Nonviolence: Greater Than the Sum of Our Fears
Rev. Sonya Sukalski
(Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Community of Lake County September 25, 2016)
Where Does the idea of Non-violence come from? Adin Ballou is known for founding the Hopedale Community in Massachusetts as a combination factory and religious community where a new civilization could be fashioned out of people living their values, and making their convictions a reality.
He was married by Hosea Ballou II to his wife Abigail Sayles, and connected with both Universalist and Unitarian threads of our history. He is one of the forefathers who gives Unitarian Universalists today a foundation in practical religious living born of our Christian roots. I believe that one reason why we gather weekly on Sunday mornings is not only to be inspired and uplifted by singing together, but also to take a time out to mull over our relationships and habitual patterns in an effort to integrate our deepest longings.
Do you long as I do for more love in society?
One of the teachings of Jesus that I resonate with is to aspire to love your neighbor as yourself. This doesn’t mean to withhold love for your neighbor as you withhold love for yourself, it means to look for things to love all the time, and to grow in love, and when you find yourself loving something in your neighbor which you don’t love in yourself, to gently go deeper and see if the love holding all of us can be present in that space. Likewise, when I find myself hating something in another person which I do all the time, to slow down, pray for patience, and see if there is a way into a little more love all around.
Now Adin Ballou was not the only Unitarian to tinker with this idea of holding onto some love for people who he might be in conflict with. Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote Resistance to Civil Government in 1849, a full five years before he wrote the more well known Walden.
In Resistance to Civil Government he “ argues that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican–American War (1846–1848).” Fascinating to me is that Leo Nikolayavich Tolstoy, author famous for the novel War and Peace, picked up on both Ballou and Thoreau’s writings and in the non-fiction book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, further developed the idea of nonviolent resistance which Gandhi and Martin Luther King then employed in creating social change. Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God is Within You was so radical it was banned in Russia, and had to be published in Germany.Gandhi posited that the way to change hearts about violence, was to confront the hard, cruel, suffering humans are capable of inflicting with non-resistance in order to open the conscience and spirit to a new way. Ahimsa as it is known in Sanskrit, is a powerful tool in the activist’s bag, partially because revenge and violence are so much easier than turning the other cheek to receive another’s pain and suffering which is the definition of ahimsa.
When Martin Luther King Jr. summoned clergy from across the country, Unitarian Universalists who had joined forces with each other only a few years earlier responded perhaps partially because this idea of Christian nonresistance is woven deep into the DNA of our faith. No doubt MLK deeply inspired Reverends James Reeb,
Berkeley’s Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller3 who marched with him in Selma. Personally, I can’t imagine the courage so many of my colleagues had to take their life in their hands while fire hoses and dogs were turned on children, and Bull O’Connor lined up his officers with clubs to meet the marchers coming across the Edmund Pettus Bridge
in Selma Alabama. Honestly, when I have looked at Occupy and Black Lives Matter actions today, I am always weighing whether participating will enable me to show up for my commitments on Sundays or not. I am quite reticent to bear witness or be in the line of fire.
Imagine congregations telling their leaders, here’s a plane ticket, go! And now, despite the best and often Herculean efforts of congregations and community leaders who have worked decades since the Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, racism is as visible as ever,voting rights are being attacked before our eyes,
and economic disparity is worse than when Martin Luther King was born in 1929. So, should we give up on Civil Disobedience or Christian Nonresistance? Have we gotten it wrong somehow? I’m asking you as people in whom I see so many promising qualities of humanity, what opens your heart to resist oppression? What brings life
together with others a little closer to the Utopia Adin Ballou set out to create back in the 1840s?
A friend, colleague and activist named Tim DeChristopher asked himself this question over and over, and when George Bush attempted to sell off drilling rights in and near national parks and monuments to oil companies, he bid on those parcels to drive the price up, and then starting winning them. He didn’t have the money to pay at the
time, even though Robert Redford came up with it not long after. His story is told in the excellent film Bidder 70, which every UU should know. Tim ended up in a long trial where he wasn’t allowed to tell his story to the jury by the Obama administration, and served 2 years in jail before going to Harvard to become a UU
His willingness to suffer opened hearts, and evolved an understanding of civil disobedience to include suffering for the purpose of elevating environmental concerns as well as concerns about human pain and suffering. It is incredible to hear his story of the moment when he started winning parcels and knew he could go to jail – he asked himself if he could live with that, and a feeling of peace, integrity, and meaning overtook him.
Standing up to injustice gives our lives meaning and integrity, even in the face of physical suffering. We see similar courage and persistence in the people today standing up to big oil’s private security guards who are attacking the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and protesters with dogs in North Dakota near the Missouri River. The Sioux believe their water quality will be threatened by this pipeline.
Then there is the story of William Barber...
In the late 1960s in North Carolina, Rev. Dr. William Barber II was one of the first Black children to enter an all-white school as a second grader. His brilliant father had 2 master’s degrees, and his parents had many possibilities laid out before them in Indianapolis when E.V. Wilkins, head of the NAACP asked them to move back to North Carolina because they needed educated people on the ground to test the willingness of schools to hire Black teachers and allow Black children to integrate. Fast forward to the election the election of 2008. Do you remember that Virginia, North Carolina and Florida all went to Barack Obama? This turn of events showed cracks that could herald in a new era in the South. A Black president was elected with the help of states that had voted Republican for decades since adopting Ronald Reagan’s racist Southern Strategy.
