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The Myth of Redemptive Violence: What Christmas Tells Us About the Two Brooklyn Cops

Protest in Milwaukee re fatal shooting by cop


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Mark Gordon - published on 12/23/14

The way out is a way pioneered by the Child whose birth we celebrate this week.

The American penchant for violence continues unabated this Advent and Christmas season. Last Saturday, a Baltimore man drove to New York City and executed two policemen, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, while they sat in their patrol car near a Brooklyn housing project. The killer claimed on social media that he was carrying out the execution to avenge the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died while being arrested by police last July. Earlier this month, a grand jury cleared the officer who held Garner down while he repeatedly complained, “I can’t breathe.”

In response to the killings, Patrick Lynch, president of the NYPD police union, accused New York Mayor Bill DiBlasio of having “blood on the hands” for his statements, offered in the wake of the grand jury decision, which acknowledged the fears of many African-Americans when confronted by police.

Later, a memo was leaked to the press in which an unnamed police union official seemed to be counseling precaution to officers. “The mayors hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department,” the memo said.

The mimetic logic of violence—in this case in the redemption of Eric Garner’s death by gunning down police officers and whatever violence that might inspire, God forbid—creates a circular momentum that eventually engulfs parties on every side of a dispute, twisting even noble intentions like achieving justice or protecting the community into righteous rationalizations for further injustice and violence.

Many of our contemporary debates originate with and revolve around the myth of redemptive violence. What those locked in this mimetic whirlwind fail to see is that there is a way out that doesn’t require either further bloodshed or servile submission, a way that preserves the moral integrity of the one seeking justice while preserving an avenue for reconciliation, even with an unjust aggressor.

That way out is nonviolence, a way pioneered by the divine Child whose birth we celebrate this week. Nonviolence shouldn’t be confused with absolute pacifism, which holds that physical violence may never be deployed under any circumstances. As Catholics, we have received a body of teaching that prescribes highly restrictive conditions under which individuals and nations may defend themselves using limited recourse to violence. We have also received a conception of government as the guarantor of the common good, which allows the legitimate use of force in the maintenance of public order, again under strict conditions.

Nonviolence isn’t pacifism, but neither is it non-resistance, the supine surrender to evil.  On the contrary, nonviolence is a form of positive, active, creative and persistent resistance to evil. And it is highly effective, even in the modern world. Under Gandhi’s nonviolent leadership, the people of India (and what is now Pakistan) ended a hundred years of British rule. In 1986, a Catholic laywoman, Corazon Aquino, and a Catholic prelate, Jaime Cardinal Sin, played decisive roles in the nonviolent overthrow of the Philippine government. The nonviolent revolutions in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic States brought the Cold War to an end in 1989. And, of course, the American Civil Rights movement under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolently brought a hundred years of segregation to a close.

People often ask, “what about Hitler or today’s Islamic terror organizations?” It’s a legitimate question and one even proponents of nonviolence must wrestle with. But consider that Hitler and al-Qaeda and the Islamic State didn’t spring into history out of thin air. They were themselves responses to conditions that might have been very different if nonviolent solutions had been brought to bear earlier.

For instance, if in 1914 the Western powers hadn’t careened headlong into World War I, then the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that crushed the German people beneath a mountain of debt would have never been imposed, and a marginal figure like Hitler would have been denied his appeal to the shame and desperation of the German people.  As Dr. Rudolf Steiner said in 1916: “A single sentence and the war in the West would not have taken place.”

Ultimately, nonviolence isn’t really about mass movements or international relations at all. Nonviolence is, according to Dr. King, “a way of life for courageous people.” It’s a way of life because it rests on an interior disposition towards justice, a kind of “preferential option” for the right. It requires courage because a commitment to nonviolence often means absorbing violence and suffering without striking back.

Those who practice nonviolence seek friendship and reconciliation with those they oppose, including violent oppressors. In this way, they are concerned not just with the victims of injustice, but with the perpetrators, too. Theologically, we might say that they are “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). As a result, those committed to nonviolence focus on conditions, not persons. They recognize the humanity of those who act unjustly, and even see them as victims of their own violence.

Those committed to nonviolence accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the goal. They see the unwarranted suffering of the innocent as redemptive, in imitation of Christ. They choose love over hate, knowing that violence of the spirit is the precursor to physical violence. The practitioner of nonviolence knows that hate is one-dimensional, destructive, and sterile, while love is creative, fresh, bold and fertile.

Finally, those who practice nonviolence believe, in the words of Dr. King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Their trust is ultimately not in constitutions or political systems, economies or armaments, but in a righteous God who is on the side of justice, and who will bring it about in his time.

These are Dr. King’s six principles of nonviolence. For Christians, they are also a practical way of following Jesus, who didn’t slink away from confrontation, but who also didn’t answer injustice with the sword. As the late author Walter Wink once wrote,

Jesus reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight. It is a way – the only way possible – of not becoming what we hate. "Do not counter evil in kind" – this insight is the distilled essence, stated with sublime simplicity, of the experience of those Jews who had, in Jesus’ very lifetime, so courageously and effectively practiced nonviolent direct action against Rome. Jesus abhors both passivity and violence. He articulates, out of the history of his own people’s struggles, a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed.

Many people are conscious of something having broken loose in the United States in recent years, a loss of some psychic connective tissue holding us together against the centrifugal forces of fear; a vision of the common good, perhaps, rudely snapped under the accumulated weight of our individual and collective sins.

Whatever it may be, we could use a turn toward nonviolence now. As Robert F. Kennedy said extemporaneously to an African-American audience in Indianapolis on the evening of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.”

Of course, Kennedy would be dead two months later, another victim of redemptive violence. Isn’t it time we purified the American soul by abandoning that myth before it destroys us?

Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.

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