Nonviolence: Inside the Story

It would not be correct to begin a series like this without first giving you a glimpse of my journey into nonviolence.  This is not a subject that can be written about purely from the vantage point of an onlooker.

But at the same time, it would be wrong to give you the impression that I am anything other than a neophyte in comparison to others–something akin to Thomas Merton’s sense of being “a guilty bystander” when he wrote about nonviolence in the 1960’s.  However, the fact remains that I have a story which brings me to the present moment.  You have a right to know something of that story.

I grew up in West Texas during the civil rights’ era of the 1950’s and ’60’s.  Montgomery, Nashville, Little Rock, Birmingham, and Selma all unfolded before my eyes and left indelible impressions, some which were (at the time) only seeds which would grow and bear fruit later.  I realize this whenever I watch a documentary about that time in our nation’s history and sense how deeply the sights and sounds go into my mind and heart.

I did not experience the extreme violence of the civil rights era as so many others did.  But I did know and participated in another kind of racism, which I can only describe as “accepted racism”–a form of it in which whites and blacks cooperated in a discriminatory system.  It was so “accepted” that it simply appeared to be natural.  I understand Rosalynn Carter’s comment in a PBS interview, when she said that many of us grew up not realizing anything was wrong.

But something was wrong–terribly wrong.  And whether it took the form of violence or passivity, it was the same thing–the subjugation of one group of people by another group.  White supremacy and privilege was just as alive where I grew up as it was anywhere else.  And we all went along with it.

That is, until people like Martin Luther King Jr. called out our national sinfulness.  I devoured his early books (e.g. ‘Strength to Love’ and ‘Stride Toward Freedom’), seeing in his words and deeds a vision that simultaneously convicted me and compelled me.  It was an awakening for me, and before I graduated from high school, I had aligned my soul with the movement Dr. King and others were calling my generation to join.

It was a slower process for me to recognize that racism was/is a symptom of a deeper cause–an expression of the original sin (egotism in the individual and etnocentrism in the group)–the creating of a superior/inferior hierarchy in life that destroys the unity of the human family and does harm along the way.  Over time, I came to see that the subjugation of any person or group by another person or group is wrong.

Fast-forward to the present (which leaves a lot out of the picture), I am able to see through eyes taught by the earlier civil-rights era that we are going through another period of history when egotism/ethnocentrism (often called partisanship today) is once again at work in the society and church.  We are living at a time in history when the wrongs inflicted by a superior/inferior view must be challenged.  Nonviolent resistance is needed once again.

In the coming weeks, we will journey through a “mini school” of nonviolence.. As people like James Lawson taught in the 1950’s, it must begin by learning how the harm is done.  Only then can we understand the nature and practice of nonviolence.  Without a knowledge of how harm occurs,  nonviolence gets off on the wrong foot–becoming an emotional reaction to subjugation rather than a considered response to it.  I will follow Lawson’s pattern in these weekly posts.

I do this fully recognizing the small role I play in comparison to what others have said and done over the decades.  But I take counsel and comfort from John Lewis, who says repeatedly that in a time when subjugating voices speak so loudly, every voice for good (large or small) not only counts, but is necessary if things are ever going to change.

I offer the following posts in the hope that you might find encouragement and guidance in bearing witness to love, which is what the practice of nonviolence is ultimately all about.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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3 Responses to Nonviolence: Inside the Story

  1. David Brownlee says:

    Thank you for doing this Steve. I look forward to your weekly offerings. Grace and Peace, David

  2. John Powers says:

    Steve – Just a reflection, and one I’m sure your former students and colleagues will agree with – you have embodied nonviolence in your personal life and in your writing as much as anyone I know. I look forward to reading more from you on the subject.

  3. JEFF BLAKE says:

    What a good start and solid foundation for your upcoming words. I look forward to searching my own soul and considering the violence within. Grateful.

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