"Turn the Other Cheek"... and Other White Hypocrisies
Resisting violence is both a worthwhile and complicated endeavor. Pure non-violence is entirely unachievable, yet I remain committed to its pursuit. These days, however, I am confronted by the farce of my non-violent convictions. I am a white (post-? ex-? I’m not sure) evangelical Christian. My social media feeds, while also filled with calls to solidarity and racial justice, have been lately flooded with predictable admonitions to peace and non-violence in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other black lives. A few nights ago, I watched part of a sermon by a prominent white megachurch pastor who, while appropriately and clearly speaking out against racism, went painstakingly out of his way to emphasize the necessity of peace and non-violence. As myself attracted to the more radical strains of my tradition, I too am deeply committed to what Christ calls the blessed work of peacemaking. I am generally opposed even to violence that many other Christians would consider permissible. So I must confess my sympathy for such entreaties.
But these calls for non-violence have turned my stomach. There is great iniquity underlying these requests for calm, forgiveness, and serenity. Indeed my tongue is caught in my throat as I reckon with my compromised position.
Since my earliest days, I have memorized the words to a document that extols the responsibilities of a people to reject a government that has failed them and, it is implied, their right to use violence to do so. This document and its consequent violence have purchased democracy and relative prosperity for me. I sleep at night because I know that law enforcement will protect me and my property, and use violence to do so. I am perpetually reminded to honor the violence of my country’s wars and warriors, which have ostensibly defended my rights and protected me from facing war in my backyard. Even with my more radical religious leanings, I reluctantly acknowledge that these acts of violence have secured for me much of what I cherish and enjoy: My country, my safety, my livelihood, my identity.
Even the most nationalistic among us must also recognize that not all of this violence has been chivalrous: Revolutionaries who committed atrocities, including the destruction of private property. Wars of domination and imperialism. A gruesome slave trade. The bombing of civilians and non-combatants. Gross civil rights abuses, in the past and now, by our enforcers of the law. This too I must own as an indelible aspect of my heritage. One may see America’s various adventures with violence as ultimately just or unjust, or generally conducted ethically or not. Yet whether one is a hardline pacifist who rejects it all as sin, or an apologist for the necessary evil of American carnage, there is violence of varying moral qualities upon which our lives and livelihoods depend.
What is more, my dependence on violence is of much greater degree on account of me being white. I directly benefit from historic and ongoing violence against indigenous, black, and brown people here and abroad. Because my ancestors stole land from indigenous peoples, I have the places that I call my home. Because of the pillaging of Africa, white wealth has created the communities and institutions that raised me and other white folk. Because of bombs and drone strikes in the Middle East, I have a psychological (if dubious) sense of security. Because black Americans are arrested en masse for minor crimes all across my city, I have good roads upon which to drive to work. Because men of color are jailed in unbelievable numbers, jobs are created for people who look like me, lining the pockets of prison profiteers, who also look like me and give back to communities of people who, yes, look like me.
And so, my commitment to non-violence must be shattered with this damning realization: Violence is my sustenance, my roof over my head, my identity.
This leaves me in an impossible position as one who purports to tell other people to be non-violent.
As insinuated above, I do still, at the end of the day, consider myself something of a pacifist. I make some exceptions. There are grey areas. I believe in the moral responsibility of participating in violent systems in order to effect change. But in my mind there is rarely any good that comes from any sort of violence.
Yet despite my sniveling at slave-traders and drone strikes and the apologists of so-called “just” wars, I reap the benefits of this violence with rare sincere contrition, or irony. I enjoy the spoils of violence every single day.
Can I condemn another’s violence if I have not counted up the cost of renouncing all that violence has given me? Would I give up my upbringing? Would I give up my sense of security? Would I give up America?
Of course, we must be clear about what we are talking about. The various spats of destruction that have appeared in the wake of protests against the murder of George Floyd have been relatively isolated and has been caused in some significant degree by other instigators, even by malicious and angry police officers, and against the wishes the majority of the protesting communities. In fact, even the eye-catching image of the police precinct in flames was the work of a white man from St. Paul. It is ethically repugnant to use such instances to dismiss, diminish, or attempt to restrict the movement on behalf of black lives, as has been the tact of the white power structures for centuries.
However, we are still faced with a difficult pill for white Americans to swallow: The pill that black Americans might be angry. Livid, even. That they might be desperate. That they might have the right to feel this way. Yes, we must also now gulp down the bitter medicine that a society built upon all sorts of violence, acknowledged and diminished, celebrated and derided, licit and illicit, might lead here. Can we reckon with the possibility that that which is taught in our school and history books, enshrined in our institutions, even celebrated in television shows with many salacious nods to the proscribed (thanks, Jack Bauer) might be acted upon: Do what must be done for “liberty”?
