The violence of nonviolence

“Get up, boy!” the voice hissed in my right ear. I could feel the chair shake as the person stood behind me and tried to forcefully shake me out of my chair.

“He said get up, you filthy ***. This place ain’t fer your kind.” The counter to my right banged sharply in my left ear as the other man slapped his hands down on the counter, trying to disrupt my calm state.

The noise in Woolworth’s cafe was loud, and jostling, and while not everyone in the crowd was coming up to the counter to intentionally harass me, there was a continual throng of noise, of people telling me to leave, of people telling me they knew where my family lived and if I cared about them, I should leave, of people dropping plates on the counter right in front of me, the glass shattering. I kept my eyes closed as long as I could.

I opened them. The red digital clock in front of me read 59 seconds. 


59 seconds. That’s how long I would have lasted doing a sit-in if I was part of the student non-violent coordinating committee’s de-segregation protests.

I wasn’t actually sitting at a lunch counter protesting segregation. My husband and I were at the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights, walking through the section on the American Civil Rights movement. In the corner of one of the rooms is a lunch counter with four chairs. A museum worker makes sure anyone who wants to try the interactive exhibit is over 13 years old. You sit in one of the seats, place headphones on your head, and place your hands flat on the counter in front of you, just like the protestors did in the 60’s. Although your chair looks like a normal cafe stool, it’s rigged to jostle and shake along with the audio. Before the noise of the counter surrounds you, the voice of a SNCC volunteer tells you it’s going to be scary, but you’re going to be okay, and you should just concentrate on breathing and blocking out all the noise.

59 seconds.

Before the end of the school year in 1960 when the sit-in started, over 1500 college students had been arrested. Sometimes they sat from open until close at those lunch counters before being hauled off to prison. Enduring hours and hours of psychological and physical abuse.

I’ve been thinking about how much white people love Martin Luther King Jr. How we compare his peaceful protests and nonviolent movement with some of the disruptive activities of protestors today and say, “Why can’t everyone just be peaceful and nonviolent? It worked last time!”

But I realized most of the time when I think of MLK and the nonviolent movement, I’m thinking about it backwards. The term nonviolent trips me up. It’s easy for me to think that all this social change happened without violence.

That’s not true. The Civil Rights movement was a very violent time period. It’s just that rather than the violence being directed at the white oppressors, Civil Rights leaders taught their movement followers to voluntarily receive violence from white oppressors in the belief that unearned suffering has redemptive qualities– that it would awaken white consciousness and bring social change.

The Civil Rights movement was not peaceful. MLK didn’t just march to Washington, sing some songs, and new legislation came down from the White House.  People were beaten. People endured horrific abuse. People died.

We went to church in Montgomery, Alabama at Ralph Abernathy’s old church (friend and co-leader of MLK). The preacher came down to hold our hands and sing the benediction with us, as we were the only visitors that day (and only white people… so we kind of stood out). Afterwards, the mostly elderly congregation welcomed us and chatted a bit. One of the members, a grey-haired professor at Concordia, told us to look out for a small memorial on the way from Montgomery to Selma. “That’s where my dear friend’s father was lynched.” She said. “He had a good business and was found riddled with bullet holes for being an uppity black. No one was convicted.”

Over 4000 African Americans were lynched in the South between 1877 and 1950 in America.

There was So Much violence.

We drove to Selma. We walked over Edmund Pettus bridge, the path that nonviolent protestors, led by John Lewis, took in their march from Selma to Montgomery, protesting their lack of voting rights. It was on this bridge that these marchers were attacked and beaten by local posses and state police. The video footage of Bloody Sunday did awaken the white consciousness. Hundreds of people, mostly clergy, over 1/3rd white, came down to join the march after that. In the end, LBJ signed the Voting Rights act. The strategy worked.

But there was so much violence leading up to that moment.


John Lewis leads the march over Edmund Pettus Bridge

59 seconds. It was strange, sitting at that lunch counter. It was the first time it really hit me, on an experiential level, how much courage and bravery it takes to endure violence nonviolently. How much courage and bravery it takes to willingly put yourself in a position to suffer violence in the first place. It was strange, as a white person in 2017, hearing all that hatred spewed at me, and realizing it was other white people who were saying all those filthy things.

It’s easy as a white person to think nostalgically about MLK. To think his way was the only viable way to bring social change. But the white tribe in America doesn’t bear scars from years of slave beatings, lynchings, and beatings at the hands of white police. The white tribe doesn’t bear scars of daily abuse because of our race, let alone the psychological scars that come from directly putting ourselves in the line of that abuse in an attempt to bring change.

I’m so thankful for the legacy of MLK, John Lewis, and other nonviolent leaders like them. I believe in their ideals and the dream of a beloved community that has space for white people, too. But it struck me this weekend in a new way that the high cost of America’s redemption from most forms of institutional racism was born by the victims. The cost was born by ordinary black men and women who already were victims of violence and abuse. That, of course, is the way of the cross, the way of forgiveness. But it’s not natural.

