Nonviolence after Charlottesville

Harry C. Boyte

Prospect Park United Methodist Church, August 27, 2017

John 8:2-11 tells the story of how the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking whether he agreed with Mosaic Law that an adulterous woman should be stoned to death. It also points to a nonviolent way of seeing and acting beyond the crisis in our society and our world. The story communicates the complicity of us all in the world’s problems and also affirms that we all are made in the image of God.

Jesus is doing two things in the story. He is saying that we all are sinners. “Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” Jesus requests. Jane Addams, the settlement house leader in Chicago, said much the same thing in her 1902 book, Democracy as Social Ethics. “We are all involved in this political corruption,” she wrote. “None of us can stand aside; our feet are mired in the same soil, and our lungs breathe the same air.” 1 Addams was challenging not actions but people like the Pharisees who stand outside the “common lot” and judge. In her case it was the rising group of professionals who saw themselves as outside experts, fixing fix communities from the outside. She contrasted such professionals negatively with the corrupt ward boss in the Chicago political machine whom she constantly battled. The ward boss’s corruption did real damage to the neighborhood. But he was involved with the life of the people. Jesus does not ignore the act of adultery. He is also asking us to see in the woman our own entanglement in the soil and air of humanity.

Jesus is also saying something else: We have an immensity within. “Neither do I condemn you,” he told the woman. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” This capacity to leave sin and pursue something better flows from God’s love embodied in the divine image within us. John Nelson, the 18th century English poet and clergyman who converted to Christianity and gave up captaincy of a slave ship called it “Amazing Grace,” the song he wrote. Just as we have a hard time acknowledging our sins, all too often we ignore our inner immensity. Genesis 1:27 reads “God created humankind in the image of God.” Put differently, this is the radical love of God for humans and for creation. John Wesley, in Character of a Methodist, argued that radical love of others must flow from the love of God. “Salvation means holiness of heart,” wrote Wesley. “A Methodist is one who has the love of God given by the Holy Ghost….” More, “one who loves God loves his brother and sister also.” They do good “unto neighbors and strangers, unto friends and also enemies, unto their souls as well as their bodies.”

In his book Stride Toward Freedom, distilling the nonviolent philosophy of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Martin Luther King called such love the “center of nonviolence” “Hate corrodes the personality and eats away at its vital unity,” wrote King. “The nonviolent approach does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had.”2

A particular kind of love is at work. “We are not referring to some sentimental or affectionate emotion,” said King. “It would be nonsense to urge people to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense.” King called nonviolent love redemptive goodwill, using the Greek agape. He described it as “the love of God operating in the human heart.” King proposed that “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people. It begins by loving others for their sakes.” The best expression, King said, is love of the enemy.

I like the term public love and I want to point out that public love includes more than refraining from hating. It is a way of knowing, what in philosophical terms is called an epistemology. As King puts in his second principle of nonviolence, nonviolence calls us to understand our enemies not seek to defeat or humiliate them. Public love looks past the misdeeds of our enemies and discerns the immensity within them. This is respect for the potential of others, even those they are guilty of violence or hatred. Nonviolence is an epistemology of respect.

It may sound simple. But in fact it is a profound challenge to us all in the age of Donald Trump and the Charlottesville march by neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the Klu Klux Klan two weeks ago in Charlottesville Virginia.

I should note a personal connection. In 1962, less than sixty miles away from Charlottesville, my father, Harry George Boyte, was working for the American Friends Service Committee and living in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Several years before, in 1958, he had helped to create an organization in Georgia called HOPE, Help Our Public Education. HOPE successfully fought to keep the public schools open, in the face of demagoguery from political leaders who were calling for schools to be closed rather than integrated. In Prince Edward County, public schools had in fact been closed. Southwestern Virginia has long been a hot bed of the Klan and the Neo-Nazis. In June, before going to Philadelphia for a Quaker work camp, I drove into Farmville in Prince Edward and passed Nazi swastikas on signs, like a trail of breadcrumbs. They ended with a giant swastika painted on a wall across from my father’s apartment. Later that summer while I was up north, a group of men grabbed my father outside his apartment. They stripped him naked and threatened to castrate him. He had a nervous breakdown and the experience damaged his physical and mental health for the rest of his life.

