Saturday, April 22, 2017

10 Nonviolent Options for Dealing with Violent People (6 of 7)


This is the sixth part of a seven-part series on pacifism. Click here to go back to the first post in the series.

It’s been a few months since my last post in this pacifism series. If you recall, I had been arguing that violent solutions are not effective at bringing about positive change and that violence is not as powerful as most of us assume. I stand behind those posts, but I have always been annoyed with people who criticize the way things are without offering any constructive suggestions of how things could be done differently. [E1] Consequently, since I have been audacious enough to criticize the use of violence, even for good causes, I feel that it is my responsibility to offer some alternative ways that we could address some of the major challenges in the world. Specifically, I am going to focus in this post on how to deal with violent aggressors – people like terrorists, psychopaths, and tyrants who inflict violence on others. But before I get started, I need to be very clear about what I am not trying to accomplish in this post.

DISCLAIMERS:

First, I want to be clear that this is not a list of “10 things you can do that will stop violence in any situation.” This is not a step-by-step handbook that promises a positive result at the end, nor is it a comprehensive list of all the options that pacifists have at their disposal. [E2] My goal here is much less ambitious: I am simply trying to help my readers think about other ways that they could respond to violence, even in its most terrifying forms. When we are threatened, we tend resort to extreme, either-or thinking: fight or flight, either match force with equal force or run away and cower. Neither of these are acceptable responses for the pacifist. Therefore, by putting other options on the table, I hope to help us break out of that binary way of thinking, not necessarily recommend any of these specific responses. [E3]

Second, I want to be clear that these methods must be used selectively, based on the specific situation. For example, although it can be very effective for people living under an oppressive regime to use method #5 – expose their evil – against that dictator, it would be unsafe and unwise to ask a person in an abusive relationship to use that same method against their abuser. Remember, these are options, not absolute rules or principles that should be applied in any situation. At the end of the day, it’s the people who are actually facing violence who must decide what the most prudent and appropriate response is.

10 Nonviolent Options

1) Disarm Them

The most violent people in our world – psychopaths, terrorists, tyrants, and the like – use weapons in order to inflict violence on a massive scale. Without these weapons, they aren’t all that intimidating, and their ability to harm others is rather limited. [E4] So one pacifist response to violent aggression is simply to ruin or remove their weapons.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Wait… isn’t that violent? [E5] Not necessarily. Disarming people can come in many forms. It can be sneaky or subversive, by hiding weapons from someone or providing them with weapons that are defective, which is one of the tactics Oskar Schindler used to oppose the Nazis. It can be done through persuasion and compassion, in the mode of Antoinette Tuff, a hero who in recent years stopped a school shooter. There are even times when physically removing a weapon from someone’s hands falls within the bounds of nonviolence. In any case, disarming an attacker in the midst of an imminent attack is something that both pacifists and non-pacifists can agree upon as a goal.

2) Cut Off their Resources

Now let’s take a step back and think about this a little more broadly, can we? In addition to the weapons in their hands, violent aggressors depend on a large network of social support in order to carry out acts of violence. They need information about the people they intend to attack. They need a place to hide or a means of getting away with the act. They need food, water, clothing, shelter, and all of the other goods that all humans need to survive. And most likely, they depend on propaganda or some kind of moral support that encourages them to go through with their violent act, etc. A systematic approach to rooting out violence involves finding where all of these sources of support are coming from and cutting them off.

This option is especially useful in dealing with tyrants. Tyrants depend on large social apparatuses to control their populations: they need large companies to manufacture their weapons, farmers to feed their militias, media specialists to propagate their narrative, etc. Once a population realizes that tyrants actually depend on their complicity in order to rule, they can weaken and eventually overthrow the tyranny by refusing to cooperate. This is by no means easy, but it can be done, no matter how evil the tyranny is. [E6]

3) Coordinate Resistance

Consequently, the most important resource for dealing with aggressors is coordination. This may take the form of taking shifts in a neighborhood watch, or of organizing a political resistance that undermines the authority of a dictator, or of sharing information with each other via Amber Alerts, or of international cooperation, etc. Groups like ISIS that wreak havoc in the world today depend on division for their success. To whatever extent cooperation and coordination is possible, those who want to stop violence from spreading should engage in it.

4) Avoid and Endure

But let’s go back to the immediate threat that people face when a man with a gun and violent intent is approaching them. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to run away. Running away can be an instinctive response that emerges from fear, but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be strategic. When dealing with violent aggressors, it’s best to engage and/or confront them when they are least prepared, not when they have come ready to attack you. Thus, you may run away so that you can deal with them again when you are more prepared.

Military strategists are well aware that this is a constructive rather than cowardly tactic, and they make use of it as well. For example, during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army did not have the military technology to defeat the British in a head-on battle, but they wore the British army by them to chase the Continental Army through the woods over the course of several winters. Their running away was paired with endurance: the conviction that they could outlast them in this battle for endurance.

5) Expose their Evil

In many situations, the best way to deter a potential killer is not with a gun but with a camera. Most people – including psychopaths and dictators – don’t want their deeds to exposed. If they are exposed for being irrationally or excessively violent, even their friends and allies will be reluctant to trust them. Furthermore, evidence of their action could get them convicted in a court or could galvanize communities to work together against them. This is why groups like the United Nations or Christian Peacemaker Teams often send witnesses to corrupt and violent societies. Like cameras, witnesses threaten to expose those who commit evil. Consequently, one of the best things to do in response to many threats is to observe what is happening a safe distance.

6) Expose their Weakness

This is a method that should be reserved for special circumstances. However, in the right setting, this can end the reign of violence, either through an individual or a regime: expose their weakness. Remember, people who use violence to control others depend on the threat of violence to manipulate them. Sometimes, they can carry that threat out, but if often times, bullies and dictators claim to have more power to inflict harm than they actually do. If you get to a point where you can call the bluff, where you can call a bully or dictator out either because you can “take the hit” or because you are convinced that they won’t follow through, that risky move could destroy the threat at its core: the ability to intimidate. [E7]

7) Undermine their Objectives

Most of the time, people who perpetrate violence do so in order to get something out of their victims. If you can figure out what this and make it clear that the perpetrator won’t get it, you have a good chance of demotivating them completely. For example, you may choose not to carry around money, so that people won’t have anything to steal from you. Or you may choose never to know the information that people would want to torture you in order to acquire. This can be extremely for individuals facing aggression, but it is powerful for communities that act in solidarity. If it becomes known that a community doesn’t negotiate with terrorists or in other ways, doesn’t give attackers the satisfaction they want, they’ll eventually learn that their threats are pointless.

