Privilege, Oppression, but above all, Nonviolence

I had an interesting conversation with my students today about social systems of privilege and oppression in the context of the Baltimore riots that are taking place right now. (For other articles about the riots, see here and here). We’re at the end of a class on ethics, social systems, and civics, and the current events are an opportunity to apply the concepts we have been discussing all semester.

What I learned from today’s conversation is that we can be educated about privilege and oppression and still not apply it to real situations because when assessing current events, we default to the mantras of the very social systems that need critique. It’s worse than denying that social structures exist, because in this case one admits their existence, but never grounds them in any actual occurrence. Sure, racism is a part of our social structure, the thinking goes, but Trayvon Martin? Michael Brown? Eric Garner? or Freddie Gray? These were all about something else, anything else than social structures that consistently support our devaluation of their lives.

I learned that we value property, and we value nonviolence. For some reason, when property is destroyed, all bets are off. The line of thinking goes something like this. “Yeah, it’s a terrible thing that a guy died from his treatment in police custody, but you can’t destroy your own city! That affects other people!” There is a conditioning that goes on when we see physical structures destroyed that we associate with the height of anarchy. (Except in movies—then we love to see stuff blow up.) For some reason when people are destroyed in the same way, it doesn’t affect us similarly. So some peoples’ stuff is more important than some peoples’ lives. We ought to be honest about this.

Even more interesting is the idea of nonviolence. It came up multiple times in our class conversation that violence ultimately doesn’t solve anything. Don’t these looters know they are sabotaging themselves by becoming violent? Why don’t they look at MLK or Gandhi and imitate their approaches? Set aside the fact that a casual watcher of Selma can see that successful actions were so because they provoked violent retaliation. We’re not really talking about an ethical ban on violence anyway. We’re talking about violence when it applies to the average citizen. Police violence, the violence of the state? These are not critiqued in the same way. If I ask my students, “Do you think it is right that a young man dies in police custody, likely because of his rough treatment at the hands of police?”, they would say, “No, but…”

It’s not simply no, it’s “No, but.” And it’s with that qualifier I realize that all abstract talk about systems of privilege and oppression is of little value unless you can apply it to events that are taking place. “It’s terrible that a guy died, but we can’t tolerate riots!” It would be a huge step forward if we could just turn the sentence around. “It’s terrible that this violence and rioting took place, but we can’t tolerate police brutality!” Why can’t we have that conversation instead of the one we are having?

People express incredulity at the fact that rioters are using violence. “Don’t they know that it undercuts their aims?” But why? Why is it that violence expressed by the average citizen, is automatically thought to be counterproductive when state violence, whether military violence abroad or police violence at home, is automatically assumed to be at worst necessary, and at best productive? This presumption colors the way we respond to these incidents, and is exactly the reason that some act out in violence in the first place.

“Don’t people know that they’re actually delaying justice for the victim by distracting people from solving the case?” What if violence, instead of being an ignorant explosion, was conceived as a response to justice delayed? A belief that the current police and justice system will prevail on the side of right requires a certain amount of trust in the system. Of course I trust the system. It has in general done right by me. But what if the system betrayed my trust on a regular basis by treating me or those in my community unfairly? Would I be wise to continue to trust in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Or would I insane? Of course I gamble on the justice of the system, because historically my bets have paid off. But at some point it would become stupid to do so if it was never in my interest.

It takes significant faith to continue to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary, and this is often why religion is a tool of the oppressor against the oppressed. But how can we blame lack of education when people respond with violence? Education shows that nonviolence, when met with violence, can win sympathy to a cause. It also shows that violence is the foundation for every significant civilization in history, and it is the most brazen of hypocrisies to denounce it as if we don’t think it’s a viable tool to upset the status quo.

You could read this as an apology for violence, which it’s not intended to be. But you can’t hide behind education if you immediately condemn violence without being to recognize legitimate, long-endured oppression. Education doesn’t teach you to abhor violence. It teaches you to be able read the situations around you without resorting to a black and white binary to define your world.


Christians Shouldn’t Have Guns

A post by a friend at Unreasonable Revelations got me thinking about the issue of gun control and how hotly debated it is within Christian circles. As a Christian, I never took a strong stance on issues such as gun control, the death penalty, homosexuality, and abortion, probably because I only chose to see one side of the story. Though there was enough information out there to suggest other alternatives on these issues, I guess I figured my best bet was to keep my mouth shut. At first I justified it by telling myself that I didn’t care enough one way or the other, and it really didn’t affect me, so I would let people who were more invested in the issues fight it out. Toward the end of my Christian years as my spiritual views became more liberal, I began to lean to the left politically as I reacted to what appeared to be the hypocrisy of conservative Christian positions, particularly around issues of violence (war, gun control, etc.) I have moderated my views somewhat, but I have a stronger critique about the public positions that Christians take on issues of violence in comparison with their supposed spiritual stance.

