catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 8 :: 2008.04.18 — 2008.05.02


Piles of ideas

“That’s not fair!”

“It’s our ball!”

“Cheater!  That one didn’t count!”

Raking leaves on a warmish early spring afternoon, I can almost see the exclamation points flying over the fence on the wings of the neighbor girl’s petulant whine.  She is attempting to play a game of soccer with the boys who live next door to her, but not a play can go by without some kind of objection.  The boys’ dad just smiles.  “Awfully good of him to put up with that,” I think.  It occurs to me that I probably sounded a lot like her sometimes when I was young and, seeing myself in her, I’m afraid for the misery that will come to her if she doesn’t break some key ways of thinking.

As I gather the winter-wet leaves into piles, I imagine a hypothetical conversation with her.  I know her family goes to church from an invitation her dad extended to us shortly after we moved in, so maybe the Bible could provide a starting point.  “Do you remember the time when Jesus talked about turning the other cheek?” I might ask.  “He says that if someone robs you of your coat, give him your shirt, too.  Give to everyone who asks of you, even to those who steal from you.”  I would want to impress upon her what kind of freedom this represents: freedom from having to protect my own rights, freedom from having to constantly defend myself from attacks on “me and mine.”  Everything that is given comes from God, so we should think about what we can give out of that abundance, rather than what we can get and keep for ourselves.

Easy to preach, right?  But much more difficult to live into. 

A few nights before the back yard soccer game, I was walking home from the grocery store.  The thought hadn’t crossed my mind until I was on my way home that perhaps it was unwise for me to walk the few blocks after dark so many hours after sunset, no matter how safe our neighborhood.  Again, my imagination wandered—what would I do if someone attacked me? My husband’s college training in peace studies had taught me how to question my inclinations toward violent self-preservation, so my next question was, what is the application of non-violent resistance in such a situation? A violent response doesn’t cancel out a violent act of aggression; rather violence begets more violence.  I suppose the answer hinges on one’s definition of violence and its application to self-defense. 

Spike Lee raises striking questions on the topic of violence in his first feature-length film, Do the Right Thing, both clarifying and clouding the discussion with juxtaposition of two quotes right before the final credits:

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
Martin Luther King Jr.

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence.
Malcolm X

In pondering a situation like a physical attack by someone whose goal might be to rape or murder me, I can’t quite imagine having the will to sustain a response of non-violent resistance.  That particular “what if” question is one I’ll have to ponder quite a bit more, but I can’t deny that there might be a relationship between the question of how I respond to attack and the conviction that who I am and what I have are not my own.  There’s a kind of freedom in committing not to defend myself by being violent toward the other person—there’s no snap decision to make, no question of taking another’s life to save my own—and yet, I still keep in mind the self-defense techniques I’ve received over e-mail from friends and relatives.

Fast forwarding to a few days after the soccer game, the hot topic of the day is a policy to arm certain campus safety officers on the campus where I work.  Emotions are high as students, staff and faculty articulate the many reasons, theological and logistical and otherwise, that such a policy is a bad idea.  Coincidentally, in the same week, speaker and activist Shane Claiborne is on campus reminding us that those who live by the sword, die by the sword (Matthew 26:52).  Inevitably, the conversation turns from the institutional to the individual: if we indeed believe that fear has become a powerful idol of our time and that rights language inclines us toward violent self-preservation, why do we lock our doors?  Our locks don’t actually prevent anyone from getting into our house; their function is more symbolic, but symbolic of what?  Their clicking into place as I leave the house might just be a one-syllable psalm of praise to security.

Within the context of this particular issue of catapult, all of these stories and conversations and imaginings come down to this: how will I keep my house?  Will I keep it in such a way that it is preserved only for me and mine?  Or will I keep it in such a way that even symbols such as unlocked doors communicate how freely I desire to give what has been freely given to me?  Right now, all of the considerations related to these questions lie about like piles of leaves, waiting for the wind to stir them into their next form, which may or may not be more coherent than the current organization. It’s not easy to know what to do with complex, incorrigible matter such as this, but true knowledge must incarnate as practice, even when the practice puts us—our bodies, our minds and our stuff—at risk.

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