8) Offer Nonviolent Resolutions

The vast majority of people who commit acts of violence don’t do it out of the sheer pleasure of hurting others. Instead, there is a deeper pain or desire that is driving the violence, and pacifists should always try to understand what this is before deciding how to respond. As Americans, we are surprisingly bad at this. We write our enemies off as “bad people” who act violently because it is inherent to their nature or religion or whatever, and pre-emptively eliminate the possibility of finding other solutions. But a pacifist should always seek to understand, for in doing so they may be able to come up with a solution for meeting the attacker’s needs that doesn’t compromise anyone’s integrity.

Listen to me carefully: I’m not suggesting that all people who commit violence are tragically misunderstood, and that aggressors will listen calmly to alternative proposals and say, “Why yes! I’m so glad you suggested that!” However, this method can be combined with other methods to compel aggressors to take nonviolent paths. For example, if we make it exhausting for them to achieve their goals through #4 and we undermine their objectives through #7, they may be open to considering alternative solutions.

9) Exploit their Paranoia and Exhaustion

The truth is that those who live by the sword have a heavy burden to carry. They know that people cooperate with them only to the extent that they fear them, so they always have to be looking over their shoulders They always have to stay at the top of their game. They must always remain suspicious even of their friends and allies, knowing they could at any moment go from watching their back to stabbing it. In short, the life of violence is exhausting.

There are several ways for pacifists to “exploit” this. When a dictator gets too paranoid, pacifists can reach out to their generals and bodyguards, urging them to defect by pointing out that they could become the victims of their leader’s paranoia. Or you can appeal to the aggressors themselves: even terrorists and members of hate groups have been known to turn themselves in out of exhaustion. Who are they most likely to turn to? Pacifists whom they know will not kill them out of retribution for their former lifestyles.

10) Humanize their Victims

I have avoided listing this option until the very end. I didn’t want to say it before, because it would feed into the stereotype that pacifists are naïve moralists who believe we can appeal to the hearts of even the most violent aggressors and convince them not to hurt their victims. We are well aware that in most cases, you can’t say a flowery speech or make a heartfelt appeal that would turn someone away from violence. That being said, we would be naïve to ignore the fact that human appeal is and can be a powerful tool for undermining violence.

Human beings have a deep instinct that tells us that we shouldn’t kill other humans. [E8] Professional and guerilla militaries around the world know this, and so they train their warriors not to think of their victims as human beings, but as foreigners, infidels, monsters, or “bad guys.” Propaganda is essential to creating a violent force, because our instinct not to kill other humans is so strong that it can inhibit our actions, even in the most intense of circumstances. [E9] Therefore, one of the most powerful tools for undermining violence is to humanize victims: to create friendships across enemy lines, to tell stories of love and family to our enemies, to force the perpetrators of violence to see what they are doing to people, etc. This has been known to deter rapists, to convert terrorist, and to cause the military leaders of dictatorships to back down or defect. It isn’t the only option pacifists have at our disposal, but it should not be ignored either.

Conclusion

So there you have it: a list of ten nonviolent ways to oppose even the most violent of aggressors without getting caught in the web of violence yourself. Can I guarantee that some combination of these tools could stop any possible threat? No, I can’t. But remember, gun owners, police officers, and military generals can’t guarantee that their methods will work to stop evil either. We all have to do the best we can with what we’ve got. But when we consider how ineffective violence is in the long-run, how it produces short-term results but almost always backfires, and when we consider how many other options there are for opposing evil – options which could be just as powerful if we really invested in them – then being a pacifist doesn’t seem so idealistic after all.


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Endnotes

[E1] It is appropriate to criticize words or actions that are harmful, even when you don’t have a better alternative of how to accomplish whatever goal those actions were set out to accomplish. However, we should always be moving toward solutions-based thinking.

[E2] In his influential book From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp offers a list of 198 methods of nonviolent action that people who want to engage in nonviolent resistance to dictators can consider. I wouldn’t personally endorse every method on that list, but I mention it just to give you a sense of how much I am really just skimming the surface on nonviolent thinking.

[E3] Part of the reason that I have to say this is because many of you will immediately think, “Well that wouldn’t work” in response to many of these suggestions. That skepticism is understandable, but it becomes obnoxious when it is followed by a series of “What if” critiques. “What if the attacker is a martial arts master? What if they manufacture their own weapons from scratch? What if they feed off of the negative pressure put on them?” etc. Pacifists know that we can never win a debate in which we have to explain how pacifism can defeat a hypothetical villain who evolves to adapt to every proposal we make. Consequently, I am not going to defend any of these suggestions against hypothetical criticisms, but I would be happy to discuss or analyzes cases in which they have succeed or failed in actual situations, or in situations in which people are trying to decide whether to use them.

[E4] Compared to other species, human bodies aren’t all that intimidating. We don’t have sharp teeth or claws, scales or skin that protects us from attacks, or the ability to spray poison at the things that threaten us. What has made us powerful (and threatening) as a species is our ability to make tools and our ability to communicate. Despite the fact that there are some 7’ tall muscle men who have learned martial arts, it is ultimately our tools (weapons) and communication (with allies) that makes people threatening today.

[E5] My pacifist friends might be surprised that I start by recommending “disarming” someone, which has a ring of violence to it, instead of the methods we are really passionate about: communicating, compromising, educating, addressing the systemic injustices that spark violence in the first place, etc. In response, I’d like to say that this is a pedagogical choice. People who oppose pacifism are usually fixated on how to respond in the immediate situation, with less interest in the long term. And – to be fair – pacifists aren’t always very good about responding to concerns about how to respond to immediate threats.

