the first part of the definition of freedom while ignoring the reason freedom is important at all—the ability to choose the good of all. “You can’t make me! It’s my body! This is a violation of my liberty!” These are worldy arguments, based on one’s self-interest. Where is God in those protests? Nowhere I can see. All I see is, “I don’t want to, so I shouldn’t have to.” If this is what liberty and freedom have come to mean in America, God help us all.

Of course, we likely wouldn’t need to mask anymore if people had just gotten vaccinated in the first place. But lots of people who oppose masking also oppose vaccines, and are using the same arguments, while adding objections based on poor information. mRNA as a vaccine technique did use embryonic stem cells to test whether it was even a viable idea. But that’s it. Working on a COVID vaccine there’s been zero connection to abortion.

Moreover, I read a BBC report in 2019—pre-pandemic, just to emphasize that this is a long-standing question—that talked about a whole host of scientific and medical advances we take for granted that were developed using morally bankrupt techniques. Why are all those okay, and this one is so offensive that we’re willing to let hundreds of thousands of people die over it?

More to the point, the Church has spoken and it’s been consistent from the words and example of our Pope and bishops. Only fringe elements are in conflict.

So I don’t understand the vehement objection among a sizable chunk of people who call themselves prolife. Clearly, people are dying of COVID. Our health care workers are overwhelmed and exhausted. These things cannot be argued away.

Vaccines are GOOD. Masks are GOOD. How can one use faith as a reason to use their “freedom” not to mask and vaccinate?

Freedom and Fraternity

There’s a lot in this section of Fratelli Tutti that should make us squirm in America. In #103, Pope Francis reminds us that freedom and equality are insufficient without dedication to concrete love of neighbor. Without making a political (he does use that word) priority of taking care of each other, liberty is nothing more than “living as we will, completely free to choose to whom or what we will belong, or simply to possess or exploit.” Liberty, as God intends it, is directed toward the welfare of the other.

And then, of course, there’s the excerpt above. What follows it is a reminder that efficiency is often at odds with the common good.

In recent years, I’ve become deeply convicted about the fundamental flaw in the whole idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” #109 addresses this. Plenty of us don’t, in fact, need help from a “proactive state,” because we’ve been born into functional educational systems and families that can get us to the doctor.

We all stand on the backs of our parents, grandparents, teachers and communities. Within our communities, we support each other; this is good. It WORKS. I certainly didn’t need any of those COVID stimulus checks, and how to use them in a way that best served the common good was a matter of no small debate in our household.

But it’s a mistake, and I would argue, contrary to Christian discipleship, to assume that simply because many of us don’t have need for a proactive state means nobody does. Look at the injustices and inequalities that litter America’s history:

These are just a few structural realities whose consequences have rippled down through history. If we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, then some among us are fighting a way, way bigger battle than others.

These are hard realities to accept in a time of such profound division. But the Cross IS hard, and the Holy Spirit gave us a shepherd at this time who’s calling us to confront the things that make us uncomfortable.

God is Not A Trained Monkey

Another post from my personal archives today…. (Lectionary reference dates from 2014)


Two vignettes:

Photo by WELS.net, via Flickr

One: A priest I know once talked about throwing open the Bible and taking whatever your eye (or finger) lands on first as a sign from God. He called it Bible abuse. A provocative statement, given that probably every one of us has done that at some point.

Two: Long ago I read about a person who invited a couple of missionaries over for dinner. They would not eat from the dishes being passed around the table until they had prayed over each one and received Heavenly “clearance” to proceed. At first, the author was offended. Then he decided this was a sign of their total dependence on God to tell them what was and was not safe.

To me, these two examples illuminate how easy it is to twist faith and try to turn God into a trained monkey that performs on command. We’ve been trained, by a fascination with larger-than-life stories of faith, to expect big and dramatic communications from God–and to esteem blind, uninformed faith in defiance of reason.

And I realized that fascination with these kind of stories encourage the mindset that fed my struggles with anxiety in the first place.

There are certain catch phrases in religious conversation: God’s will and radical faith, for instance. In my brain, over the course of years, that twisted into: if you aren’t willing to leap off a proverbial high bridge, trusting God to catch you, your faith is not good enough. Never mind what you know about gravity. Having faith means being willing to do what doesn’t make sense to you, because God’s way is not your way.

It’s that whole billboard thing again: the expectation that God is going to arrange a message so clear, so obviously aimed right at you, that you can’t possibly mistake His meaning.

God certainly can and sometimes does work that way, but if you expect all divine communication to consist of a “billboard,” you’re going to spend most of your life thinking God has nothing to say at all.

In this weekend’s readings, both Elijah and Jesus went looking for God in solitude. In quiet, in the absence of stimulation and demands on their attention. In extended stillness.

Hearing the voice of God is a skill that takes practice, and if you neglect that practice even briefly, you start to lose it. If I say that modern life is not conducive to hearing God, it sounds so trite as to render the words useless, but that doesn’t make them any less true. How many people fill every waking moment with noise–and sleeping moments, too, for that matter? The radio has to be on in the car, exercise must be accessorized by ear buds, and white noise generators are supposed to facilitate sleep.

Photo by albedo20, via Flickr

There’s a reason people throughout history have gone on silent retreats and even lived as hermits. It’s silence where you learn to recognize God’s tiny whispering sound in the midst of the earthquakes and thunderstorms that make up life. It’s in the emptiness that the puzzle pieces begin to click. And it’s when you start to be comfortable in the void that you start to realize it’s not a void at all, but a wonderful sense of peace, and the beginning of a new way to know God.

I do believe there are times when God speaks in a thunderclap or a burning bush–proverbial or otherwise. The vast majority of the time, though, God’s voice speaks from within, through the utterly ordinary stuff of life. But you only recognize it if you’ve invested the time to listen to the silence that makes the connection in the first place.

The Word in the World

This seems like a throwaway, but so much of recent history has revolved around the need for Christians to recognize how our faith interacts with the real world–what does it mean to live Christian faith in a world where misinformation is so rampant? Where social media rules, and encourages us to be our worst selves? What does it mean to live the Gospel when we face problems of lack of respect for human dignity–from abortion through inequality of education and opportunity leading to poverty, homelessness? How does the Gospel call interact with questions of tax code and societal responsibility? With policies around immigration and race?

It’s easy to get complacent about one’s faith if that faith is totally disconnected from the real world–or if one issue overshadows all others. But Romero, in the part that lives in those ellipses, says when the Gospel is taken out of the context of the real world, it ceases to become the word of God at all.

These are the questions I wrestle–knowing always that when I get self-righteous, I’m part of the same problem.