Opinion: Riots are failed cries for justice

Nov 23, 2015 by

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In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” That comment resurfaced after riots by African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore in the past two years. Deaths of young African-American men at the hands of police officers precipitated the riots.

If King is correct, and I think he is, why do African-Americans feel unheard, and what message is behind the anger expressed through riots?

For Mennonites as a peace church, there are questions about our response to two kinds of violence — by police officers and by rioters.

Two recent books suggest reasons for anger at the system of policing. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander provides a detailed analysis of how the so-called war on drugs is directed primarily against people of color, although statistics show that the percentage of people in white communities involved in illegal drug use is the same as in black communities.

The war on drugs causes mass incarceration of Afri­can-Amer­icans. With a felony on their record for the rest of their life, they have difficulty finding jobs and housing. This creates a permanent underclass.

The book Pulled Over by Beth­­el College graduate Charles R. Epp and co-authors Steven Maynard-Moody and Donald Haider-Markel describes “investigatory stops” that alienate African-Americans. Epp was featured in the Feb. 16 MWR.

Investigatory stops use an excuse such as failure to signal a lane change in order to stop a driver and search the car for drugs or weapons. In a pattern well-documented by the authors, officers are trained to stop primarily people of color, the vast majority of whom are innocent, creating suspicion.

Theology’s fault?

Conventional Christian theology con­trib­utes to indifference toward racial injustice. It feeds the hopelessness that leads to rioting. The standard belief that the important confession about Jesus is his deity makes issues of race and violence seem like merely political issues, unrelated to Christian faith. Thus, some Christians ignore the race-related conditions that contribute to riots.

I understand the anger that produces riots, but I do not believe that option embodies the transformative way of Jesus. Violence is cyclical; it is always possible to take a step back to find the factor that led to it. Violence that is supposed to teach a lesson and bring justice actually sets the stage for retaliation and a new round of violence.

Riots provoke more police presence. Eventually the riot loses energy, and “calm” or “peace” is said to be restored. But it is a false peace. The underlying problem remains. The anger of the unheard builds again. It smolders until a spark sets off the next explosion.

Resilient revolution

A better expression of anger by the unheard is nonviolent struggle. Nonviolence shaped by a commitment to racial justice is revolutionary and resilient. Because it is not merely bent on expressing anger and waging destruction, nonviolent struggle can be maintained for a long time. Anger, turned into righteous indignation, can become a powerful motivation for good, sustaining a protest until real change occurs.

Nonviolent struggle exposes injustice and speaks up for systemic change. White people, or those who benefit from positions of privilege, should be willing to acknowledge their complicity and be willing to challenge injustice themselves.

Jesus taught nonviolent struggle and engaged in it. As Walter Wink explained in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, when Jesus says “resist not evil,” it actually means do not resist evil with similar evil. Do not mirror evil.

Resisting nonviolently

Jesus gave three examples of this kind of resistance. Turning the other cheek was a way for a social inferior to resist humiliation when slapped by a superior. Giving the outer garment with the undergarment and walking around naked exposed an unjust debtor’s court system in a society where shame fell on the one who caused the nakedness. Going the second mile would put a Roman soldier in violation of his own regulations, which allowed him to order a civilian to carry his 60- to 80-pound pack for one mile.

Consider Jesus’ healing of the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in Luke 6. He could have waited until the next day. However, Jesus called the man and then waited until all eyes were on him before telling the man to stretch out his hand. This healing was a deliberately confrontational and highly visible action that exposed the misuse of the Sabbath.

Well-known models of nonviolent struggle include Mohandas K. Gandhi, who led the struggle for India’s independence, and Martin Luther King Jr., the most important leader of the American civil-rights movement. The writings of Gene Sharp provide many examples of techniques for nonviolent struggle.

Since God is revealed in Jesus, Jesus’ teaching and example of nonviolent struggle reflect the grain of the universe that God created. I believe nonviolent struggle reflects the grain of the universe.

Gandhi and King drew collaborators from many sides. We come to the struggle for racial justice from various social locations, but we can join to support nonviolent struggle wherever we see it reflecting the grain of the universe revealed in Jesus.

J. Denny Weaver is professor emeritus of religion at Bluffton (Ohio) University. His recent books include, with Lisa Weaver, Living The Anabaptist Story; The Nonviolent Atonement, second revised and expanded edition; and The Nonviolent God.

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