There are exceptions, though. For this one, I was inspired to some degree by an interesting development in the Mennonite Church – something called “Mennonite Martial Arts.” Ultimately, its advocates have argued that 90% of martial arts is not about violence but empowerment, and that there are ways to learn how to protect yourself without throwing a punch at the end.

[E6] For more on this, I’d recommend the book From Dictatorship to Democracy by Gene Sharp.

[E7] By the way, this is one way for Christians to think about the atonement. Christ defeated the powers of evil in this world by offering himself to them, letting them “do their worst,” and proving them to be impotent in the face of the power of God. Consider Colossians 2:15, “[Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

[E8] Yes, there are exceptions like psychopaths and sociopaths. In these very rare cases, it would be pointless to use the “Humanize their Victims” method and we must rely instead on others.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

How to Actually Make a Difference


Once again, I have to apologize for not being a faithful blogger. Six months ago, I was working on a series on pacifism, and then life happened... I haven't had a chance to get back to blogging until now. I intend to pick that pacifism series back up in the next few days. But before that, I want to address an issue that is a little more timely and in some ways overshadows it [E1]: how do you make a difference in the world?

Of course, there are many ways to make a difference, [E2] but I am asking specifically how you can fight against the deep, systemic problems in our society, such as racism, inequality, and the climate crisis. Despite the fact that many people agree that these – along with other issues – are major problems, we can’t seem to uproot them. Part of the problem is that we don’t know how to uproot them. Whenever we try to make a difference, there are people who argue that our efforts are pointless, ineffective, and naïve.

For example, SNL recently did a sketch making fun of people who share articles on Facebook and count it as activism. [E3] Fair enough, but it raises the question, what would SNL prefer for those people to be doing? Perhaps the answer is to have them “hit the streets.” We have all been inspired by the protests and marches of the Civil Rights era, so perhaps that is what real activism looks like. [E4] But marching has been done so often over so many issues in the last year, that some argue that it has become nothing more than an act of self-expression. [E5] So what’s a better alternative: should we write our legislators? Nah, in most cases the letters don’t even reach them. [E6] Perhaps the key is voting, so that you can put people in office who listen to you? But there are several people out there who claim that your vote doesn’t matter. [E7] So where does that leave us? What can we do that would actually make a difference?

The problem with that question is that it gets us looking for a single deed that we can do that will make a difference, an activity that you participate in, after which you can step back and say, “Wow, I changed the world!” [E8] But the reality is that society is complex, and in order to change it, we have to be willing to engage in complex ways. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, but I would argue that there are five key elements to really making a difference. If we just do one or two of them in isolation, they won’t be effective at bringing about change, but when combined, they almost certainly make an impact.


1) We Must Change Our Thinking

Beliefs matter. The way that we think about issues shapes the way that we respond to them. As long as people continue to believe various myths about society – for example, that wages are low in the United States because immigrants are taking “American” jobs or that African-Americans are imprisoned at a higher rate than whites because they are more prone to criminality – as long as these kinds of myths exist, nothing will change. So we have to do the work of educating ourselves, of unlearning destructive myths that we have internalized and of learning new ways to think about the world. This comes from reading books and articles, listening to people who are marginalized, engaging in difficult conversations, and carefully studying and fact-checking controversial claims.

In Isolation: As is true for all of these strategies, there is a danger in changing our thinking if it is done in isolation from these other actions: that thinking might become a substitute for speaking and acting. There are some people who feel that they can’t engage social issues until they “have it all figured out first,” but the problem is that they never get to the point where they feel satisfied enough with their knowledge to act. You have to learn as you go, doing this alongside of the other steps that are necessary to bring about change. [E9]

2) We Must Change Our Lifestyles

Progressives have a tendency to blame elites for all of the problems we have in our society. They point the finger at corrupt politicians and business executives who put profits over people, etc. Certainly, elites bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility, but their power depends entirely on the complicity of the everyday choices that average Americans make every day. If we really want to make a difference, we have to be willing to make that difference in our own lives: such as refusing to buy products that may have been produced by forced labor, avoiding the kind of wastefulness that ruins the environment, paying attention to our own prejudice and correcting our tendencies to discriminate, etc. We must be willing to live into the new realities we are demanding. We must be the change we want to see in the world. [E10]


In Isolation: Conservatives have a tendency to argue that personal changes by themselves should bring about change, and that if we want to address climate change or income inequality, we should do it solely within the boundaries of the free market. But this reasoning fails to understand how powerful forces in society influence individual decisions, often coercing them to make choices that are destructive to everyone. Tackling big issues shouldn’t be an “either-or” between personal changes and public advocacy but a “both-and.”

3) We Must Speak Up

The myths and narratives that justify injustice flow through society like blood flows through the veins. They are the default mode of thinking. Systems and institutions have been built around them. Most people accept them without thinking. In order to make any kind of difference, you have to speak out against them. You have to find platforms on which you can be heard and be willing to ruffle some feathers. This is where marches and protests can be really valuable. Protesting, when done correctly, is a way of calling attention to an injustice. The best protests are those that expose the evils they are fighting against. [E11] But “speaking up” takes other forms as well. It can come in the form of Facebook posts or personal conversations with friends and loved ones. Whatever gets the message out there, whatever challenges the dominant narrative, is worth saying and doing.

In Isolation: When speaking up is not rooted in fresh thinking and when it is not followed by action, then it becomes background noise. Anyone who speaks up in any form will be called to account for their own integrity, so it’s essential to be connected in other ways as well.

4) We Must Organize

In order to move from speaking to acting, you have to work together with other people. Politicians and business executives have neither the time nor the interest in listening to every single complaint, but once you reach a critical mass of people who all agree that a certain change is needed, then they have to pay attention. How do you do this? You organize. You find out who else is working for change in your community, and you brainstorm together about what you can do. This is hard work. It requires the initiative to go out in find people whom you didn’t know or work with before. It requires the commitment of meeting together and working out a plan. It requires compromise in order to honor everyone’s values. But if you do this work, then you’ll find yourself emboldened to take on the powers that be, now that you are not just an individual but part of a community.

