This week I’ve been proofing a manuscript by a wise and widely-read Episcopal priest, Gary Commins. Commins’s upcoming book with Cascade is If Only We Could See. A work in theological spirituality, it explores mysticism and activism dialectically, showing ultimately how mysticism and activism are not at odds, but complement each other. Along the way, Commins frequently examines Niebuhrian realism and the way of nonviolence, especially in Merton, King, and Gandhi. Here’s an excerpt in that vein, arguing that violence ultimately turns in on itself and accomplishes what it attempts to prevent.
Violence calculates means and ends. It exults. It is quick. It is irreversible. Nonviolence is a seed growing secretly. It grieves. It takes time. It endures.
King took this invisible path in the late 1960s when nonviolence had lost its fleeting cachet. King did not merely take the obvious, if controversial, antiwar stance—he opposed all violence. In the mid-1960s, abetted by the martyred Malcolm X, the Black Power movement, and the Black Panther Party, the ideological debate among African Americans, ever mirroring the dominant culture, tilted toward violence as self-defense or as a means to justice. It was not only a foreign and foolhardy war King objected to. He rejected that supposedly revolutionary violence popular in urban and academic settings. To oppose violence in the African American community in the late sixties was tantamount to advocating a nonviolent response to Japan after December 7, or to Al Qaeda after September 11, or to any and every Simon Legree any and every day of any and every year. To oppose violence was to be seen as passé, an Uncle Tom, a Judas. Yet King says:
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Two decades earlier, shortly after World War II, when the triumph over Nazism seemed to place a crowning wreath around the myth of violence, Howard Thurman argues not only that history shows that people never tire of proclaiming the presumed blessings of violence, but also a simple reality: violence never works. Violence, he says, is deceptive because it seems “efficient” and “effective.” In reality “it stampedes, overruns, pushes aside and carries the day.” It is “the ritual and the etiquette of those who stand in a position of overt control in the world.” People “resort to violence” because they are unwilling to be patient or unable to be creative.
This twentieth-century–African American testimony echoes George Fox’s message to Cromwell. In hindsight, reassurance about Quaker nonviolence seems redundant, but some contemporary continental Anabaptist sects had embraced the purported purging force of violence, and Cromwell, like all of England, was suspicious of the Friends. So Fox told him, “The Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move toward it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against anyone with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.”
Whenever revolutionaries or warriors or academics or religious leaders propose violence as a solution, they lose sight of the infinite value of each life. Jesus declares that all that is holy rejoices in the salvation of one person (Luke 15:7, 10). The Talmud argues that to kill one person is to destroy a world; to save one person is to save a world. The intrinsic value of each life is the essence of Ivan Karamazov’s protest: the suffering of one child blots out the goodness of creation. Every violent death is a sacrifice to Moloch, the triumph of Mars, and a holocaust. Every cruelty is as toxic as Chernobyl, polluting planner, perpetrator, witness, and victim through time and space.
Merton and King reject violence as the quintessential destroyer. Nothing else so irreparably obliterates the innate value of human dignity. No other human activity so desecrates the spirit. Nothing else we do is so primly, proudly, and bloodily Manichean. No other extension of politics by other means (von Clausewitz) is so bloated with a mythology of redemption. Ideologies of violence argue that we can diminish evil by destroying life. The logic of calculating Caiaphas in urging Jesus’ execution (John 11:50) is the cornerstone of every war, every witch trial, every act of terrorism, every revolution and counterrevolution. Every war is thought to be the war to end all wars, yet every act of violence contains within it the seeds of the Final Solution.