The Descent into Violence
America is a violent country in every sense of the word – wars abroad, racial ethnic strife, mass shootings, police brutality, gang violence, hate crimes, rape, and domestic violence are reported daily. I can hardly scroll through my Twitter or Facebook feed without video footage of people fighting or arguing over something. It doesn’t take long before the argument gets personal, sometimes nasty. This is not to mention our insatiable social thirst for violence in sports and entertainment – hit ‘em, kick ‘em, break his neck, kill ‘em. But our problem with violence is not just physical, it is also verbal and emotional. While many of us may not be on the battlefield with a gun or engaged in physical altercations recorded for voyeurs to view on social media, many of us participate in another form of violence we believe is somehow more respectable than these other forms. Verbal and emotional violence is widespread today yet neglected and not thought of as problematic. Why is this the case?
Our neglect is rooted in a misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of violence. Violence is often defined as the use of physical force to injure, abuse, or destroy in dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster and Oxford. It is also understood as a form of aggression by the American Psychological Association. The word force is important. Often our understanding of force is physical and that is why we miss the basic and core dimensions of violence. We associate force with physical acts of aggression – pushing, hitting, and or using a weapon to inflict harm or death. But there is more to violence than physical acts. Violence also involves both actions and words. Violence does two things. First, it disregards the basic dignity all persons deserve. Second, this disregard results in actions that we characterize as violent – actions that invade mental, emotional, physical, and social boundaries. Those actions can be physical and verbal. The point I want to make here is that not only can we use force physically, we can also use it in verbal ways to inflict harm emotionally and psychologically. This fundamental aspect of violence has been ignored for too long.
My question for readers is “What would it mean to apply this basic understanding of the nature of violence to the ways we talk to one another as citizens?” When I answered this question a few months ago it opened my eyes to the fact that our political discourse has a violent dimension we have missed. On all the major news networks and social media platforms, we have descended into a retaliatory approach of communication as we spend our days attacking, insulting, and belittling one another. Today our citizenry follow leaders – Democratic, Republican, Independent, Liberal and Conservative – who have embraced verbal violence and employ it to ground and advance their political careers, campaigns, offices, policies, and public service. Worse yet, they engage in verbal political violence themselves. This is a small part of a broader political crisis others are noticing. Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic, waded into these issues in a provocative essay titled “A Nation Coming Apart.”
Out of the conversations, and others like it, emerged the idea for the special issue you are now reading, what we have called “How to Stop a Civil War.” We don’t believe that conditions in the United States today resemble those of 1850s America. But we worry that the ties that bind us are fraying at alarming speed – we are becoming contemptuous of each other in ways that are both dire and possibly irreversible (Goldberg, 8).
An issue invoking language of a civil war should cause alarm as animosity and division run bone deep in this country. Jonathan Rauch’s article “Rethinking Polarization” in National Affairs examines the dire conditions of polarization today. He begins with a story of a mechanic called to help a motorist but left her stranded because of her political affiliation. Human decency and civility are declining. I found his assessment of our inability to compromise as a rejection of governance incredibly insightful as well as his analysis of the tribal nature of partisanship today and its threat on liberal democratic ideals. Yoni Appelbaum’s essay in the aforementioned issue of The Atlantic “How America Ends” references startling research by Vanderbilt University that show how “both Republicans and Democrats (are) distressingly willing to dehumanize members of the opposite party” (Applebaum, 46). Researchers found that our political rhetoric describes members of the opposite party as lacking basic human traits. This is where we are today. Appelbaum then notes how “overheated rhetoric has helped radicalize some individuals who resort to violence.
This is just a small sample of work being done on the condition of our political system today and this work shows just how low we have sunk into the morass of evil all “in the name of good – God, country, political party, and ideology.”
Verbal Violence and Politics
For a citizenry that spends so much time paying lip service to Jesus Christ (remember WWJD – what would Jesus do) and leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who sought to live by his example, it is evident that we have not heeded their warnings about the temptation to be drawn into evils like retaliatory violence – verbal and physical. Given the moral condition in which we find ourselves as a society, I felt led by God to use this quarter’s article from The Black Pulpit and Public Square to open our eyes to this with hopes that we will find a different path in 2020 and beyond. We need a better way to take up political work that respects our common destiny while recognizing the many ways we differ on how to get there.