In Isolation: Done in isolation, organizing will naturally draw people into the grooves that are already dug deeply in our society. In the United States, our two-party system really pressures people to buy into either-or thinking: there’s a liberal way and a conservative way, you’re a Republican or a Democrat. And if we fall into that, we won’t change the system. We’ll end up reinforcing it. We need to change our thinking, change our lifestyles, and engage new voices that are speaking out to bring about real and substantive change.

5) We Must Follow Through

If you do the work of organizing, a plan of action will naturally emerge. New policies will be proposed, new responsibilities will be assigned, and everyone’s help will be needed. This can be very exciting – at first. But it’s hard to keep up the momentum over time. It takes discipline to follow through on what you agreed to do, but this is the final step in bringing about change.

In Isolation: There are people who are very good about following through because they have developed habits: they always vote, they always contact their representatives, they always engage in certain ways, etc. But the system is clever enough that it can co-opt any of our habits and use it for its own good if we are not vigilant. For example, if you always vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate at every election, then there is no accountability for that person. Candidates will eventually start running under those labels without honoring the principles of those parties because they know they have your unquestioning support. Without the other four elements, even your political faithfulness can be undermined.

In Conclusion…

Any one of these strategies, when done in isolation, is not likely to make a dent in the system. But when these five elements are combined, then you will make a difference. Guaranteed. You may not win every political battle, but even in losing, your actions make ripples: you push the conversation in the right direction, set boundaries for how far destructive forces can go, and create precedents that pave the way for future generations to finish the work. So if someone tries to tell you that something you are doing is a waste of time, respond by saying this: “If this was all I was doing, then you would be right. My words and actions by themselves are as light as a straw. But when combined with all of the other ways I am engaging, this very act could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.


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End Notes

[E1] It has been hard for me to talk about nonviolence in the Trump era, not because I have stopped believing in it, but because it is a negation of action, an insistence not to be violent, at a time when action of some kind is needed. So I felt compelled to write this article first, as a way of jumping back into the conversations.

[E2] In a broader sense, nearly everything we do makes a difference. If you make someone smile or hurt their feelings, if you paint a picture or watch a YouTube video, if you work hard and make innovations or stay at home and live as simply as possible, all of these have impacts on our society. But these aren’t kind of actions that change the rules of the game, the fault lines along which we all live our lives.

[E4] This is a largely result of public education. Due to the emphasis that many schools place on Black History Month, students get a very small dose of black history, which usually focuses on a few key themes such as the freedom riders, Martin Luther King Jr., sit-ins, and the March on Washington. That’s better than nothing, but rarely do public schools spend time studying these changes extensively (in the way that we study the Revolutionary War, for example), and this results in an understanding of activism that is superficial at best. That’s how you get things like the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad: with a superficial image of activism. If you look more carefully, you’ll find that all five of the elements I list here were brilliantly engaged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with several other groups that don’t get as much attention in public schools.

[E5] Here is one of several recent criticisms of the Women’s March: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/womens-march-washington-pointless-protest-middle-class-feminists-1599470 I tend to sympathize with this article, but I wouldn’t put all marches in the same light. The Black Lives Matter marches have been specific, focused on a certain goal, and paired with specific policy objectives (https://www.joincampaignzero.org/#vision). This has been, in my opinion, a very effective and appropriate use of protest. On the opposite extreme, the protest at UC-Berkeley against Milo Yiannopoulos was counter-productive, as it ended up expanding his platform. The point: protests must be connected to a bigger response if they are intended to be effective rather than therapeutic. 


[E7] http://www.vox.com/2014/11/4/7156149/voting-case-against-political-scientis  I have some nuanced ideas about voting myself, but not quite along these lines. I’ll save that for another time.

[E8] Let me qualify this: Whenever you participate in a political activity that is orchestrated by some group, that group will do everything in its power to make you feel like you did something that mattered. If you voted, you get to wear a sticker. If you attended a rally, the leaders will credit you with a policy change, etc. There’s some value to celebrating these things as minor victories, but take it with a grain of salt when people tell you that any single act changed the world.

[E9] Or, on the opposite extreme, there are people who feel “enlightened” after they have read a few books or articles, and they begin claiming that they are “allies” or advocates of justice just because their views have changed. Although this is the opposite of always needing more information in some ways, they both share the same mistake: they let preoccupation with thought substitute for meaningful action.

[E10] That last line came from Gandhi, not me.

[E11] This reveals one of the differences between the Civil Rights protest and modern attempts to imitate them. Sit-ins were a particularly effective tool because they exposed how hateful those policies were. People could argue that they were just about business rights or a separate but equal segregation until they saw crowds attacking people or police forcibly removing people from doing nothing more but sitting down. The power in that was that it exposed evil. I’m not convinced that the die-ins that some people do today, which were modeled after sit-ins, have the same effect. They are a dramatic gesture, but they don’t necessarily reveal or expose anything about the people whom they are targeting. (Feel free to push back on this.)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

How I Intend to Approach the Trump Presidency

In a week or two, I hope to resume my blog series on pacifism. But before I can do so, I feel compelled to address a major event that has happened since the last time I posted: the election of Donald Trump. Never in my life have I seen an American political candidate as disturbing and dangerous as Trump. His disregard for basic democratic conventions, his lack of decency and restraint, and shameless self-promotion should be enough for anyone – Republican or Democrat – to be alarmed by him. With these concerns (and others) in mind, I bit the bullet and voted against him in the presidential election. [E1] But, as you know, the election went in his favor anyway. Now I find myself among the millions of Americans who are struggling to accept the fact that Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States.

So now what? How should I approach the Trump presidency? For weeks, I have felt quite conflicted about this, because two different types of strategies for responding to a Trump presidency seem to be emerging, but they seem to run at cross purposes with each other. Let me describe each of them briefly.