And then there’s this other part I was thinking of: when we try to talk about reconciliation, and black people ask white people for some kind of accounting for the past, some kind of restitution, some way of acknowledging the cost and trying to make things right…we white people are baffled.

I think maybe we only find this desire for restitution confusing because we have yet to grasp the depth of the violence black people experienced in this country at the hands of white people.

We’re going to have to get a lot more uncomfortable before the real conversation can even start.

I get it. So now what?


Some people read my first post and were confused or hurt. I tried to address that in this post. Others of you read it and were like- “Yeah, I get this! But what can I do about it?”

I’ve tried to gather together some resources and some things I’ve learned about racial reconciliation into one post. This is especially targeted at white people. Most of these are things I’ve learned from other smarter, more seasoned people of color. Hopefully you’ll click on links and read their words yourself! 🙂 And please share ideas below of things you are doing (or wish could be done!)

Continue reading

Gracism: The art of radical inclusion

Oookay that last post ended up going to a much broader audience than I intended! I’m thankful to the people who have kept their comments civil, as this is something the internet discourages us from doing these days. That’s what we Christians do, it’s part of our witness to the watching world. We disagree, but we can have civil conversation about it , we still see people as made in God’s image, we resist the temptation to overgeneralize and defame. Thank you to those who have shown this is possible, even when emotions are running high.

To my friends who voted for Trump (and I say friends, because you are! I know and love you, and I know you are not hateful, KKK-loving crazies) – I’m sorry if my words caused you pain, if you felt like I was painting you into the corner as the bad guys. My intention was simply to point out the real pain that I’ve witnessed in the church from the things Trump himself and some of his supporters have said and done. I think many of us in the church naively thought we could vote on a platform and separate that from the person, without realizing the real hurt that would cause to the most vulnerable members of the body of Christ. And that’s what I care about- the hurt to the vulnerable members of our body. Continue reading

On referendums and supreme court rulings to bring social justice

I’ve been thinking a lot about politics lately (as you can tell) and the role that politics play in bringing social justice. We’ve been listening to More Perfect (a podcast about the US Supreme Court) and it’s been blowing my mind.

Recently we listened to a podcast about test-case trials. In cases where people feel the law is unjust, or needs to be challenged or reinterpreted, but there’s no way to get that through the normal political process (like the State representatives voting on it), Civil Right’s activists find a case where an individual is being treated unfairly under the law, and take the issue to court.  Continue reading

Holy Saturday, the day of waiting (or, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Miroslav Volf & NT Wright have a conversation about bodies)

Christ is dead in the tomb. Everything is suspended.The congregation is silent, sitting and mourning the death of Prince, a black youth murdered by a police officer (or all of us), and the death of Christ, murdered by jealous rivals (or all of us). Miroslav Volf steps to the front and speaks in a slightly European accent: 

“It’s painful. Death is horrible. I know that you are speaking about his life having a higher purpose in order to make meaning for yourselves. To cope. You’re weaving Prince’s story into the larger story of your Christian faith, and you’re saying that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. That’s in the Bible, it’s true.

But stop! Continue reading

Good Friday: The Day God Dies (or Ta-Nahesi Coates, Miroslav Volf & N.T. Wright have a conversation about bodies)

We are all gathered in a small chapel for our normal good Friday service, the candles are lit, the incense is ready, but then Ta-Nahesi Coates stands up in the middle of the service, faces the congregation, and begins to speak:

“When a black man dies, everyone wants to talk about forgiving the killer.They want to weave his death into some kind of higher meaning, some purpose. But I don’t believe in God. I believe in bodies. When I sat in the church Prince’s funeral, my black friend who was rich, well educated, whose mother had groomed him for Yale, when I sat there I couldn’t see a higher purpose in his death. Continue reading

An Uprooting

lent.jpgIt’s Lent. It’s a time we in the church make time and space for God to uproot things in our lives, so he can plant something good.

We start out by admitting our frailness, and our propensity to be bent along the lines of a broken and sinful world around us, instead of walking in the straight and life-giving path of life in the Spirit.

We receive ashes, slashed grey on our foreheads, and we’re told “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.” You are fleeting. You are frail. You will fail.

One of the most difficult and most obvious truths I learned the first time I went to counseling back in college was: “It takes work to be healthy.”  Continue reading

Nation Building: Our country, not “this country”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY.jpgI’ve been out of the loop on the #Zumamustfall campaigns that spread across South Africa at the end of last year calling for the removal of our corrupt president (protestors are pointing to things like Nkandla, the mansion Zuma built with tax payer money- protest chant is simply “Pay back the money!”) I’ve been out of the loop because I’m in America, and I’ve been out of the loop because the articles that my black South African friends are sharing on social media aren’t super supportive of the movement. Yes, many South Africans across racial lines want Zuma to be held accountable, agree that the ANC is becoming complacent with their power–using it for themselves (the few) rather than to benefit the many. But the biggest critique I’m hearing is that these protests are springing up because Zuma sacked the finance minister and that put the Rand in a downward spiral and the best way to get white South Africa to turn out to protest is mess with the economy. When poor people are out there protesting about the rising cost of food, but the Rand has stabilized, will white South Africa still be there? Continue reading