William Barber was on the ground organizing in North Carolina helping historically Black communities voice their vote in 2008 after being elected head of the NAACP in 2005. The ups and downs since the voting rights act are detailed by Ari Berman in his excellent, deeply researched, powerfully written and infuriating book, Give Us The
Ballot. Not only is it a fascinating civil rights and voting rights primer that helps me understand the events unfolding as I was born and throughout my life, but it also explains why North Carolina is a battleground state not only on the topic of voting Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi (where three civil rights workers had been lynched June 21, 1964) in 1980 with a thinly veiled reference to KKK supporters about state’s rights.
The 2008 election was a wake-up call to some and a reason for rejoicing for many. It is no accident that billionaire interests creating the Tea Party took congress in the next national election after we elected our first Black president. State’s rights advocates have waxed and waned ever since the first Reconstruction after the Civil War, and there is much to recommend keeping solutions for society’s ills accountable to the people and places they aim to influence.
However, the American Legislative Exchange Council also known as ALEC are front and center in the current state’s rights conversation, intellectual advocacy, and on the ground deployment of tactics and strategies concerning state’s rights. Our own Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry was formed in California partially as a bulwark against the ALEC machine where corporate lobbyists and state legislators vote as equals on ‘model bills’ to change our rights that often benefit the corporations’ bottom line at public expense.5
These model bills then make their way into our elected officials hands, and result in laws like Arizona SB1070 making it common practice to stop and ask people of color for an ID, ALEC bills include the rash of voter ID laws enacted across 19 mostly Republican controlled states in 2011 and 2012.6 ALEC is a pay-to-play operation where corporations buy a seat and a vote on ‘task forces’ to advance their legislative wish lists and can get a tax break for donations, effectively passing these lobbying costs on to taxpayers.7 As many of you know, the Supreme Court took it’s finger out of the damn holding back moneyed corporate interests in our laws about free speech with the passage of Citizen’s United in 2010. This is one powerful way our dedication to our fifth principle, the use of the democratic process, Is being subverted across society.
Rev. William Barber II, in the best tradition of organizing people of faith for the greater common good has been on the ground talking to people about what matters most in their lives for over a decade in North Carolina. People calling on their elected representatives to be agents for voting rights in a 13 week show of civil disobedience garnered headlines back in 2013, but this fruit of Barber’s labor began much earlier.
When Barber was elected to head the NAACP in 2005, he says, “We had to find a way to stand with others, acknowledging their connections with us and our issues.In a year of almost nonstop travel, I learned something important about North Carolina: there wasn’t a huge crowd standing together in any one place, but if you added up all the different groups who were standing for their justice issue, the potential base for a coalition was large.
I can just see him traveling from community to community: “sketch(ing) a list of fourteen justice tribes in North Carolina.
- folks who cared about education,
- folks who cared about living wages, and
- others who were passionate about the 1.2 million North Carolinians who didn’t have access to health care.
- We also had groups petitioning for redress for black and poor women who’d been forcibly sterilized in state institutions,
- organizations advocating for public financing in elections, and
- historically black colleges and universities petitioning for better state funding.
(Wow! I wonder how education, living wages, healthcare, elections, and forcible sterilization groups might cooperate???) He didn’t stop there:
- included on (the) list are groups concerned about discrimination in hiring,
- others focused on affordable housing, and
- people opposed to the death penalty and other glaring injustices
- in our criminal justice system.
- Finally, the movements for environmental justice,
- immigrant justice,
- civil rights enforcement, and
- end(ing) America’s so-called “war on terror.”
The real magic though was when they got in the room together
“Representatives of sixteen organizations showed up to a meeting of potential partners. Each group identified the issue they were most concerned about. Then we asked them to list the forces standing in the way of what they wanted. Though our issues varied, we all recognized the same forces opposing us. What’s more, we saw something we hadn’t had a space to talk about before: there were more of us than there were of them.”
This is faith based organizing at its best, it became known as Moral Mondays because this fusion coalition grew week by week to stand up and amplify voices in the community affected by restrictions to voting rights among other issues. Unitarian Universalists saw the potential to engage community partners more deeply, and many congregations jumped at the opportunity to band together with interests across their community and state.
Just as we in California worked against Proposition 8 in 2008, though we lost, we lost forward because we began to be in conversation with people we can now share resources and issues with.
Lest you worry that congregations endanger their non-profit tax status, let me reassure you that as long as we keep our energy focused on issues rather than supporting specific people there is nothing to worry about. Non-profits are allowed not only to register voters and hold candidates forums but to advocate for issues we find morally engaging.
Today, organizers and faith communities in North Carolina are leading the effort to bring nonviolent tactics to loving our neighbors and helping society see and engage the systemic suffering that is too pervasive today. Nonviolently protesting inhumane systems help us confront our fear. When we band together and support each other across our differences, the fear of being left out and left behind diminishes. Especially when we raise our voices together in song even though our fears are well founded, it is possible to find strength to keep the love in our hearts in the face of hate and anger and the suffering that no doubt undergirds it.
The answer to being greater than the sum of our fears is to name them in community, even though this takes trust and vulnerability. When Rev. Barber and the many communities in NC were able to compassionately hear each other’s fears and struggles, and identify the deeper systems contributing to them, working together in coalition at the root causes, including growing numbers practicing civil disobedience at their state capitol every Monday for 13 weeks became a way to make sure legislators got the message that we are paying attention, and expect lawmakers to represent the good of the whole.
When you find yourself questioning our laws, questioning our society, downhearted and fearful, the answer we see today is to name that vulnerability, and see if there are people of faith able and willing to stand up together, lift voices bravely in the face of suffering, and publicly insist on change.