I had great anger against white supremacists and also my father’s family, southerners who disowned us when dad became one of a handful of southern whites who spoke out against segregation. I was also fortunate to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. SCLC taught ways to discipline anger, like confronting violent abuse, physical or verbal, with strength, dignity, and boldness.

But such experiences did not immunize me from the seductions of the world’s dominant ways of thinking and acting. In the early 1970s I was deeply involved in developing the mobilizing culture of activism. I researched and wrote widely on new big business groups like the Business Roundtable which sought to roll back the environmental, consumer, affirmative action and progressive tax legislation of the 1960s movements. I defended sophisticated techniques and technologies used to activate allies against enemies. It took me a long time to understand that the mobilizing culture generates a Manichean mindset, posing every issue as a struggle of good versus evil, which is radically reductive. It forgets that we breathe the same air and it renders invisible the image of God within everyone. The mobilizing culture and the Manichean mindset have come to shape the dominant ways great issues of our time are addressed, including climate change, racial injustice, and inequality.

In 1974 Citizens for a Better Environment invented the modern canvass powered by a formula. The canvass involves paid staff going door to door on an issue, raising money and collecting signatures. The formula that makes it work identifies an enemy. It defines the issue in reductionist, good- versus-evil terms in order to produce majority support. It makes mass activation of citizens efficient because hatred is an uncomplicated emotion to manipulate. “We’ve discovered how to sell progressive politics door to door, like selling encyclopedias,” was the boast of the canvass creators. Canvassers are usually barred from having any serious discussion with those they meet at the door. In 1986, I published a book, Citizen Action and the New American Populism, with Steve Max and Heather Booth, founder of the Midwest Academy which served as the hub for spreading the canvass, which was a justification of the canvass.

Over the past four decades many canvass operations have developed including most the major environmental and consumer organizations and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) network on college campuses. By the time I came to the Humphrey Institute in 1987 I had also come to see its unintended consequences. Most of my Humphrey graduate students had canvassed. Almost all described burnout and disillusionment with its scripted, manipulative qualities. 3

The Manichean formula, polarizing strategies, and the disrespect for opponents which such practices produce have spread like the southern creeper kudzu. Originally a cover on roadsides to control soil erosion, kudzu now strangles whole forests. Mobilizing practices polarize civic life, objectify and abstract “the enemy,” erode citizenship, and communicate that politics is warfare. A handbook called “Heroes Narrative,” used by progressive groups around the country, teaches how to frame every issue as a struggle of heroes versus villains. 4

New technologies dramatically increase the reach of polarizing methods. They are used on both right and left, in robo-calls, internet mobilizations, talk radio, cable news, Michael Moore’s documentaries, and Karl Rove’s “axis of evil” framework after 9-11. It shaped the election of 2016 on both sides. A report by Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann, “How Big Data Broke American Politics,” details the increasingly polarized campaigns and politics over the last two decades. “Polarization isn’t new, but it’s definitely worse than it was 20 years ago,” they write. “And thanks to technology and the manipulation of demographic data, those charged with the setting and resetting of American politics…have set the stage and conditioned the country for a more permanent polarized atmosphere.”5

Leading advocates of nonviolence have also adopted the polarizing approach, shifting from nonviolence as a philosophy to nonviolence as a tactic. Gene Sharp first outlined this shift in his 1973 book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, a key text for nonviolent activists ever since. Sharp argues that the rule of despots and dictators rests on the obedience or at least tacit consent of their subjects. It is propped up by “pillars of power” such as authority, material resources, norms and values, and expert knowledge. Once these pillars are knocked away and consent is withdrawn, dictatorial power beings to crumble. He has developed a list of 198 nonviolent tactics to accomplish this. But he entirely omits the philosophy of public love, arguing that efforts at what he calls “conversion” to a nonviolent philosophy are misguided. They divert attention from hard-headed, realistic strategic thinking.

Mark Engler and Paul Engler develop Sharp’s framework in This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-first Century. Paul Engler and I are having a dialogue about nonviolence on Saturday morning, September 16, at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Augsburg.