One of the most honest books I have read on the relationship of Christianity and violence was written by Robert Brimlow, called What about Hitler?. I highly recommend it to anyone thinking about these issues. Brimlow is a Christian professor deeply concerned about how Christians should respond to violence. Each chapter is concluded with a brief prayer, Brimlow wrestling with God over the issues he discusses in the book. I found these parts almost painful to read, but they are sincere and heartfelt. A large portion of the work is devoted to discussing Christian rationalizations of the just war by Augustine, Aquinas, and others. He notes matter-of-factly that Jesus is never found in these discussions, simply because no reading of the Gospels could support them. Rather, he says, we justify war because we desire war, or desire what it brings, and we bring spiritual values in line to support our position.

Brimlow evaluates common critiques of pacifism, one being the title of the book, and others that I hear quite frequently: “Nonviolence is great and all, but tyrants don’t play by the rules, so we have to protect ourselves.” He even takes a critical look at Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor-martyr of WWII who was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and concludes that Bonhoeffer left his principles, well-intentioned though he might have been, in attempting to solve the problem with violence.

The book’s climax is a one-page chapter in which Brimlow asks the pointed question: “What, then, is the Christian response to Hitler?” His answer is simple, and one can tell in reading that he does not come to it easily. The Christian response to Hitler is to die.

There is much more that could be said here about war, death, and martyrdom, but I’d like to stick to the issue of gun control for now. Full disclosure: I have never owned a gun, and I don’t know of there having been any guns in the house growing up. I don’t think my parents had any particular feelings one way or the other about guns; they just weren’t a part of our lives. My few occasions to shoot a gun were with friends. I shot squirrels and a porcupine with a .22 (please don’t ask—it made sense to a teenager) and shot a shotgun a time or two. If you’d asked me a couple years ago about guns, I would have been much more against them. Now I am ambivalent to the idea of owning a gun, and when I have gun fantasies they are typically of the James Bond type.

But I want to talk about Christians and gun usage. To put it simply, Christians don’t need guns. The issue of the Second Amendment to the Constitution is irrelevant for Christians. (For other Americans, I don’t really see the point. The amendment was to protect the country, not to protect you as an individual, and certainly not to preserve your right to overthrow the country or rebel against its tyranny. If you want to overthrow tyranny, you don’t need and can’t use the Constitution’s protection to do so. But I digress…) Christians are held to a more exacting set of principles than the laws of the land. If the laws agree, then fine, but if earthly law contradicts God’s law, one must obey the higher, right? In other words, if one can argue that Christianity precludes defense with a deadly weapon, then the Constitution is moot, at least on this point.

The other factors that are irrelevant here are slippery slope arguments or doomsday scenarios. “If they take away our guns, there’s nothing to stop them from taking over the world!” or, “If we give up our guns, there’s nothing to stop them from killing us all.” This works for retroactive justification as well: “If we hadn’t used the atom bomb, hundreds of thousands more people would have died,” or, “If we hadn’t invaded, the people would have been much worse off.” These arguments are purely speculative; they did not happen and there is no way of knowing if they would have. You’ll notice that none of them are measurable. Even the atom bomb argument masquerades as measurable by performing some calculations to extrapolate the greatest number of casualties in a worst-case scenario. But again, for Christians, this shouldn’t even factor into the argument. Christian commands, the teachings of Jesus, aren’t given as recommendations to be followed if you feel like it. There are no exceptions. Diverging from Christian principles on a hunch or a fear of the unknowable doesn’t line up with being a sincere follower of Christ. (Of course, you could go with the sin now, get forgiveness later model, but you wouldn’t want that universally applied.)

So what do we have left? There is violence in the world. There is a chance that violence could happen to you. What can you do? Brimlow is right. When faced with the threat of death as a Christian, you can flee (this is debatable), or become a martyr. My assumption here is that to be a Christian means to be a follower of Christ, and to be a follower of Christ means to bring one’s life as much as humanly possible in line with the life and, if necessary, the death of Jesus. Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek, a nonviolent response to violence. Sure, he also talked about violence that would ensue in the future, but he didn’t ask Christians to enact it for him. Instead, he says that his followers will be hated and persecuted in his name (Matthew 24:9). And he not only said it, he enacted it. He allowed himself to be killed in response to aggression. Was this the right thing to do? It depends. There’s certainly a connection between great influence, a little bit of insanity, and death. If he was in a popularity contest, he won. I don’t think he would like the result.

The above arguments don’t apply to the rest of the world. I’m not certain how to address the problem of gun violence in the greater population. I made this case only to articulate one small area, thrust recently to the forefront of our attention, where many Christians affirm nonviolence while simultaneously championing a right to violence. I am well aware that Christianity has championed violence for the majority of its history, but it has done so in contradiction of the example of Jesus. Especially in modern “What Would Jesus Do?” Christianity, there is no coherent basis for self-defense with a gun while self-identifying as a Christian. A great portion of the Early Church agreed as well.

There are, of course, other uses for a gun that could be contested. The issue of self-defense and the threat of human violence seems to me the most pressing, and not unconnected to other uses. Legislation has a tough road ahead, with no clear answers, but for Christians, the answer is clearer.

I’m curious to hear any thoughts or responses, both from Christian gun owners and others. I’ll send them through as long as they’re near the realm of civility.