We have been lured into thinking that violence saves us. It’s what Jack Nelson Pallmeyer and Walter Wink call the myth or redemptive violence. If we fight a good war, then we will restore dignity and peace. But war only seems to make more enemies who need to fight violence with superior violence. We spend more on our militaries than the GPD of several countries. And it hasn’t seemed to make us safer. And yet we continue to sacrifice dollars and people on the altar of violence, thinking that it can save us.
Martin Luther King famously said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
When I graduated from college in 1983, my graduation speaker was Coretta Scott King. She was only fifteen years removed from her husband’s brutal murder. She spoke to our graduating class and challenged us to embrace nonviolence for a new generation. I called up the archivist of the University and she faxed me over a copy of her speech, including her hand-written notes in the margin.
She spoke about her husband’s work and the effectiveness of nonviolence. She gave is a little history lesson. She said “In 1957 nine young black students braved a vicious gauntlet of angry rock-throwing racists to integrate an all white school in Little Rock, Arkansas.” I understand that our book club is reading a memoir of one of those young women. She spoke of the thousands of people who went to jail for the cause of equality. She said, “The legacy of nonviolence transcends national boundaries and different races and religions, and it may yet provide the key to uniting the world for the common progress of all humanity.”
She made the distinction between passive resistance and active nonviolence. There is nothing passive about nonviolence. It is an active defiance of the world as it is and it is an embrace of a new world order, a new lifestyle of loving your enemies enough to change their hearts and minds. The only effective way to do this is through love, not violence.
“I know you’ve probably heard some radicals talk about “revolutionary violence.” But in truth “revolutionary violence” is a contradiction in terms. In essence, there’s nothing revolutionary about violence. Instead violence is business as usual. Violence always sows the seeds of bitterness, resentment and ultimately more violence. This has been going on for thousands of year and that’s why the people of our planet have never known lasting peace.
But nonviolence is the most revolutionary method for social change ever created. It is the most dangerous idea in the world—dangerous for those who profit by the militarization of our planet, and dangerous for those who have a vested interest in violence and exploitation.
Those who profit by oppressing humanity fear nonviolence more than any other force because their violence becomes impotent before organized, committed nonviolence. Gandhi said that using violence against nonviolence was like the man who keeps striking water with a sword. Eventually he becomes exhausted and his arm gets dislocated. Nonviolence is like psychological judo. At first it confuses violent adversaries because you are playing by a whole new set of rules. Then slowly it begins to disarm them. Eventually some of your opponents in struggle will be converted by the loving example you set by refusing to retaliate in violence.”
I wish I could tell you that this met with thunderous applause from all who gathered there. I certainly applauded, as did most of my classmates. What was most disheartening was the boos that came from some of the parents. People who had made their money, perhaps in the military industrial complex did not like having their day in the sun ruined by the likes of Coretta Scott King. But she stood proud and labored on—giving a loving message over the objections of a few rude parents. It made me listen to her even more intently.
This notion that nonviolence was an active thing and not a passive thing was being lived out right in front of me. I’ve often gone back to that speech and the dignity she portrayed as a model for courage and centeredness. You see, she was saying that when you are centered in God and God’s plan for peace in the world the chorus of boos will not dissuade you. It’s part of the psychological judo. They brought shame upon themselves, and may well have to reconsider their positions. We graduates needed to see that a speech could elicit passionate responses, even threats. This was real life, not just some intellectual exercise. We had to decide whether we would live our lives passively accepting the racism and violence of people or were we going to get active.
As I think about today’s scripture, I think of how Peter and the apostles were engaging in this kind of active resistance—this kind of psychological judo with the Sandhedrin—the Jewish council.
They knew that they were testing the limits of their authority when they preached the Gospel on Solomon’s Protico-a very public place on the Temple mount right under the noses of the government. The Sanhedrin was in a tough spot. The more they ignored them, the more their influence grew. So, they put them in prison. For what crime? Well probably for disturbing the peace or raising a ruckus or something else they trumped up. But going to jail for conscience was a judo move. It would only make the crowds turn against the Sanhedrin. Peter and the apostles did not resist the sentence.
And when the angel freed them from prison and the High Priest found them back on the porch preaching again, he had them brought to trial, but without violence. Scripture is very clear about that. The Sanhedrin knew that if they used violence, it would backfire on them. You cannot punish an innocent and get away with it. The people will rise up. This is a part of what the resurrection meant.
The Sanhedrin finally had to let them go, telling them that they could not preach in the name of Jesus, but by then, even they knew that it was a lost cause. The message had been successfully spreading in spite of the violent death of Jesus and the persecution of the early church. Something with this kind of power just cannot be stopped. It doesn’t matter how many people you throw in prison, if those people are people of hope, then no prison can hold them.
If they are prisoners of hope, who are willing to voluntarily suffer for the redemption of the community, they cannot be squelched. Nonviolent believers are prisoners of hope. They are people bound by hope. Prisoners of hope are compelled to live faithful and hopeful lives. Their cellmates give them solidarity. The church is a gathering place of prisoners of hope. Together, we break the bonds of evil forces, using a method more powerful than violence.
Nonviolence has been immensely effective in this past year. Look at the Arab Uprising in northern Africa. Dictatorship after dictatorship toppled because masses of people took to the streets and demanded something better.
The occupy Wall Street and its sisters across the country have showed what a small group of peaceful, nonviolent and relentless prisoners of hope can do to raise awareness and convince people that there could be a better way for us to do business in our country.
This week, we were thrilled to hear of the peace accord signed between the Burmese government and the Karen people. This is a step toward the end of a 60-year war. The Burmese government also released thousands of political prisoners this week, including the hundreds of Buddhist nonviolent priests who have been jailed since their maroon uprising in 2007. These people are free now and they have kept their hope alive in those prison cells.
This morning’s Star Tribune carried the obituary of longtime activist Marv Davidov. He said that he was arrested forty or fifty times. He lost count. He spent a good bit of his life as a prisoner of hope.
We are prisoners of hope, we who believe the gospel message. We cannot help but spread it in a way that can bring hope and healing to ourselves and our nation. This is the legacy of Jesus. It is the legacy of the Baptist peacemakers whom we have celebrated as our cloud of witnesses. It is the legacy of Martin and Coretta Scott King. And it is the privileged work of all believers who follow in that legacy. It’s our work.
Let me close with the closing words of Coretta Scott King’s words to the class of 1983.
“In Closing, I leave you with a challenge. This is a challenge delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1961. Martin was speaking to a group of women religious activists, members of the Fellowship of the Concerned…He said, “there is a final thing that I would like to say to you, this movement is a movement based on faith in the future. It is a movement based on a philosophy, the possibility of the future bringing into being something real and meaningful. It is a movement based on hope. Before the victory is won some may have to get scarred up, but we shall overcome. Before the victory of brotherhood is achieved, some will maybe face physical death, but we shall overcome. Before the victory is won, some will lose jobs, some will be called communists and reds, merely because they believe in brotherhood. Some will be dismissed as dangerous rabble-rousers and agitators merely because they’re standing up for what is right, but we shall overcome…There is something in this universe that justifies Carlyle in saying “no lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because there is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because there is something in this universe that justifies James Russell Lowell in saying, “truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet the scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown standeth God within the shadows, keeping watch above his own.” With this faith in the future, with this determined struggle, will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.””
May we enter this day committed to peace with justice and liberation without violence. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, the Apostle Peter and Jesus himself would want nothing less.