This is the next in a series talking about what nonviolence is not. I laid out the ideas that nonviolence is not passive, nonviolence isn’t about making people feel good, nonviolence isn’t about making sure that no one gets offended, and today we discuss nonviolence and the destruction of property.
I think this will be the trickiest portion of this series as their are strong feelings this idea of property destruction.
One of the major arguments toward nonviolence is that Jesus wasn’t nonviolent. People always bring up the story about Jesus and the moneychangers in the temple. They point to this story as proof that Jesus was violent. There is a difference, however, between destruction of property and violence against people. The idea that destruction of property is equal to violence against people elevates property to share the value of people. This is particularly a problem in countries and nations that consider personal, private property to be an extension of personhood. (See laws in the United States that make corporations “persons”.) To say that turning over a table is the same as hitting someone is to devalue the worth of a person.
Nonviolence, in my mind, can include the destruction of property however one must be clear about why the destruction is taking place. Jesus was making a symbolic gesture when he overturned the tables in the temple. When one destroys property it needs to be in the same creative vein as all other nonviolent resistance. It should be about bringing injustice to light. I think of the scenes in “Fight Club” (by no means a nonviolent movie, but still!) where they blow up the banks. They do it at night when people aren’t around. It’s a symbolic gesture; one where people’s debt is wiped out and they can begin again. I think of Daniel Berrigan and others who destroyed draft card files by burning them; this was a gesture intended to stop the drafting of young men into war. This is destruction of property but it’s done in a creative way to call attention to a larger problem. It’s also an attempt to halt injustice by grinding the mechanisms that perpetuate it to a halt.
This isn’t about wanton destruction; it’s not about smashing and grabbing or ruining things. It is about calling to attention. Creative destruction. It should be undertaken with great care and with clearness of purpose. There should also be steps taken to make sure that no human is injured or harmed in the destruction of property.
I personally think that this type of direct action should be used sparingly and only after much discussion and prayer. However I do think it should be considered as an option, particularly in circumstances where injustice is running rampant and where people need to hear a prophetic call to a new way of being.
The following is a video of Dar Williams speaking about and then playing her song “I Had No Right” which is about the burning of the draft files by the Berrigans and others. It’s a powerful song.