Will Religion Finally Give Peace a Chance? Rising to the Challenge of Nonviolence as Armageddon Looms

Iconic picture of Ieshia Evans serenely facing down police in riot gear at Baton Rouge, LA protest of the killing of Alton Sterling by police. Image: BBC News video/YouTube (depicting original photo by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters)

So here we are, some of us, still calling out “peace on earth, goodwill to all!” as another ghastly year grinds to a close in a season ostensibly given to light and hope. 

Peace on earth: it’s a nice thought. But the angels’ proclamation falls on mostly deaf ears, and we ourselves have never been angels. We are more like the old story’s famously freaked-out shepherds, with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide as the shit rains down. 

And what a torrent of merde is falling on us now, all of its filth too familiar to need detailing by me. A few keywords will suffice: climate, Covid, cruelty, corruption, and excessive cravenness among many in leadership whom we would like to admire more than we do.  

My friends at RD know that I struggle over what to say in the face of the unending shit. They also know that I never stop trying to process what this moment might be about. I am no Candide, and I can offer none of the holiday treacle you might get from, say, a Margaret Renkl. But there remains a big part of me that can’t believe we will just slide down an ever-steeper slope to perdition. I cannot believe that more of the same, only worse, is the only human future. History is filled with surprising turns. Surprise us, I say. Surprise us now, goddammit. 

Here is a thought that, for me at least, holds out an itty-bitty sliver of hope: the big religions—all of them, Abrahamic and otherwise—could rediscover their capacity to shape radical peacemakers and support radical peacemaking. They could take on the problem of violence and domination in a serious way, beginning with an honest accounting of the degree to which they have let violence-laden ideation and language colonize their own framing and shape their institutional life. 

That would be welcome news, would it not? Real religious leadership is grounded in deep listening. Leaders who can really open their ears to the anguished cries of the world’s hurting and vulnerable billions may yet find the will to bring direction and energy to the urgent work of cultivating and supporting redemptive nonviolent action on a mass scale.

I will never convince you that there’s a possible pathway here unless I can first convince you that an all-pervasive violence is the core problem. And the thing about violence at an all-pervasive scale is that it actually recedes in visibility. A dear friend and colleague points out that 15-year-old Ethan Crumbly, the Michigan school shooter, was confronted by a teacher who saw violent imagery on the boy’s computer, yet all the boy had to do to get a pass was to say that he was playing a video game. In other words, we express horror and outrage when the actual shooting starts, but we accept the shockingly violent substratum as completely normal and nothing to worry about. 

We tend to talk about patriarchy and aggressive heteronormativity and gun violence and white nationalism and environmental plunder and civilian-killing U.S. drone strikes and a brutal winner-take-all capitalism as though these are entirely separate issues. They are distinct issues, surely, but they share a common root in the violence and domination that animated Christian Europe’s colonization of the Western Hemisphere. (And here we might pause to appreciate how the fearless bell hooks committed herself to defeating domination in all its forms; also the late Tyler Stovall, whose last book helps us see clearly how white male “freedom” perpetuates domination and cruelty.)

Getting our history right is essential, because the erasure of actual history is what allows the purveyors of violence to keep on winning. They win by suppressing knowledge of the force and fraud at the root of the whole project. They win when they can perpetuate what Gerald Horne, who has done as much as anyone to bring to life the real story of settler colonialism, calls “malignant amnesia” in respect to the history of violence. They win when they can keep religious people, and white American Christians in particular, blinded to the reality of their racism-poisoned chalice.

But getting history right is just part of the struggle toward a different way, and in some ways it’s the easy part. The harder part is learning to surrender the violence within in order to begin to build a culture of nonviolence without. 

I will speak personally here, because when I look back at my decades of activism and protest and preaching, I have to recognize that I have been an attacker and a polemicist above all: that aggression, albeit of the verbal kind, has been my default setting. 

As an activist I learned too late that while demonizing the opposition (the brutal boss, the bastard banker, the corrupt cleric, the sinuous solon) is the easy and psychologically satisfying thing to do, it is usually not a very wise thing to do.

Here I am not talking about efficacy; there is no doubt that stoking the loathing of an adversary is an effective way to rally your own constituency. Not for nothing did Henry Adams describe politics as the systematic organization of hatreds. But the reason demonization is unwise and dangerous is that it invites the adversary to fire back and it allows the adversary to claim higher ground. It keeps the whole broken system—a system based on antagonism—in motion. 

I want to avoid confusion on this point. I am in no way suggesting that the way forward is to wave the surrender sign. Sanity, justice, and peace have real enemies: we should be clear about that. While our enemies hold equivalent human status, they will never hold equivalent moral status among those of us who live to achieve a modicum of justice and peace. In theological mode I would even suggest that God has enemies.

But there is righteous indignation, and then there is the blanket, almost mechanical, impulse to disparage and thereby dehumanize the targets of our scorn. This is an impulse that is anything but righteous; it is self-indulgent, lazy, and aimed at striking a blow. Even that word “target” gives away the underlying violence in the demonization reflex.

