Archives for October 2011

Nonviolence Does Not Preclude the Destruction of Property

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.

Nonviolence Isn’t Being Unoffensive

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, and today we talk about the offensiveness of nonviolence.

People often talk about being offended in a negative light. I was offended that someone said something mean, I was offended by that person being rude, etc. Sometimes this use of the word is legitimate. When I hear people using anti-gay slurs I am offended. But we also use this word as a smoke screen. We use it to silence people; to say that when they are speaking the truth that they are being “offensive”. This definitely goes along with the idea that nonviolence isn’t about making people feel good, but I think this idea of offense goes one step further.

When someone calls to me to task for something my first response is often to feel offended by their words. When I allow my offense to be considered legitimate without examining the other person’s complaint I can use that offense to keep me from growth. For example, when someone tells me I am exerting male privilege my first response is to be offended. I can come up with all sorts of excuses about why I can’t possibly be doing the things they are saying. And I can use my offense to try to silence their critique when instead I should be examining my actions to see if there is truth in the critique.

Nonviolent direct action sometimes causes offense. I am sure that the bus drivers who were enforcing the Jim Crow laws on their busses were offended by the actions of those seeking to integrate the busses. They were offended at accusations of racism. Offended by what they saw as “good order” being overturned. Yet that doesn’t diminish the fact that the people fighting for integration were right.

When one speaks the truth it can be heard as offensive. When women bring to light the exclusion of women speakers at conferences, men can hear that as offensive. When queer people talk about the way that privilege works in the world, the holders of privilege can hear that as offensive. When people of color point out the insidious ways that racism works, white people can hear that as offensive.

Sometimes we need to be offended. Sometimes we need to be shaken out of our complacency. Sometimes we need to hear something that offends our sense of ourself in order to make us realize that we have not been living lives of justice.

When we tell people that they are being offensive, sometimes we are attempting to silence the message they have for us. Instead we should examine our lives to see if the offensive thing being said holds weight and truth.

One of the powerful tools of nonviolence is to offend those who need to be offended. To bring to light the ways in which they are causing (or being silent about) injustice. This offense causing should be done in love but also in truth. It is a tricky business to be both truthful and loving, but it is a balance that is needed.

Occupy Wall Street and Anarchist Thought

This is a really wonderful article about the Occupy Wall Street movement, and in the midst of it is one of the most succinct and clear descriptions of anarchist thought that I have read. The portion on anarchy is this:

This is where I must admit my own position is particularly confusing. On the one hand, this is exactly the kind of attitude I have been arguing for for years. I like to describe myself precisely as a “small-a anarchist.” That is, I believe in anarchist principles—mutual aid, direct action, the idea building the new, free society in the shell of the old—but I’ve never felt a need to declare allegiance to any particular anarchist school (Syndicalists, Platformists, etc). Above all, I am happy to work with anyone, whatever they call themselves, willing to work on anarchist principles—which in America today, has largely come to mean, a refusal to work with or through the government or other institutions which ultimately rely on the threat of force, and a dedication to horizontal democracy, to treating each other as we believe free men and women in a genuinely free society would treat each other. Even the commitment to direct action, so often confused with breaking windows or the like, really refers to the refusal of any politics of protest, that merely appeals to the authorities to behave differently, and the determination instead to act for oneself, and to do what one thinks is right, regardless of law and authority. Gandhi’s salt march, for example, is a classic example of direct action. So was squatting Zuccotti Park. It’s a public space; we were the public; the public shouldn’t have to ask permission to engage in peaceful political assembly in its own park; so we didn’t. By doing so we not only acted in the way we felt was right, we aimed to set an example to others: to begin to reclaim communal resources that have been appropriated for purposes of private profit to once again serve for communal use—as in a truly free society, they would be—and to set an example of what genuine communal use might actually be like. For those who desire to create a society based on the principle of human freedom, direct action is simply the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.

Caught In the Margins

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I fit. As a person of faith, as an activist, as a queer person, etc. More and more I realize that I am continually caught in the margins and falling through the cracks. It’s really frustrating and often leaves me feeling mighty lonely.

As a person of faith I often feel like I don’t fit in in activist and radical queer circles. A lot of these groups have valid critiques and complaints against religion. However as someone who is motivated to be a radical by my faith I find that I have a hard time entering into these spaces and feeling safe and valued.

As someone dedicated to non-violent resistance I often feel alienated from anarchist circles. I firmly hold to an anarchist identity and politics however I am determined to live those ideals out in a non-violent manner. When I read anarchist texts I find myself saying yes, but. I find myself being dismissed from my own community because of my dedication to non-violence.

As a queer person I often feel shut out of conversations in radical faith communities. I have to worry that the other christian anarchists might have a problem with my queer identity. I worry that I’ll be dismissed from the community; that my voice won’t be heard. I often feel like I have to set aside my queer identity to be a part of the christian anarchist groups and that is really hurtful.

The groups where I should fit in; among LGBT christians, are often not as radical as I am. I find they often care more about gay marriage than about any other issue. As a trans* person I feel shut out of the conversation. As someone who believes that both the church and the state should stay out of all personal relationships I feel pushed to the side. When trying to raise other concerns or issues I get told that I’m being too radical, that those things will never happen, that we should concentrate on this issue and that we’ll deal with those other issues another time.