First, there is unilateral opposition. Some people are calling for total opposition to Trump in everything he does. [E2] They argue that if Trump gains any victories (for example, if his administration creates an alternative health care system to ACA), then this would lend legitimacy to his presidency, which would in turn give him more power to do harm. One of the advantages of this approach is that it (theoretically) unifies all Trump opponents under one umbrella and galvanizes the opposition. On the other hand, there is little reason to believe that this will be effective in stopping Trump from achieving his agenda, at least at first. In addition to the presidency, Trump has the control over a Republican House and Senate, which gives him all the political power he needs to accomplish his agenda, despite a fierce opposition. Furthermore, all efforts at stopping Trump via blatant condemnation thus far – whether by his primary opponents, Hillary Clinton, or the nearly unified media critique of him – have failed. This is not to say that there is no benefit to opposing Trump even without congressional backing. I am just noting that this does not seem to be as effective as the second option. Additionally, unilateral opposition is the same approach that many Republicans used against President Obama, which opens those who use it up to criticisms of hypocrisy and obstructionism.

The second option is strategic conciliation. Seeing futility in opposing Trump head on, some people are calling for those who opposed Trump in the election to suck it up, accept the legitimacy of his presidency, and to work with the President-Elect, not against him. [E3] This may sound like a defeatist approach, but for some, it is just a shift in strategy. There is a convincing argument that the best way to deal with Trump is to manipulate him through praise rather than opposition. [E4] How’s that? More than anything else, Donald Trump craves affirmation and approval. Consequently, those who would like to manipulate Trump can dangle praise in front of him like a carrot in front of a horse, and there’s a good chance that he’ll do whatever we want to achieve that praise.

Of course, there are downsides to this too. For one, any praise of Trump – especially coming from his former opponents – further legitimizes and normalizes everything that he has said and done up to this point. For example, for President Obama to tell Americans to accept Trump as the next president sends a message to women that sexual abuse is not a serious enough offense that it should not prevent male abusers from gaining positions of authority. After all, even President Obama accepted Trump’s authority after Trump publicly bragged about touching women in appropriately. This is the price of strategic conciliation. It is a kind of betrayal to those whom Trump has stepped on in order to gain power. Furthermore, conciliation may achieve short-term goals, but it weakens the resolve of the opposition in the long run. In order to successfully cater to Trump’s ego, advocates of this approach will have to pick their battles carefully, bite their tongues in the face of “minor” injustices, and decide which issues are the most important when Trump attacks on several fronts.

As you can see, there are major problems with both of these approaches. For Christians, this tension is exacerbated by the fact that there are religious reasons that may cause us to avoid each of these approaches as well. Strategic conciliation has been a strategy for thousands of years, and the Bible typically describes it as a lack of faith in God. The Israelites were instructed not to turn to powerful nations like Egypt for help in times of crisis because these empires engaged in evil and turning to them revealed a lack of faith in God. [E5] Similarly, if Christians decide to “work with” Donald Trump because we are afraid of what could happen if we oppose him, we too reveal our lack of faith in God to save. Moreover, partnering with the Trump administration can be fairly described as “yoking ourselves with unbelievers,” which can seriously damage our witness to Christ, not to mention our personal integrity. [E6] So that would suggest that strategic conciliation is not a Christian option.

On the other hand, the Bible also seems to condemn unilateral opposition. After all, the gospel is a message of reconciliation: we are to seek peace with everyone, even our enemies. [E7] Or consider this: if we make a decision that we can never forgive Trump no matter what he says or does henceforth, how can we expect God to forgive us? [E8]

These are complicated issues, and I do not want to pretend to have all of the answers. However, I would like to explain how I am drawing from Scripture to navigate through this, and I have one concept in particular that I would offer anyone – but especially Christians – who are looking for guidance. Mennonites refer to it as binding and loosing. [E9]

Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible does not tell Christians that we should offer forgiveness and reconciliation to everyone unconditionally. Jesus did teach his followers that we have to be willing to forgive limitlessly – no matter how many times a person sin’s against you, you have to be prepared to forgive them. But limitlessly is not the same as unconditionally. There is still a condition that people must meet before we offer them forgiveness: they must sincerely and genuinely repent of what they have done wrong. [E10] If someone does not repent, then it would not be appropriate to forgive them, for they will continue to inflict harm In fact, there are specific Biblical instructions about how to handle unrepentant people [E11].

Binding and loosing is something that I wish Mike Pence and Franklin Graham had understood a little better when they encouraged their supporters to forgive Donald Trump for his recorded comment about assaulting women. [E12] Yes, Donald Trump said the words, “I’m sorry,” and yes, Christians should be prepared to forgive even sexual abusers for their sins, but there is little reason to believe that Trump’s apology was sincere. [E13] In this case, white evangelicals “loosed” when they should have “bound.” Yes, we should be prepared to offer forgiveness, but we should also be prepared to insist on repentance, and that is where the challenge lies.

Both the approach of unilateral opposition and that of strategic conciliation are extreme positions that recommend a singular response to Trump’s presidency. However, the concept of binding and loosing suggests that we must be prepared to judge everything Trump does on a case-by-case basis, neither refusing to hear him out nor catering to his ego. These are the guidelines I have created for myself to help me decide when to “bind” and when to “loose” in dealing with a Trump administration.

5 Personal Guidelines for "Binding and Loosing" the Trump Administration


1. Criticize actions, but not motives. When we accuse Trump or his supporters of being a racist, or acting out of greed, or being “evil,” these accusations put them on the defense. Although I think it’s quite possible that these motives are at play, we must remember the teaching of Scripture: [Humans judge by] outward appearances, but the Lord judges by the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7). We don’t know the inner thoughts of Donald Trump, and frankly, it’s not our job to point them out. However, we can explain how his actions have harmed people or could potentially harm people, and we should certainly not back away from making action-oriented judgments and criticisms. [E14]

2. Allow Trump to save face, but don’t resort to false praise or withholding criticism. In order to be effective with a narcissist like Trump, savvy politicians have to create win-win petitions, proposals, and even protests. A petition that says, “Tell President Trump to STOP ---“ is not likely to get very far, but one that says, “Let President Trump know that --- is hurting ---.”could be more effective.

