As kid I remember watching documentary videos about the sit-ins held at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, and wondering to myself, “What would I have done if I were alive at that time?” If I am honest the answer is, “I don’t know.” (But I sure hope my conscience would have been moved to support them in some way.)
Part of the philosophy and practice of non-violent civil engagement is for persons to knowingly, intentionally, and peacefully place themselves into situations that will disrupt the status quo. In doing so, those involved know that this may indeed bring about a response that is coercive or violent. (This is not the intention, but is a potential outcome.) The point is that in peacefully breaking social norms and/or unjust laws, and in willingly submitting oneself to a potentially coercive or violent response, one is intentionally bringing to the surface the underlying injustice and inequality of the broader system. By doing this non-violently the full force of the unjust system is illuminated and exposed for its inherent weakness. Why else would others respond to otherwise peaceful acts with such violence or vengeance? It requires a tremendous amount of spiritual discipline to engage in these acts of non-violent acts of public witness. I am in awe of those who did this in 1960, those who have done it since, and those who continue to offer their bodies as peaceful witness and resistance to injustice.
I cannot claim to speak for the movement or the protests occurring here in St. Louis. However, it does seem to me that a similar dynamic is at play. Protesters have non-violently placed themselves in the heart of the place that is most sacred to American culture and identity – the mall. The place where we express our God-given freedom to buy things. And in doing so they have met with the same coercive violence that the lunch counter sit-in participants received in 1960. Are the women in this picture, sitting non-violently in the Clayton Mall, any real threat to…anyone? They are only a threat if we understand the deeper symbolism of structural injustice to which they are drawing our attention. Which is why they were held with their faces to the ground and a knee to the back. The inherent inequalities, and the violence required by society to perpetuate those inequalities, are once again in full display.
The display is now national, thanks in part to our President, who has the spiritual and moral discipline of a toddler (actually, I have a three-year-old and that’s not fair to her). Colin Kaepernick exercised not only his right as a citizen, but also moral courage, when he took a knee during the national anthem last year in a silent protest against ongoing police killing of black men all over the country. It was effective because it was symbolic. Was Kaepernick’s kneeling a threat to anyone? Not directly, but his action was understood as defying two other sacred symbols of our culture – the flag and Sunday football.
Not one to take such an affront to our national rights to couch potato patriotism lightly, President Trump responded to “that Son of Bitch” by indicating that NFL owners would be patriots and national heroes for firing people like Kaepernick. Then there was yesterday. Players took a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick and in defiance of the President, and their owners have unequivocally supported them – including Robert Kraft, who has identified himself as a friend of the President, and is the owner of the New England PATRIOTS! (could the irony be any richer?).
Once again the inherent weakness of the system that perpetuates legal, economic, and social inequalities based on race is exposed in all its weakness by a few simple, but deeply symbolic, acts of non-violence from persons who would otherwise not be in possession of high amounts of cultural capital. I don’t claim to have all – or really any – of the answers. In the midst of this struggle, I continue to hear the words of Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of my Catholic tradition, who challenges us to go to the margins of society and be challenged by the encounters and relationships we find there:
in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.
- Evangelii Gaudium, #198
This is no feel-good theology. This is the deep and disruptive movement of grace, working upon each of us, one soul at at a time. I continue to seek places to show up, to listen, to be evangelized, and to respond with solidarity in any small way that I can. As we all respond to what we are seeing in the media, what we are reading on social media, the fear and anxiety and anger of our culture, the contemplative path is to be dissatisfied with any easy answers. These symbolic public acts hold up a mirror to our complacence. We may not always like what we see, but the contemplative journey has been described as “a long, loving look at the real.” The only true freedom, the only true justice is found in holding that gaze and acting in response, even when we are disturbed by what we see. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we do have to be open to the answers into which our actions and our commitments may lead.