Saturday, December 14, 2013

Political Violence and Double Standards

Ta-Nehisi Coates had a brilliant post a few days ago about Mandela's use of violence to achieve his aims, and how we interpret that in light of our country's history:
Offered the chance to be free by the avowed white supremacist P.W. Botha if he would renounce violence, Mandela replied“Let him renounce violence.” Americans should understand this. Violent resistance to tyranny, violent defense of one's body, is not simply a political strategy in our country, it is taken as a basic human right. Our own revolution was purchased with the blood of 22,000 nascent American dead. Dissenters were tarred and feathered. American independence and American power has never rested on nonviolence, but on the willingness to do great—at times existential—violence...
In the shadow of our conversation, one sees a constant, indefatigable specter which has dogged us from birth. For the most of American history, very few of our institutions believed that black people were entitled to the rights of other Americans. Included in this is the right of self-defense. Nonviolence [in the civil rights movement] worked because it conceded that right in the pursuit of other rights. But one should never lose sight of the precise reasons why America preaches nonviolence to some people while urging other people to arms.
This is a nuanced and important point that I think modern Americans would benefit from understanding. The use of nonviolence during the civil rights movement was the only strategically viable option. Moreover, from a Christian perspective, it was the right choice. While affirming these two basic points, we must add a third, equally true: by the standards of American patriotism and by most people's understanding of basic human rights, had Black Americans chosen an armed struggle in the 1950s and 1960s it would have been an appropriate and moral action.

This straightforward idea is hard to argue against, but if carried through it really alters perceptions of the second half of the twentieth century, especially dynamics such as the Black Power movement.  

We should all be glad that Black Americans did not choose the route of armed struggle -- not, importantly, because it would have been wrong, but because it would have been hopeless. The disparities of power and population size would have quickly told, especially when the millions of Americans who wrapped themselves in the flag and extolled the Revolution of 1776 were exposed as lovers of their own freedom in particular rather freedom itself.

It is hard to imagine any tactic other than nonviolence producing results as positive as those the civil rights movement achieved. But that should not blind us to its shortcomings. In particular, it let White Americans off the hook, allowing them to tacitly accede to some moderate changes in the social order without ever truly grappling with its White supremacist foundations. Fundamental double-standards remain in American life, and they are revealed in stark form when we're forced to question when political violence is appropriate.

As a Christian, I do not believe violence would have been a legitimate moral means of obtaining Black Americans' freedom in the twentieth century. But we ought to be consistent. The American Revolution was even more unjustified and illegitimate from a Christian perspective.

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