Although this kind of delicacy becomes especially important when dealing with someone who has a fragile ego, it is really a better way for humans to interact in any setting. Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making demands, especially insofar as “demands” can be empowering for marginalized people because they don’t frame the conversation in a dependent framework. However, I think it’s generally preferable to seek language that doesn’t identify any individual as a bad guy, but gives even oppressors an opportunity to partner with the good. After all, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities…” (Ephesians 6:12)

On the other hand, we must be very careful not to swing to the other extreme, by offering false praise or withholding needed criticism, because to do this would be a betrayal of those whom Trump has harmed in order to gain power.

3. Be willing to compromise, but be clear about what the lines that I can’t cross. At this stage, I do not think it is inappropriate to compromise with the Trump administration. [E15] After all, democracy works via compromise, and those who are opposed to Trump should be prepared to accept certain policy arrangements and decisions that are less than ideal if it helps move things forward and/or benefits people in the long run.

However, it is very risky to take on this posture of compromise unless you know what lines you are unwilling to cross. For example, I am open to a number of different ways in which immigration can be managed (even though I am an advocate of Open Immigration), but I would never approve of religious tests or any other kind of tests that prohibit people from immigrating here on the basis of their involvement in a minority group.

4. Be prepared to lose all “conciliatory” leverage if a moral line is crossed. If you are going to play the emotional game with Donald Trump and is supporters, it will be tempting to remain silent or even support the Trump Administration inappropriately in order to hang onto that leverage. Consequently, you must regularly recommit yourself to sacrificing all of your leverage and all of your “respectability” if it becomes necessary to do so in order to defend a non-negotiable.

5. Act respectful, but don’t tell marginalized people that they have an obligation to do the same. I intend to speak of Donald Trump in respectful terms, referring to him as “President Trump” and refraining from participating in memes, insults, and caricatures that degrade him. I do this, not because he has earned my respect or even because the office of the presidency merits it, but because he is a child of God. However – and this is important – while I will choose to respect Trump in the way that I talk about it, I refuse to “police” other people by demanding that they show the same respect for him, especially not people in the minority groups who are the most harmed by his words and actions. I refuse to tell minorities to “take the higher road” in face of a Pseudo-Christian President who himself refuses to take the higher road, unless they are people who specifically ask for my advice or for whom I have responsibility to look after due to their voluntary commitment to my specific Christian community. On the contrary, I will seek to lift up these voices – even if they frame their critiques in crude or distasteful language – because these are the people whom God specifically asks us to defend throughout the Bible.  [E16]

***

[E1] I say that I “bit the bullet,” because I have conscientiously abstained from voting in the presidential race for all of my life up to this point. The reasons for this are complex, and my thinking about voting in general has gone through many twists and turns over the years, but suffice it to say that a pacifist rarely finds anyone whom he or she can vote for in good conscience in the political race. I ended up voting for Hillary Clinton, not because I am particularly fond of her, but because she seems to represent the status quo, which is significantly better than the step in the wrong direction that Trump represents. I do not believe I would have voted in the presidential race if any other Republican candidate had succeeded against Trump.

[E2] Michael Moore is an especially vocal example of this approach (See https://www.facebook.com/mmflint/posts/10153913074756857), but I have heard it expressed at a number of different levels.

[E3] President Obama and Hillary Clinton are among the leading voices who have encouraged Trump opponents to “work together with Trump” and “give him a chance to lead.” http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/11/09/us-election-day-after_n_12890118.html

[E5] cf. Isaiah 31:1-3

[E6] cf. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18

[E7] cf. Romans 12:14-20

[E8] cf. Matthew 6:14-15

[E9] The phrase “binding and loosing” originates from Jesus’ famous response to Peter’s proclamation identifying Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus said, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:19). Catholics famously claim this verse as the proof-text for the legitimacy of the papacy, but Mennonites believe that this tremendous authority to “bind and loose” was given to Peter, but was given through Peter to the entire church community. This is confirmed by the fact that Jesus uses it again to his entire group of disciples in Matt 18:18.

What does it mean? The phrase is most closely identified with granting or withholding forgiveness. However, the forgiveness it has in mind is not a “get-out-of-jail-free card” that keeps people from going to hell. No, forgiveness in this context refers to the complete restoration of an individual into the community of the people of God. Jesus’ followers have the awesome authority to expunge sins and crimes from peoples’ records and treat them as if they had never done such things in the first place. That is not something that should be given out lightly.

But I would argue that this is only an aspect of the total authority of “binding and loosing.” In a broader sense, binding and loosing means that we must draw the lines between justice and mercy. We collectively have the power to say to a person, “We recognize that you made a mistake, and while should lead to certain standards, we are going to ‘loose’ the standards in this case because God is a God of mercy and forgiveness.” We also have the power to say, “I’m sorry, I realize that you want to ignore what happened, but we cannot allow that until we see certain changes. We are going to ‘bind together’ in our resolve in order to protect the innocent.”

[E10] Cf. Luke 17:3-4. Note: Not even God offers forgiveness if there is not first repentance – cf. Acts 2:37-38.

[E11] Cf. Matthew 18:15-18. Notice the repetition of binding and loosing.

[E13] Given the circumstances, Trump had every incentive to offer an apology, whether or not it was sincere. In some cases, we ought to give people the benefit of the doubt, but people in power “should be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1). Besides this, the fact that Trump sought to minimize/defend his action be describing it as “locker room talk” indicates that he does not accept the gravity of his sin, which is a key aspect of genuine repentance. In this case, I would also - as a church leader – expect Trump to make some degree of restitution, and we don’t see evidence of that either.

[E14] This is hard for some of us to accept because Americans tend to assume that an action is moral or immoral based on whether it was done with good or evil intentions. But this is an assumption that is not Biblical and which I believe we need to drop. People can do evil things without intending to, and while our intentions matter, they are not the only thing that matters.


[E15] I do realize that there comes a certain point at which any cooperation with a dictatorship is inappropriate, but to suggest that the Trump administration has crossed that line before it has even gotten started seems misguided to me.

