The Tension of Two Postures

CvilleFrom the conclusion of The Mennonite blog post “Nonviolence Against White Supremacy After Charlottesville” by Tim Nafziger and Mark Van Steenwyk: 

We are both Christian pacifists committed to creative responses to white supremacy that step outside the myth of redemptive violence.

Pacifists are at their best when they commit to strong solidarity and are willing to lay their lives on the line for the ones they love. It can be a pure expression of compassion–suffering with the oppressed in such a way as to magnify the full humanity of the oppressed while, at the same time, showing love for the oppressor as well.

We struggle between that posture and the posture of fiercely dismantling oppression through forceful means: Property destruction, raised fists, militantly challenging the gears of oppression.

These aren’t mutually exclusive. One of the great myths of our current ethical climate is that they are. Nevertheless, there is a tension between the two. It is hard to embrace both, at the same time, at least for most of us. Both are expressions of love for the oppressed. And, to be overly simplistic for the sake of emphasis, one focuses on the humanity of the oppressed while the other focuses on the dehumanizing nature of systems of oppression.

The danger of the first stance is that it can lead to detachment and mistaking service for liberation. Lovingly serving the poor doesn’t necessarily challenge systems of oppression. And, if done naively, it can help legitimize structures of oppression. Loads of liberationists (notably Paulo Freire) write about this.

The danger of the second stance is that it can add to the cycle of violence and unwittingly cause much greater harm for the oppressed while dehumanizing the oppressor. Challenging structures of power and oppression doesn’t necessarily affirm the humanity of those caught up in those structures. Scholars and practitioners of nonviolence talk about this all the time. For another exploration of this tension, see My ‘Nonviolent’ Stance Was Met With Heavily Armed Men by Logan Rimel, who was part of the faith based nonviolent action on August 12 in Charlottesville.

What is the solution? At the very least, it is important that if you’re committed to the way of peace that you don’t too easily collapse the tension. Otherwise, since our society conditions us with things like the Myth of White Neutrality (the assertion of whiteness as the default or norm) or the idea that politeness is the same thing as kindness, etc, we run the risk of sustaining oppression in the name of pacifism. Perfectionism is also a factor for many of us as white people: we would rather avoid mistakes by avoiding engagement than risk the messiness of anti-racism work. For more on this, see the seminal 2001 piece, “White Supremacy Culture” by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in which perfectionism is at the top of their list.

Likewise, since we are conditioned with the Myth of Redemptive Violence and toxic forms of power (notably, toxic masculinity), collapsing the tension runs the risk of putting too much confidence into our ability to destroy oppressive structures without sowing seeds for continued dehumanization.

We need to continue to recognize that the most effective practitioners of white supremacy were not out on the streets in Charlottesville. They are the corporations like NRG that are pushing for   a new fossil-fueled power plant in Oxnard, California, where Tim’s community has been involved in opposition. They are school district bureaucrats who are more concerned with protecting their image then changing policies to challenge ingrained racism in curriculum.

They are any organization that allows white experience to frame conversations around race, like the misguided attempts of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to install a thought-provoking sculpture inspired by the hangings of the Dakota 38. When organizations (even denominations) attempt to bring healing to racial wounds, they can unwittingly reinforce white supremacy when they allow white experience to determine the shape of the conversation. After all, white supremacy isn’t simply about hatred of non-whiteness, it is about controlling non-whiteness.

The work of dismantling these systems is often not very glamorous. The Showing up for Racial Justice chapter in Charlottesville spent a year going to meetings of the Charlottesville city council to push for removal of statues. Friends of ours there were involved in the messy, hard long term work of organizing, herding and rallying a group of people to work together. And then prepared for months for the Unite the Right rally. And the world paid attention for that brief moment and now has mostly moved on.

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