by Jordan Green
One of the crucibles through which protesters must pass is the backlash against direct action that causes discomfort or inconvenience. When protesters held a “die-in” during the lighting of the Christmas tree at Center City Park in Greensboro, some parents worried aloud that children would be traumatized. A Facebook commenter groused about a minute-long disruption of holiday traffic near Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem on the Sunday before Christmas: “Blocking my path only pisses me off, causes me to ignore their message, and lump the protesters in the ‘ass pain’ category.”
All these reactions share is a critique of the means of delivering the message rather than the content of the protest itself. It’s fine to tweet or comment on Facebook, even to carry signs and chant, they imply, but to actually force someone to take notice of the grievance is beyond the bounds of toleration.
Certainly many people who take part in traditions of Christmas are not practicing Christians, but it seems fitting to reflect on the reason for the season. And even those who practice Judaism, Islam and other religions admire the figure of Jesus.
My favorite Christmas gift this year is a recycled paperback edition of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story from my aunt, Kathryn. The yellowed pages of the second-printing edition from January 1961 priced at 50 cents are held together by a rubber band. Built around the narrative of the successful Montgomery bus boycott, the text makes a case for nonviolent resistance to segregation and outlines the philosophical tenets that underpinned King’s application of Christian Scripture to social change.
King recounts how an influential white citizen asked him why he and his associates came to Montgomery to “destroy” the city’s “long tradition” of “peaceful and harmonious race relations.”
“Sir, you have never had real peace in Montgomery,” King responded. “You have had a sort of peace in which the Negro too often accepted his state of subordination. But this is not true peace. True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. The tension we see in Montgomery today is the necessary tension that comes when the oppressed rise up and start to move forward toward a permanent, positive peace.”
In other words, oppressed people who are resisting their oppression are not the ones who have caused the breach. Getting to the theological point, King quotes the Gospel in which Jesus says, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
He goes on to say, “Certainly Jesus did not mean that he came to bring a physical sword. He seems to have been saying in substance: ‘I have not come to bring this old negative peace with its deadening passivity. I have come to lash out against such a peace. Whenever I come, a division sets in between justice and injustice. I have come to bring a positive peace which is the presence of justice, love, yea, even the Kingdom of God.”
Many readers will protest that a comparison between the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and the current movement for police accountability is out of bounds because discriminatory laws have been struck down. But that notion defies the reality of any honest assessment of black life in the United States.
The #BlackLivesMatter struggle is addressing something even more fundamental than equal accommodations in public transportation. That struggle centered on transportation; today, it’s public safety. The stakes of this movement are literally life in death in some instances. If young, black men consistently receive the message through their interactions with the police that their lives have less value, then what expectation can they have that these public servants, paid out of their own tax dollars, will afford them equal protection?
The movement must not only seek legal mechanisms to create consequences preventing police officers from taking the lives of unarmed people of color but also change the hearts of police who are conditioned by fear to pull the trigger before de-escalating and creating distance.
The most challenging part of Jesus’ message is the injunction to love our enemies.
Maybe it means that we never give up on the humanity of those who do injustice. And no matter how mean-spirited, intransigent, underhanded and violent they may become in resisting the truth, we recognize their potential for redemption — yes, even respect them enough to tell them they’re on the wrong path.