[E16] Cf. Proverbs 31:8-9, Jeremiah 22:1-3, Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Case for Pacifism: A Christian Understanding of Power (5 of 7)

This is the fifth part in a seven-part series about pacifism. Click here to go back to the first post.

On the whole, this blog series is designed to be an evidence-based case for nonviolence. But as I explained in my last post, our beliefs peace and violence are not only shaped by evidence and experience, but also by deep assumptions that we make about power. Therefore, in this post, I am going to present an alternative understanding of power through an Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture. [E1] I realize that this kind of abstract and religiously loaded post risks alienating several of my readers, but I believe, as Thomas Merton said, that “the fully consistent practice of nonviolence demands a solid metaphysical basis both in being and in God.” Christianity is not the only religion that can provide a metaphysical basis for nonviolence – Gandhi was able to find similar resources in Hinduism, for example – but even if you are not a Christian, I think it is valuable to consider the religious and metaphysical beliefs which shape our everyday feelings about peace and violence.

One of the classic attributes of God, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, is that God is all-powerful. As the One who created and sustained the world, God is the source of all being and all power. On the one hand, this is an inspiring and reassuring doctrine. But on the other hand, the very recognition of God’s power has led to some of the profoundest doubts and most painful feelings of abandonment for Jewish and Christian people. [E2] We wonder: if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t God intervene more? Where is God in the midst of all of the evil that occurs in the world? For the ancient Jews, this question came up the most frequently in the context of their national crises: [E3] “How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? Is the enemy to revile your name forever? Why do you hold back your hand? Why do you keep your hand in your bosom?” This is one of the most pervasive themes – if not the most pervasive theme – in the Older Testament.

God heard these laments and prayers of the people and responded by promising to send a powerful figure to rescue them: the Messiah. [E4] As God’s representative on earth, this Messiah would be an extremely powerful person. The prophets proclaimed that “authority would rest on his shoulders,” and “a stream of fire would issue from his presence.” He would be “triumphant and victorious,” and to him “would be given dominion and glory and kingship.” [E5] But that’s not all the Messiah would do. Although the people only prayed for God to liberate them from their oppressors, this would be “too small a thing” for God’s Messiah. Going further, the Messiah's reign wouldn’t be limited to Israel, but his “dominion shall be from sea to sea,” so that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” He would “establish [God’s kingdom] and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” [E6]

With such a powerful description of a political leader embedded in Israel’s Scriptures, it should not surprise us that many aspiring politicians in Israel claimed that these prophecies applied to them. We know of several military leaders who claimed to be God’s Messiah in order to recruit more people to fight against the Greeks or the Romans. [E7] Most of these aspiring Messiahs were defeated and killed. Even among those who were relatively successful, they couldn’t live up to the bold promises of a Messiah who would create a global and eternal kingdom.

Now here’s the crazy part – are you ready? In the first century, a group of Jews started claiming that their leader was the Messiah after he had been killed. Of course, I am talking about the followers of Jesus. Perhaps this does not shock you, but it should. In order to understand the New Testament, it’s important for us to recognize how audacious this claim was.

It was very clear in the Older Testament that the Messiah would be a national savior who would defeat Israel’s political enemies and restore independence to the people of God. So the question people had to ask when presented with the idea that Jesus was the Messiah was this: did Jesus accomplish these political tasks? For most people, the answer is, “Obviously not.” In the first century, the main reason why many of the Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah was because the Roman Empire still seemed to be in control after Jesus left the earth. Clearly, he had not obtained political liberation. Unfortunately, some Christians agreed with them. They acknowledged that Jesus did not achieve national/political victory, so they radically redefined the Messiah’s job description in the Older Testament to make it look like God only promised to send a spiritual Messiah, not a political one. [E8]

But the earliest Christians made the counter-intuitive claim that Jesus actually succeeded as the political Messiah as well, and I agree with them. I believe that Jesus literally restored independence to the people of God and defeated Israel’s enemies. If you know anything about Roman history, that probably sounds bizarre to you, given the way that the Romans decimated Israel in the century following Jesus’ life. Even so, I would insist that it is true, and that the reason that we can’t see it is because we reading history with a biased lens. Let’s consider each of these two main claims.

Did Jesus restore the people of God as an independent nation? – One way to interpret Jesus’ earthly ministry is that he was doing the work of nation-building. He went around telling people that the kingdom of God was near and recruiting them to “join” it. Once people joined his kingdom, they were expected to swear allegiance to Jesus and not to Caesar. Jesus gave this community his own laws and policies that were designed to govern their society, and he appointed leaders who had very specific instructions as to how to expand it. [E9] His teachings and ministry were not just a miscellaneous set of good things he did and said: Jesus was systematically creating a political community (the church) within Israel that was independent from Roman rule, and he did it without ever engaging in battle. [E10] Unfortunately, later down the road, the church got pretty entangled with the state, but it always remained a separate institution, one which Jesus founded. If you can accept this claim – that the church is actually an alternative political society – then you can see that Jesus fulfilled even the most ambitious Messianic prophecies: Today, this “kingdom” extends from sea to sea, claiming nearly a third of the earth’s population in its membership, and it has reigned unbroken for 2,000 years.

Did Jesus defeat Israel’s political enemies? Taking a broad historical view, you can make the claim that Jesus’ “political campaign” did, in the end, defeat the Jews’ political enemies – the pagan Romans. While it’s true that the Romans continued to control Israel immediately after Jesus ascended, Jesus delivered the fatal blow to their dominance while he was still on earth. He took their strongest weapon – the threat of a humiliating death through crucifixion – and showed that it was powerless to stop him. By doing this, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” In other words, he demonstrated to his followers that the violence power of the Roman Empire was actually quite weak. Violence doesn’t have any positive power at all. Its only power is the ability to scare people into cooperating with its own wishes. However, once we decide to stop giving into to those threats, violence itself becomes impotent.