Here’s what I long for: A community that embraces non-violence, radical politics, and queer identity through the lens of faith. I want to be able to talk about Jesus, my trans* embodiment, the abolishment of the prison industrial complex and politics as usual with people who won’t raise their eyebrows at me but will instead nod along. And maybe then we would even pray together.

I am willing to be in the margins, I just want someone walking there with me.

Money is a Spiritual Issue

I’ve been trying to follow the Occupy Wall Street stuff as best I can from my space in the midwest. I’ve popped into the local Occupation and hope to get there more often, but it is clear that there is more energy happening in New York. I am especially interested in the response of the faith community.

Judson Memorial Church is leading a lot of the effort. I interned at Judson while I was in seminary and so I love seeing what they are up to in the world. I find them speaking honestly and eloquently about the greed of wall street as a moral and spiritual issue. Rev. Donna Schaper writes about this issue.

I have found few things in my life more stressful than worrying about finances. The worry that you won’t have enough money to buy food or to pay your bills. The fear that the rent check will bounce. The worry that you won’t have enough money to pay for the bus fare to get yourself to work (and how will you get paid if you can’t get to work). The stress of feeling like you have morally failed when you don’t have enough to pay your bills or when you get behind. It’s a terrible feeling and one that I experience with regularity. And this doesn’t even deal with the crushing student loan debt that I carry from seminary. And I am one of the fortunate people to have a job and to have health insurance. But I don’t have a cushion or savings. I am always one check away from being totally screwed (and honestly, I’m there right now so if you felt inclined to make a donation…). And it’s terrifying.

Of course this is a spiritual issue. There are more references to money in the Scriptures than just about anything else. In the Hebrew Scriptures there are clear guidelines for dealing with loans, debts, and more. It’s a system that was designed to make sure no one could amass loads of property and wealth. It was designed to have mercy on people even if they got behind. It was designed to level the playing field. There are questions around whether or not the system of Jubilee, as it was called, every actually happened, but it’s clear the blueprint was there. And it’s a blueprint I take great comfort in.

Can you imagine a world in which people had what they needed? Where people didn’t have to worry about getting enough food, paying for college, having a place to live. Imagine the creative solutions that could be dreamt up by people whose physical needs were met. It would be a world of creativity and beauty. A world where people could work jobs that they enjoyed and were fulfilling. A world where parents could be there for their children and where children could be assured of a future.

How can we not see this as a spiritual issue?

I hope that these occupations continue to grow and to shed light on the failure of this system. I hope that this movement doesn’t become co-opted by any political party because if it does it will quickly fail. Politics won’t save us this time; business as usual won’t save us. Only a radical shift in the way we live our lives will do it. I am praying and desperately hoping for that shift.

Vulnerability

TRIGGER WARNING: in this post I plan to talk about things that will include sexual assault, rape language. Please be forewarned!

In this post I am planning to share some of my deepest and most personal fears. I ask that you be cautious when leaving comments on this post particularly if you are a straight, cisgender man. (That doesn’t mean don’t comment, but please think through your comments before posting them.)

As someone who holds to radical politics and radical theology, I feel a call to get out in the world and shake things up. I am inspired by the long and great civil disobedience tradition in American Christianity. I consider Martin Luther King, Jr., Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and others to be among my heroes. I am inspired by and feel called to emulate them. However, as a transgender person I also worry about what emulating them will cost me.

One of my biggest fears is sexual assault and/or being raped. There is a long history of queer people being raped because people don’t see us as human. Using sexual violence to show power is nothing new and is often enacted upon queer bodies. And I don’t trust the police to protect me from this type of assault, in fact, I am pretty sure that such an assault would come at the hands of the police. The police have long been abusive to queer people.

I have been following the Occupy Wall Street protests and was saddened, but not surprised, to read this story. And as terrifying and humiliating as his ordeal was it could have been much, much worse. And so I think about the Occupy events that are being planned for my state and I wonder if I should participate. Knowing that arrests could happen at any time, even if people are being peaceful, I could find myself in the hands of the prison industrial complex and be at their mercy. And this terrifies me. I feel like I can mentally deal with the idea of violence being enacted upon me, but I’m not sure how I would deal mentally with sexual assault or humiliation.

As a transgender radical how do I balance my fear with my calling? How do I measure my own personal safety against what I feel called to be a part of? Should I be bold and fearless or is ignoring my fear foolish? I realize that at the moment I can ask these questions from a place of safety, but they are always on my mind. I fear assault every time I have to use a strange restroom, when I have been outed, when I am walking alone at night. The fear isn’t crippling but there is a sense of being hyper aware. I worry that something as simple as a mugging could turn into a sexual assault if I am found out to be transgender. Trans* bodies are often seen as curiosities, freak shows, things to be used or abused. And the police are rarely on the side of trans* and queer people. There are countless stories of police being called who do nothing or, even worse, who make the situation even more violent. My identity and body could be disrespected at any time.

I would love to talk with other transgender/queer people and women who might want to have a conversation about this (online or privately). This is something I have been really wrestling with. How do I overcome my fear so that I am not paralyzed by it?

I want to be able to move past this fear into my calling. I don’t want to be held back. But I feel like I need to acknowledge this fear and this reality. This is something that I rarely see talked about in progressive/activist circles. Civil disobedience is lauded (as it should be) but the ramifications upon the bodies and lives of queer people are once again overlooked. I would love to see this conversation happen more broadly.