It is a testament to the unusual forbearance and patience of black Americans that, aside from a few short-lived attempts at revolt, this is all that has taken place after 400 years. Indeed, my white ancestors did much worse (overthrew an empire) for much less (taxes).
As James Baldwin put it: “When any white man in the world says ‘give me liberty or give me death,’ the whole white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal.”
Of course, the objection goes, how are riots and looting a rational act of self-defense or conducted in the pursuit of liberty?
For one, I doubt an impeccably conventional and rule-following rebellion (if such a thing has ever existed) would issue much more than further repeats of “turn the other cheek” from the same audiences. So, this objection is in many instances, disingenuous.
It is also in one sense, a joke, built upon the age-old assumption that the “violence” of black people is random, irrational, greedy, and primitive. “Looting,” when it is more than understandable opportunism on the part of a desperate, looted, people, is also at least in some instances a calculated utterance against a world that cares more about profit and property than black lives, and is a predictable escalation after countless other methods have failed. Call it ethical or unethical, strategic or stupid, it is not random. It is certainly no more random than our own unconventional and boundary-breaking acts of violence on behalf of self-defense or liberty, conducted often without apology or even acknowledgement. We are the descendants of tea-ship-looters and ones who counted the collateral damage of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary for the common good. How many innocent small businesses were destroyed on that day? This should not incomprehensible to us, though we act as if it is.
But we also react as we do because we subconsciously, albeit incorrectly, fear that such actions represent our own most random, irrational, and primitive behaviors coming back to haunt us. We know deep down that we are the much more so the looters and rioters, and have engaged such not simply for the apparently just causes of liberty and self-defense, but also out of truly wanton and nihilistic pleasure in destruction — and we are afraid it might all return to us. This is a paranoia, and has most of all to do with our unutterable quest to justify further violence, with looters and rioters as an excuse, to satiate our guilt-laden terror.
I confess that I am mystified by the sudden penchant for non-violence among my fellow white evangelicals, as well as other white Americans. Many have been quick to jump to Jesus’s words about turning the other cheek, when the matter at hand is the potential of black “violence.” But what other violences have we tolerated, or even enjoyed? Have we turned the other cheek in the courtroom or at war? Are we willing to give back the precious commodities that all kinds of violence has bought for us — our precious “religious liberties,” our suburban churches and lives, the gasoline for our cars, our very identities? Indeed we, the white evangelicals in particular, have been among the quickest to vote for wars and torture, for Muslim bans to protect our central and privileged status in American society, for the deportation of immigrants and refugees back into war zones that our foreign policy helped create. We have been among the slowest to respond to racist police brutality and mass incarceration. I should be happy to welcome you to the cause of non-violence. But I am not. Where have you been?
Indeed where have I been, for I too am the unapologetic recipient of violence’s gifts, even as one who attempts to repudiate and resist all violence.
By no means is this to set up an impossible demand for self-flagellation and “virtue-signaling” before conversations of ethical action can be had. An infinite regression of moral compromise, although both theologically and historically valid (“for all have sinned”) on the surface, is problematic as an excuse for relativism or the law of retaliation. The pursuit of peace is still valid, I think, in spite of the compromise and contradiction.
This is instead more of a question of specks and logs, to borrow Christ’s saying. Can we hold ourselves and our history to the same standard to which we hold others? A selective and scrutinizing pacifism is morally dubious. Indeed, it is violent.
So yes, let all people of good-will be advocates for peace. But we, the white people of this country, must interrogate our centuries-long temptation to dictate the terms of engagement, when we allow no one else to dictate terms to us. This is not a moment for moral smugness or holier-than-thou centrism, but self-assessment, humility, and solidarity. I do believe there is a palpable shift on the part of at least some segments of white America on behalf of racial justice. Such change and consequent action, as Dr. King told us, is the only sure guarantor of future peace — not, he was careful to point out, the ultimately useless act of thumbing against rioters. But we have a long way to go to unlearn our unacknowledged hypocrisies and our oppressive, immoral, moralizing.
I still hope and pray that a future without compounded destruction is possible for us. But in this moment I am driven mostly to silence. All that I can say is that black lives matter. Black lives deserve to be protected. Black lives are to be cherished. Black lives deserve to stand up for themselves.