Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
The Power and Principle of Nonviolent Protest
Harold Dean Trulear
By Harold Dean Trulear
January 5, 2015
"You cannot fight a war in the name of the Prince of Peace!" This apocryphal statement is attributed to Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, founder of North America's largest Pentecostal denomination, the Church of God in Christ, upon word that Kaiser Wilhelm prayed for his troops as they entered into World War I.
Recent attacks on police combine with police shootings of civilians to paint a picture of communities and police at war with one another.
We are not at war.
War, by definition, requires adversaries. But police and communities are not adversaries.
The killing of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjien Liu points to an adversarial relationship to police. The protestors who responded to the killing of an armed black teen in a community adjacent to Ferguson, MO with violent protest reflect an adversarial posture. The forty death threats against New York City police reflect an adversarial perspective toward those deputized to protect and serve. The police who interpret nonviolent protests against wrongful death as protests against police reflect an adversarial perspective.
Threats and attacks against police, as well as the militarization of police forces against communities, create an atmosphere of war and violate any sense of community. The ongoing rhetoric against police helps nothing. This is serious, but not war....unless we allow it to be framed as such.
We are not at war.
The recent protests concerning the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and others who perished in confrontations with law enforcement are not anti-police. The whole concept of a police department developed in London a century and a half ago when we realized that our human interests required some regulation (read riot). But that does not mean that we are at war.
Violent responses to police, property, and persons reflect a misguided notion that such protest is the only way to get attention. But God sees injustice. To argue that we must respond to social injustice with violence assumes that God sleeps through injustice and needs violence to awaken Him. The God "watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps" (Psalm 121:4). God sees. Those who seek violent means to highlight a system of injustice fail to discern that the God of the universe sees. Hagar's reaction to unjust reproduction was “the Lord my God hath seen me." No reputable historian in the Roman Empire recorded Herod's massacre of innocent children in his attempt to slay the Christ child. But God saw, and He gave Matthew an exclusive report. Because God sees, nonviolent protest makes sense.
Nonviolent protest accomplishes three powerful ends. First, it unveils the injustice perceived by persons or a group that has witnessed systemic wrong and seeks its correction. Second, it gives the group a voice in a manner that the social system can recognize. Third, it reflects a lifestyle commitment that enables protesters to express their concerns in a way that is consistent with their ongoing lives. Nonviolent protest assumes that God sees.
The protesters’ use of nonviolent means to express their pain points to a conscious choice to acknowledge wrong while relying upon the hearts of people of good will to see the wrong. Nonviolent protest appeals to the hearts of persons and society to see injustice where it may lie hidden beneath a canopy of norms. It affirms that God has people who, when made aware, will respond appropriately.
Nonviolent protest gives voice through the actual and visible participation of persons marginalized by society because of race, class, gender, and other boundaries that belie our unity as Americans. We need to hear the voices of the margins. As Christians, it reminds us that our faith was founded and grew on the margins; it was not a centering principle for government. God saw the execution of His Son on the margin, and responded with the resurrection. A violent death does not define reality, nor is it the last word.
Nonviolence as a political strategy emerged from an understanding of nonviolence as a way of life. In a real sense, nonviolence represents a repudiation of violence- its existence and its threat. Violence hurts, harms, and destroys. Its threat keeps an unhealthy order. As Americans, we have a responsibility to maintain a healthy order that recognizes and respects citizens' rights. As Christians, we have a responsibility to recognize the image of God in all persons, and act politically in ways that affirm this image.
Emerald Garner, a daughter of Eric Garner, came to the site of the killings of the NYPD officers to pay her respects. She understands. Violence helps no one. At a Christmas event for the poor of New York, Rev. Al Sharpton led prayer for families of the murdered policemen, as well as those cut down by police violence. Violence helps no one.
Bishop Mason was right. You cannot fight a war in the name of the Prince of Peace.
- Harold Dean Trulear is the Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project, Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, and a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”