The shift from nonviolence as a philosophy to nonviolent as a tactic is based on a theory of power and politics operating in wily fashion within the world as it is. Like the canvass, it can get results. “Power may be briefly defined as the capacity to control the behavior of others,” writes Sharp.6 The Englers argue, “Disruptive protest forces observers to decide which side they are on…disruptive actions are polarizing. But this is not an unintended consequence. It is central to how they work.”7

Such a view of power is like “dominion” as the word is generally understood, meaning rule or control. The Genesis passage after humans created in God’s image uses the word: “Male and female he created them. God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and multiply…and have dominion over…every living thing (1:27-28). But as Tim Eberhart has observed, this may be a misreading. In fact, there is debate about whether the conventional translation of dominion is right. One rabbi, quoted in the online journal Biblical Hebrew Studies, says Christian translations mistakenly define dominion, Yiredu, as radah which means to subdue. But if translators had put two dots instead of one under yiredu, the root word would be yarad, meaning to lower oneself or come down.8

A one way view of power as domination leads to polarization based on the notion that opponents are simply enemies who must be defeated. It neglects the understanding of humans as capable of transformation and of transformational power as relational, power to, not power over. This is the capacity to act across even radical differences to accomplish a common task. In our work we call this power “civic agency.” To better illuminate the possibilities we need to see nonviolence as a philosophy not only of resistance but also of constructive politics.

Martin Luther King again helps us. Ten years after Stride Toward Freedom, King called for combining love and power. “One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as polar oppositions,” he said. “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”9 The Canadian mediator Adam Kahane has developed King’s framework in Power and Love. Kahane describes his work over decades in designing, facilitating, and organizing social change processes on King’s dialect.10 His efforts took him from Canada to India, from Guatemala to South Africa. Some initiatives had striking results, as in the Canadian initiative on climate change, the birth of the sustainable agriculture movement, and ending the bloody conflict in Guatemala. They testify to the power of nonviolent philosophy when developed as a way to bring together groups who may hate each other.11

Another example is the One America Bus Tour I mentioned the other day in the PPUMC Joys and Concerns. Our long-time colleague Bill Doherty, working with the Better Angels group, is a leader in this effort. The Bus Tour brought together equal numbers of “Red” and “Blue” Americans in 18 communities, beginning in rural Ohio. The YouTube Video, “Finding Common Ground” in Ohio, is a powerful story of the transformations which can result.12 It shows a deep hunger of citizens to reconnect across the partisan divide. Groups like the Citizen Climate Lobby and the global anti-poverty organization that gave it birth, RESULTS, which develop policy initiatives carefully designed to appeal across the partisan divide, are another illustration.

A final example is the philosophyof a nonviolent citizen politics of public work which have worked with for more than 25 years in our youth civic education and empowerment initiative, Public Achievement and which has taken other forms like the Citizen Leadership Program of the African democracy group, Idasa. Our forthcoming Pedagogy of the Empowered recounts many stories and their lessons from the United States, Africa, and Europe.

These stirrings of nonviolent philosophy speak to the fierce urgency of now in the aftermath of the bitter polarizations and debates after Charlottesville. Jesus’s admonition, “let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” is more relevant than ever.

This is not to diminish the dangers of renewed violence, racism, and xenophobia that are surfacing in our public culture. It is not to make false equivalences between Neo-Nazis and those who protest against them.

But it also is not to ignore that violence and hatred are seeping into all our souls. We need many examples of what can be called co-creative politics and public work, bringing forth the immensity within.

1Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1902), p. 270.

2Martin Luther King, Stride Toward Freedom (Boston: Beacon, 1958), pp. 89-93.

3Dana Fisher, Activism, Inc. (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2006).


5Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann, “How Big Data Broke American Politics,” NBC News Report, March 15, 2017.

6Politics of Nonviolent Action, pp. 7-8.

7Uprising, pp. 200, 205.

8See Tim Eberhart, “Hope for Creation,” See Chain Ben Torah, Biblical Hebrew Studies, which proposes that the root of the word was mistranscribed long after Jesus’s death as “radah” when in fact the more likely root was “yarad,” meaning “to come down.” Posted August 30, 2012.


10I greatly appreciate my Augsburg colleague Joachin Munoz’s introducing me to the nonviolent framework of “power and love” developed Kahane.

11Adam Kahane, Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2010).