Realistic Nonviolence in a Violent World

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Every 4th of July we nonviolent bloggers feel the need to write an obligatory post on American empire. I didn't, and instead enjoyed watching fireworks with my kids that some guys were lighting illegally on the street in front of our friend's house, and baking an apple pie (Mmmmm).

I get the comparison of the United States to the Roman Empire, but one has to ask, what would the alternative be? Would we rather live in a failed state? If our goal is the reduction of violence, it is clear that a failed state is far more violent and unjust than our country. The fact that we have police and a military does serve to reduce violence. That of course does not mean there is no room for improvement, that there are no problems in our country. But it does mean that the direction we need to move is not towards anarchy. That would be naïve.

A big problem, as I see it, is that there is a tendency for both pacifists and patriots to grandstand -- both taking unrealistically romantic positions on opposite sides of the issue. This may make for good Tweets, but it leads to bad public policy. On the one side we have the patriot/hawks who speak of the necessity of violence as a means of keeping the peace. On the other hand we have the pacifists who say we should abolish the police and military, or that as Christians we should not participate in them. Both take extreme positions in reaction to the other's, employing dramatic rhetoric to appeal to their base. Here there is no possibility for a conversation, just a widening of the divide. That is certainly not peacemaking.

I would instead like to propose something different. I think we should begin by all agreeing that peace and safety are desirable, and that violence is not. The question to ask, therefore, is how can we reduce violence while maintaining peace and safety?

One clear example of this is with the many news stories we have seen of police shootings of unarmed black men and women. There is clearly a problem when there are no legal consequences for police who abuse their authority. We've seen this multiple times where Grand Juries will acquit officers who clearly seemed guilty. 

Here it is clear that there needs to be change. Police who abuse authority and commit criminal acts should be subject to the law. But legal punishment cannot be the only response. The problem runs much deeper. That is, the problem is not just a few bad apples, but a system that fosters them. On a more systemic level there is a fundamental problem with the way policing is done in low income neighborhoods, as well as how police interact with the mentally ill. 

This is something that whites like myself generally do not experience.  I feel safe around police. My interactions with them have generally been respectful. I do not feel unsafe around police. But for people of color, that is not the case.

In general, the approach often taken by police in "bad" neighborhoods is a militaristic one of "zero-tolerance." It's the "no broken windows" approach, and it has certainly only been made worse by the recent militarization of the police by the government. As a result of this, over time members of a community come to be regarded by police as "them" rather than "us," and one is either doing nothing or is a problem. If someone is a problem, then they must comply immediately with all orders or else. With such an approach it is extremely easy for things to escalate, often leading to lethal results. 

The answer is well known by the police and to the US Department of Justice. Part of it involves what is known as "community policing" where police work to build trust in the community, acting as a part of it, rather than as an occupying force. Another critical element is police training in how to deescalate a situation, rather than making it worse with threats, screaming, and a show of force. 

The result of such deescalation training makes things safer for everyone, including safer for police. So it's a win-win. Such training programs are readily available to police departments, but officers often do not participate. Perhaps such training should be a mandatory part of their qualification as police officers. That's a bigger issue, and hopefully as more light comes on to the issue, we will see needed reform here.

Let's take a step back through, and return to the broader picture: What I want to propose is that those of us who advocate for Christian nonviolence should not be calling for people to withdraw from politics or societal engagement. We should not be proposing a utopian Christian society without violence. Rather, we should be the ones training police in how to deescalate potentially dangerous situations. We should be in the middle of our messy world, offering practical and realistic means to reduce violence and actively promote justice. 

A poignant example of this is how Mennonites have worked to introduce principles of restorative justice into our judicial system. I find this remarkable because Mennonites have traditionally been the ones who have sought to separate themselves from society and politics. But now they are in the middle of that system, working to reform it.

That's where I want my nonviolence to take me as well. I am not interested in ideals that are cut off from the realities of our current world. I want instead to have ideals that actually work here and now to help make our broken world a little less broken, and a little more humane.

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At 4:09 PM, Blogger Nita Steiner said...

I really appreciate this approach. Thank you, Derek. Can you give us practical steps about how to go about being involved as ordinary citizens in helping reform our local judicial system?

At 7:14 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Very fair and balanced on such a hot button national issue.

At 7:46 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Great question Nita. Rather than saying "something has to be done" you're saying "I need to do something."

Basically you can be involved in three core ways:

1) By being informed about the realities and problems of our criminal justice system, and having that education translate into how you vote, and how you change the conversation with others based on an educated view rather than a fear based one (which is the one we get from politicians, the news, and crime shows). Some great books on this are Changing Lenses By Zehr, and The New Jim Crow.

2) By financially supporting groups that focus on areas you care about. There's the Innocence Project, Prison University Project, restorative justice programs. There are tons of groups out there, and today with the internet we can find out about them. If you are interested in job training, taking care of children of prisoners, or whatever there is probably a group doing that, and the internet makes it possible to find them which is pretty amazing.

3) Volunteering locally. Here in addition to Google searches, you can ask your local progressive/mainline church for ideas (if you go to a conservative church, just walk across the street the mainline church who will know the answer), or ask a social worker friend who is sure to know. After a while you may become the person others ask.


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