While I applaud the passion and care of many fighting to make this country a better place and those who enter public service to make a difference, the retaliatory “eye for an eye” approach is politically impractical and religiously immoral. For one, it is a betrayal of both basic ideals this country was founded upon and a betrayal of the religion of Jesus who taught his followers to resist participating in the evils of retaliatory violence and hate. In fact, Jesus taught that we should not retaliate with violence and that we should we should not curse others, a clear reference to verbal dimensions of violence (Matthew 5:38-48). I am surprised by how many religious leaders participate in verbal violence themselves and encourage others to participate in it.
As I conclude the first essay, I hope readers do not employ reductionist thinking such as “here’s another minister telling us to play nice in a field that requires toughness.” Such thinking reflects a misunderstanding of the depth of what Jesus is challenging us to do in Matthew 5 by refusing to allow violence to be our common response or to use a term from computer technology our “default” political setting. What Jesus is calling for – a commitment to love and good in the face of evil and violence – speaks to the character, internal strength, discipline required to be a nonviolent leader who can talk and disagree with someone without resorting to verbal violence. I refuse to believe these principles are not appropriate in politics, especially when so many profess to be Christians. So, my next article will explore the deeper problems with this form of political violence and provide constructive ways to practice “verbal” nonviolence in politics.
King on Nonviolence: A Lesson for Political Discourse Today
We need a different model of leadership today and an appropriate place to begin the work of developing such models is by revisiting one of America’s great theologians and prophets, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though often quoted, most Americans do not understand the substance of his thought. One of the most misunderstood aspects of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence was that he encouraged passivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. King believed in resisting oppression and challenging injustice. He stood up for righteousness, truth, and justice. King was not passive at all. He was principled in that he believed that you cannot challenge and dismantle unjust systems employing any form of violence. King modeled what it means to be centered in love and committed to not allowing hate and violence dictate how he chose to respond to injustice.
This aspect of his legacy is sorely needed today because leaders today think that verbal and emotional violence should be tools of choice in politics. In the early years of the Civil Rights movement, King explained important aspects of his understanding of nonviolence and made three statements this country needs to hear.
The Most Durable Power (1956) – Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.
The Power of Nonviolence (1957) – Another basic thing we had to get over is that nonviolent resistance is also an internal matter. It not only avoids external violence or external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. And so at the center of our movement stood the philosophy of love.
An Experiment in Love (1950s) – I stressed that the use of violence in our struggle would be both impractical and immoral. To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate; violence begets violence…We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with our soul free.
His words are clear. There is little need for commentary. However, there are five statements King made that apply to the issue of verbal violence in politics. First, Dr. King reminds us that it is important to use Christian methods and weapons in justice work. His words and his warning teach important lessons for political discourse today. Doing social justice and or political work, work wrongly assumed to fall outside the parameters of religion, is not an excuse to adopt unchristian methods and principles, especially those that warn about the reckless use of the tongue (James 2). There are higher principles rooted in Scripture that guide and ground how we take up this work.
Second, he challenges us not allow anyone to pull us into hatred and violence. His sober reminder not to succumb to the temptation to become what you hate is vital today. In debates about issues we must be resist the temptation to give into lesser impulses and passions – name calling. shouting matches, trading insults, belittling others, and dog whistling. These are all manifestations of a culture of violence that has our seized political discourse today.
Third, he draws attention to the violence of the spirit or what I describe as violence within oneself or recognizing one’s capacity for violence. King’s words challenge us to identify the hate and violence within us that fuels these responses and not draw on them in the work we do in the public square. Doing this will require discipline and strength that must nurtured in prayer, meditation, mindfulness, confession, and other spiritual practices that free the soul from the shackles of violence.
Fourth, King insists that hate and violence only produces more hate and violence. What this implies here is that what fuels or animates our work can have a positive or negative effect. Dr. King would say that ideas, policy proposals, and analyses saturated in violence will never produce healing and vitality into our republic. Violence’s undergirding influence will always counter attempts to imagine, craft, and pass policies and laws that address the widespread violence tearing at the fabric of society. If we do not stop the cycle, violence will only produce the very thing we are trying to avoid – more verbal, emotional, and physical violence.
Finally, he warns if we succumb to the temptation of using violence, it will produce an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Shouting others down, questioning the intelligence of others, and demonizing others as the embodiment of evil is not making your point and advancing your cause. It is participating in violence and only produces an endless cycle of retaliatory violence. That is partisan politics today and endemic of the broader ways we engage with one another as citizens. I worry about the chaos future generations will reap as we nurture a generation of young people on this way of communicating. It bears repeating. Our children are watching us and listening to us and what they are seeing is disturbing.
What King argues here requires more than a “playing nice” but instead challenges the character and depth of a person. We need political leaders, commentators, and an electorate with enough character to find constructive ways to have difficult conversations and disagreements without resorting to the politics of violence.
My Model of Nonviolent Political Discourse
As I conclude, what both Jesus and Dr. King teach model a political form of nonviolence that can infuse civility into our discourse. In fact, I want to offer practical suggestions that inform my work as a scholar, minister, and leader. Paul told a young pastor named Timothy something of importance for my understanding of verbal nonviolence. “God did not give us the spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). You will notice that Dr. King uses the word power when talking about love and nonviolence. The word power is important. When others are exerting the force of their words against you, they are, attempting to use power against you, to overpower you. Like Paul, Dr. King understood that we have power, too. We do not have to be afraid and we do not have to retaliate or “return evil for evil.” We have power not to be overcome by abusive power and we can use power in constructive, not destructive ways.
Discernment and Humility
The New Testament talks about discernment and humility. Both are an essential part of nonviolent political discourse. Discernment in 1 Corinthians 12 is the ability to differentiate the influence of good from evil. Gospel writers record stories that show Jesus was aware of deeper motivations for questions and responded with such an awareness instead of blind engagement (Matthew 9:4; Mark 10:2; Luke 10:25, 11:17; John 8:6). Paul encouraged the Ephesians to remember the deeper spiritual dimensions behind “flesh and blood” interactions (Ephesians 6:12). These stories and teachings remind us of forces and powers influencing verbal interactions so there is a recognition of what is said and why or what’s motivating specific words, which is an invaluable gift. Discernment in the Bible is not just a deeper recognition of motivations, but it also means wisdom, which is ability to rightly utilize knowledge. The implication here is it is one thing to have an awareness of evil and insight but another thing to know what to do with it in each situation.
Political nonviolence for me means having discernment that is exercised in two ways. First, it is exercised in debates and discussions about political issues. Discernment equips us not to be drawn into ugly verbal confrontations when respectful dialogue that seeks understanding breaks down. Like an inner warning alarm, discernment enables us to be alert to the turn toward violence so that we do not succumb to the temptation to insult. Second, discernment applies to media platforms we utilize, support, and allow ourselves to be exposed to. Just because media platforms exist and are popular does not mean we are beholden to them and or must support them. Doing this only ensures minimal accountability, which is not a good thing. We need to be measured and discriminating in our support of media platforms and programs that encourage and recklessly promote verbal violence.
Discernment must be exercised with humility. Humility is appropriately described as “not thinking too highly of oneself” (Romans 12:3) and is important because it provides a check on personal, partisan, or any form of group arrogance that assumes we are always right and better than others. The belief that we are better than others is an expression of pride, the opposite of humility in New Testament writings, that should always be checked. Yes, we should have our beliefs and convictions, but they should be held with the humble recognition that our best ideas are always riddled with elements of self-interest. Humility should tamp down or check the level of assertion and aggression we employ to make out point. Humility is a check that can prevent one from descending into verbal violence.
Composure is a second important aspect of political non-violence I have found helpful. I have studied Martin Luther King Jr.’s behavior in television interviews and learned valuable skills that nurture composure in me as a leader. King did two things that stood out for me. He was a principled communicator who did not allow himself to be distracted by ancillary issues. He also used what I call “strategic pauses” that provide moment to discern both the meaning and tenor or “spirit” of the question. James describes such pauses as being “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath” (James 1:19). Cultivating the kind of self-control and discipline spoken of in Galatians 5 and learning skills modeled by King, can build important skills that help you to do three things. First, it can help you to reframe questions in constructive ways. Second, it provides ways to redirect hostile energy so you can remain centered and respond appropriately when dialogue breaks down and turns to violence. Third, it enables you to find points of commonality with people posturing themselves in adversarial ways. In the end, composure helps you keep conversations on issues and ideas and not unprincipled and morally problematic practices like insulting individual persons or groups.
Discernment, humility, and composure are powerful tools we have at our disposal to practice verbal political nonviolence. Yes, nonviolence must be taught and practiced. It is the only way to build up the spiritual muscles and discipline to do the right thing in the face of violence. In the end, there is a way to salvage the way we talk to one another before even more damage is done to this nation, we all love. The way is by turning to Scripture and writings by leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and committing ourselves as leaders and voters to the long process of changing the way we choose to talk with one another. Only then can we overcome the undercurrent of violence long neglected in political discourse today.
Lewis Brogdon (Ph.D.) is the Director of the Institute for Black Church Studies and Research Professor at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville Kentucky.