Late in the afternoon of July 17 I heard the news that C.T. Vivian, an iconic civil rights leader, had passed away; later in the day, the passing of Congressman John Lewis filled the airwaves. A feeling of profound sadness enveloped me. I did not know C.T. Vivian except for what I knew and read of the struggles he endured in shaping the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s. John Lewis I had the privilege of meeting on two occasions; one of times we shared a rather lengthy discussion. He was an amazing man!
Both of these men were fearless, unequivocally committed to justice and filled with a deep faith that propelled them to action. Despite being mocked, beaten, disrespected and jailed, their faith and focus never faltered. Each was steadfast in his belief that nonviolence was a path to conversion and that nonviolent social action was a means to accomplish justice.
The lives of these men have led me to reflect about the future of nonviolence as a tool for social change. The initial and most profound conversion for each of them, as well as for each of us, is our own personal decision to live a life of nonviolence. This nonviolent belief must manifest itself in our thoughts and choices as well as our actions and interactions. It is a lifetime of learning and relearning what a nonviolent lifestyle really means. Faith, steadfastness and grace accompany the journey.
In the current climate of protest and especially in the Black Lives Matter movement, there is much for us to contemplate about nonviolence. The protestors have often acted nonviolently, only to be met by violent force attempting to disrupt and discredit their actions. This response is similar to that experienced by protestors during the civil rights movement.
The skills and strategies of nonviolent protests are well known to many of us. Prior to participating in a demonstration, we may have signed an agreement to conduct ourselves nonviolently during the action. If we planned to be arrested, we were trained in how to respond to violence directed against us. Knowing these tactics and putting them into practice is a cognitive approach. What of the affective aspect of nonviolence?
The affective, feeling level of nonviolence runs deep. How does one overcome anger while being kicked, beaten or handcuffed? How does one not return hatred for hatred? Maintaining love for the oppressor is the essence of nonviolence. Not love for the action, not love for the injustice, but rather love for the humanity present before me. Only a deep commitment, the grace of a higher power and the belief that “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a flowing stream” (Amos 5:24) sustain one to stay in the struggle.
We, as Mercy, aspire to and have committed ourselves to work to create a culture of nonviolence. The first step must begin with each of us disarming our own hearts, and seeking to live a more nonviolent lifestyle. The challenge is great but not impossible.
C.T. Vivian and John Lewis were individuals, like each of us, but their faith, commitment and passion for racial justice led them on a journey. They believed in the transformation of hearts, minds and souls that had the possibility to create a more just and equitable world for all. We are called and challenged to do the same.