As a preacher I learned too late that for many of my hearers a certain hard edge in my voice would cause them to stop listening and consult their watches when I was preaching, as I did too often, about plutocracy, the wealth divide, and the naked buying and selling of political power. They could hear that edge of anger, and they were not entirely convinced that it was a righteous anger. I was blind to this dynamic at the time. I was acting out the wider incoherence of a culture where people shout and honk to push their way forward, where negative campaigns often win, and where the sports we like best involve hard brutal contact. 

All of this is to say that there will be no saving turn toward a culture of nonviolence without also acknowledging and changing the violence we carry within. 

Then comes yet another step. Even when we stop ourselves from openly demonizing, we are still a long way from any kind of productive exchange. And that’s partly because it is still so very hard to acknowledge those whom we oppose as being quite fully human. Smug liberals—I include myself—don’t actually care what the troglodytes think because they are, well, troglodytes. Hardcore conservatives likewise do not care what I think because I am, well, a smug liberal. 

It’s at this step in the walk toward nonviolence—the hard step toward honoring the humanity in the other, even when the other is one’s enemy—where good religion has something valuable to offer. I said, and I believe, that the major religious movements have been largely colonized and captured by the wider culture of violence. But each still has at its core the belief that every person matters, that everyone is sacred, and that you and I are of one flesh and one blood no matter where we live or what we look like or how we behave ourselves. Each faith links the capacity to find reconciliation to this recognition of what King called the “single garment of destiny” uniting all of us everywhere. 

It has never been an easy matter to apply these lofty concepts to the practical challenge of engaging one’s enemies in a more productive way, or as King would say, in a more loving way. But religion could still help out a little, if only by pointing out how honoring the other as fully human—and sometimes even turning the other cheek—can be incredibly effective in making change. The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s wise counsel comes to mind: “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” Revenge and recrimination leave no space for the application of restorative justice.

Who is actually leading now

If anyone makes the turn toward effective nonviolence in this country, it will most likely be younger progressives who begin to apply ancient spiritual wisdom to the “be the change” challenge. Many are doing it already through the Sunrise movement, Indivisible, the Movement for Black Lives, and elsewhere. Younger progressives are also accepting the level of risk that practicing radical nonviolence entails.

Accepting risk is crucial, because the third and final step toward creating a culture of peace involves applying nonviolence in strategic action. The final step is walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, unarmed. The final step is joining Gandhi and his followers in marching to the sea for salt—and in that way withdrawing consent from the British Raj by refusing to consume the colonists’ salt. The final step is taking the risk to live the life of a nonviolent grassroots organizer, rich in friendships, and eventually rich in memories, but far from comfortable in the conventional middle-class sense of comfort.

Again, and to be clear, I have been arguing here that religion has something valuable to bring to the table where nonviolence is concerned: that the capacity to help is there. I have been describing what might happen if religious leaders would step up to support the activists who are already out on the front lines. But I do not claim, and would never claim, that religion will rise to the occasion. 

In my lifetime there has been only one instance when “religion”—meaning almost all of those in leadership along with many from the ranks—rose to the occasion, and that was when they united behind a powerful campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. Sadly, there was no such unified religious support for the 20th century Black freedom movement in this country: a bitter testament to the extent of the colonization problem I referenced earlier, and yet more reason to be skeptical that the faithful will stand up now in solidarity with the wretched of the earth.  

There’s no magic elixir. Even supposing that “religion” did stand up and do real work around nonviolence, there would still be endless snares and pitfalls lining the peacemaking path. Merely broach the subject of nonviolence among your friends, and you will hear plenty of them fall back on the “it’s always been this way” argument: the idea that hierarchical power and its concomitant cruelty and violence is simply the way of the world from time immemorial.

Anthropologically, these folks may well have their facts wrong. But even if they are right on the facts, their argument is rather like saying that because winter’s cold is a reality there is no point in bundling up. The whole premise is shaky, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have allure for those who prefer the resignation route. 

Another snare is the lure of performative virtue. It’s the unedifying spectacle of people talking about empathy in a self-serving creepy way; it’s the lure of making a brief foray into the social justice world for the sake of getting a leg up on one’s elite college application. Serious-minded change agents will see the shallowness here and won’t be seduced or distracted. But there never was a successful long march that didn’t see at least a few pilgrims fall by the wayside.

Pitfalls aside, I expect we will see more and more people around the world choose the path of nonviolent resistance as tyrants rage and as institutionalized violence tries to redouble its grip. More and more will come to understand that we cannot counter the madness with yet more madness. I hope I can live to see the day when everyday people join forces in staging a general strike, entirely without violence, for the sake of holding oppressors accountable.  

For years I have been hearing colleagues argue that as climate disasters multiply, the proper role for churches and other religious institutions will be to offer sanctuary and support for the worst afflicted. And yes, that is undoubtedly one valuable and necessary role in a time of acute crisis. But these institutions have a vital prior role to play, in my judgment. They will serve us best by training and supporting people in the exercise of nonviolent power so as to avert the very worst catastrophe. 

People like me have long said and believed that there is no real peace without justice. But there is another phrase we used to invoke, and in my view it’s one we must finally also learn to say and really believe: there is no way to peace because peace is the way. These two propositions are not in conflict, and the sooner we figure that out, the closer we will be to rewriting the dreadful doomsday scenario that now has us mostly shut down, angry, and scared out of our wits.