Emboldened by this insight, Jesus’ disciples continued to make converts and extend Jesus’ kingdom, despite great resistance by the Roman Empire. The Romans at first ignored the Christian movement, and then they persecuted it with increasing degrees of severity, but their attempts to threaten or kill off Christianity didn’t work at all. On the contrary, this spiritual-political movement seemed to grow with each martyrdom. This came to a head at the beginning of the fourth century, when the Emperor issued an empire-wide ban on Christianity and Christian leaders were hunted down and killed. But after about 10 years of exhausting itself by trying to extinguish Christianity, the Roman Empire eventually submitted to the kingdom of God. [E11] Hence, one could claim that Christianity conquered the (pagan) Roman Empire without engaging a single military battle. Therefore, Jesus did what the Messiah was supposed to do: he led a movement that defeated the enemies of the people of God.

Christians believe that Jesus is the revelation of God: he reveals who God is and what God is like. They also believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the powerful one who was sent to redeem the people of Israel. If both of these claims are true and Jesus embodied the power of God, then it follows that God’s power is not violent. The Israelites of the first century and Christians today expect God to rescue us by a show of force. We look for salvation among rulers and generals because we don’t understand what the power that created and sustains the universe is really like. But Jesus showed us in his life, his death, his resurrection, and his victory that that peace is more powerful than violence, love is stronger than fear, and life is greater than death.  That is the metaphysical basis for my pacifism.

***

End Notes

[E1] “Anabaptist” is the term that people used to describe some of the “radical reformers” in the sixteenth century at the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. The Mennonite Church, to which I belong, has its roots in the Anabaptist movement. However, I prefer the term Anabaptist to Mennonite here because Anabaptist refers to people who identify with that movement even if they are not associated with the Mennonite Church, such as Neo-Anabaptists.

I should also emphasize that this is an Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture, not the Anabaptist interpretation. There are many other Mennonite groups and other groups that wouldn’t read the Bible this way.

[E2] Of course, I am talking about the problem of evil, but I am not going to address that in its philosophical form in this post. However, you could extrapolate some of my comments on this post to get a window into how I understand the problem of evil. A big part of this issue is that we have a misguided idea of what it means to call God “all-powerful”.

[E3] Psalm 74:10-11. For other examples, see Psalm 44, 60, 79, 80, 85, Jeremiah 12, Ezekiel 19, the entire book of Lamentations, etc.

[E4] I am attempting here to give a very brief summary to the story of the Older Testament, and of course, there are many ways to challenge this. For example, one could rightly point out that the concept of the Messiah developed in the Scriptural canon: the earliest references just referred to David or another King of Israel, but by the time we get to Daniel, this figure has divine qualities. I see this diversity as a developing understanding of who God’s Messiah would be. But I realize that this discussion is complicated and needs to be nuanced, especially out of respect for the Jewish people who read the same Scriptures differently.

[E5] Isaiah 9:6, Daniel 7:10, Zechariah 9:9, Daniel 7:14

[E6] Isaiah 49:6, Zechariah 9:10, Daniel 7:14, Isaiah 9:7

[E7] Two of these “failed Messiahs” are mentioned in Acts 5:36-37

[E8] I believe that spiritual liberation and political liberation are interrelated. Unfortunately, this strategy of bifurcating the spiritual from the physical, which is often associated with the heresy of Gnosticism, has done untold damage to Christianity. Most Christians in the world today still believe that Jesus only came to be a spiritual Messiah, and they fail to appreciate the political implications of his work on earth.

[E9] There are plenty of Scriptures to back up each of these claims, but you also need a little historical/culture context to appreciate them. For example, Jesus' announcement about the kingdom of God is found in Mark 1:14-15 among other places, but context would reveal that not only the word' "kingdom" but even the word "good news" or "gospel" is politically loaded. There are several references to the powerful phrase, "Jesus is Lord" throughout the NT (e.g. Romans 10:9, Phil 2:11), but it is helpful to know that this phrase was a contrast to the common affirmation, "Caesar is Lord," and Christians were persecuted during the early part of the Roman Empire because they refused to say the latter. The political nature of his community was clear at many points, especially in texts like Luke 22:25-30, during which he finishes up his "ethical teaching" by reminding his disciples "I confer on you a kingdom." Even the fact that Jesus felt compelled to designate his disciples as apostles (Luke 6:13-16) reveals that he was thinking in structural terms about how to carry his movement forward.
[E10] A very important question for Biblical theologians is how the people of God in the Old Testament (Israel: the descendants of Abraham) relate to the people of God in the New Testament (the church: believers in Jesus). For a long time, theologians argued that the Jews failed as God’s people, and so God replaced Israel with the Church. This is called supersessionism, and it is a dangerous theology that has contributed to (if not caused) the persecution of Jews throughout the centuries.

I actually see an unbroken continuity between Israel and the Church. Jesus very intentionally recruited followers from within Israel first, and set them up as the leaders of this new community. Then, at his resurrection, he commissioned them to extend the boundaries of the Jewish community so that it would also include non-Jewish people. This, of course, was always the plan for the nation of Israel – going back to Abraham. So it’s not that the church is a “new Israel,” but we are a continuation of Israel, after it’s membership opened up considerably. This institutional continuity is attested by the fact that Christians still look to the Hebrew Scriptures as their own.

[E11] I am referring here to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, at which time the Roman Empire did not become Christian, but it stopped trying to persecute Christianity, recognizing it as the true way of God. This is a complicated historical claim, which deserves an entire post to itself, and it is actually an odd one for a Mennonite to make. Most progressive Mennonites view Constantine’s conversion as a sad moment in the history of Christianity, and here I am hailing it as victory.


As an Anabaptist, I do have major concerns about the way that the church started getting invested and involved in the running of the Roman Empire, but I don’t think that this happened immediately at Constantine’s conversion, and I believe that the ending of persecution was a good thing. There are plenty of examples of early Christian leaders who refused to cooperate with or submit to emperors in the first couple of centuries after Constantine’s conversion. My favorite story is about Ambrose, the pastor of Emperor Theodosius. Ambrose learned that the emperor massacred 7,000 people in Thessalonica and refused to let him participate in church until he repented for this action. And it worked! Theodosius repented and was careful not to act that way again. I believe that Mennonites today, who live in an Empire that more closely resembles post-Christian Rome than pre-Christian Rome, should spend more time studying the successes and failures of the Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries.