The mission of my organization is based on Dr. King's three evils, which he called racism, materialism and militarism. I frame the third as “violence/militarism.” This is what I say about it in my “stump speech”:
Violence/ militarism. In the Riverside Church sermon Dr. King said that a society that “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Is any of this different today? We as a society more or less agree that the Iraq war was a mistake, but when a new threat is perceived the first instinct is to address it with military means. We never really process or absorb our mistakes, we just repress them and go on to make the next one.
Dr. King said that the biggest purveyor of violence in the world was his own government. This is an issue we tend to ignore, but with a military budget the size of the next 7 countries combined, and 800 military bases in 70 countries, we have a lot of hammers with which to look for nails. 5 Trillion dollars in war spending over the past 1 years. Couldn't all that money be put to much better use fixing our roads and bridges, educating and feeding our children, and building our clean energy future?
And so without, so within. We live in a society racked with fear of each other, and armed to the teeth. Anyone without a criminal record – and some with – can carry any weapon they want anywhere they want, without training or permit or consideration for those who don't want to live in such a society. And as the statistics show, the “good guy with a gun” myth is just that – a myth – and weapons are far more likely to be used for domestic violence or suicide than for self- or home protection.
Kansas has the laxest gun laws in the country, and to this we have just added the ability to carry concealed firearms – without training or permit – on to our public college and university campuses.
I've been for gun control since I was old enough to think about politics. The first letter to the editor I ever wrote was on the subject, in the New York Post when I was a teenager. I'm one of those people who would happily throw every gun in existence into the fiery pits of Mordor, but obviously that's not in the cards in America, especially in Kansas. The focus of “gunsense” activism these days is on “sensible gun policy,” such as universal background checks and limiting access to guns by domestic abusers. I've been working on the issue of “campus carry” for over a year.
The only time this ever rises above the background noise of the rest of our dysfunctional politics is when there's a mass shooting – which means quite often these days. But most of the mass shooters are “law-abiding citizens” until they open fire, and wouldn't be caught by background checks. (The shooter in the church in Texas is an exception.) So the choice seems to be going all in on rather ineffective (too minimal) gun policies – the only thing that has any chance of getting passed – or not having any policies at all.
We tend to look at gun violence, like all acts of societal dysfunction, as being an individual problem: of criminality, of mental illness, or of evil. This allows us to blame one person and not look at the entire network of causation. The causes of gun violence are largely the same as the causes of so many of the problems that face our society (all of which are violent in some way): marginalization, economic precarity, powerlessness over the conditions of our existence. These can't be addressed solely by gun legislation.
That's part one. Part two is that there seems to be a growing fascination on the left with violence as a means of self-defense or social change. Nonviolence is largely dismissed in these quarters as ineffectual or even white-privileged.
The prime example right now is Antifa, where the argument goes: you can't argue with a Nazi; the best response - the only reasonable, effective response – is physical confrontation. In practice this means either randomly punching strangers on the subway, or else a kind of glorified gang warfare at right-wing demonstrations.
I have three main arguments against this approach. The first is that nonviolence is much more effective than its naysayers give it credit for. Erica Chenoweth's research shows that nonviolent methods are more effective than violence, over a large variety of geographical and political settings. For one thing, violence prevents the participation of large swaths of the population, who are likely to prefer all manner of injustice to violence.
Second, strictly on a tactical level, violence is much more likely to get us suppressed than it is to help us build power. They are always going to be better armed than we are, and as John Carlos said on Dave Zirin's podcast, “If I bring a knife he's got a gun; if I bring a gun he's got a tank. We can't win that way.” The Bundys took over a national park and got no punishment; if they were African Americans, or Natives, or even white progressives (if we can imagine such doing such a thing), they would be gone for a long, long time.
The third piece doesn't seem to have truck in nonviolence theory as it used to. It's the moral argument. As a religious person and as a quasi-pacifist I believe that every soul is sacred, that every act of violence is a chillul hashem – a degradation of the Name of God. People like AJ Muste used to make this version of the argument all the time, but when I took a training with the Metta Center for Nonviolence, I asked Michael Nagler, the eminence there, why we weren't talking about morality? He said they didn't think it's an effective argument. I said, well, I'm a rabbi, I can talk about it. He said, Go right ahead. So here I am. I believe we give up a lot of moral authority when we act nonviolently.
People who are dismissive of nonviolence tend to treat it as a form of passivity, as a policing the boundaries of dissent, and they have reason do so. Too often the importuning to nonviolence is intoned by bystanders as a way get the oppressed to be quiet, or not to defend themselves.
The way I see it, nonviolence is a tool for confrontation; if used radically and strategically it's an unparalleled tactic for social change. In order for nonviolence to have the full, desired effect, it has to be massive and targeted. The most effective action I've seen on the neo-fascist front was 40,000 people in Boston. My friend Dan, who's an Antifa fan, said, Well, it's easy when you can get such big numbers. And I was like, Getting such big numbers is the organizer's job! We cannot have a situation where violence becomes a preferred tactic because people can't or don't want to put in the work necessary to make nonviolence effective.
And yet I must acknowledge (antithesis) that even where nonviolence is used purposefully and effectively, there's a certain amount of unilateral disarmament involved. There's no question that rightwingers are heavily armed. If fascists or gun nuts show up at an event, do we let them sit there and intimidate us, or disrupt us? These are questions that we will need to answer, and soon. Also, we have to acknowledge that for all of Garrison's or Muste's pacifism, slavery was ended by a bloody war, and so was Nazism. That's why I'm a quasi-pacifist.
There's a great clip of Angela Davis reacting with visible disbelief to someone asking her about nonviolence. As Huey Newton said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” Our society is saturated with violence – we soak in it every day – and it always has been. The violence of slavery and Jim Crow, the violence of native genocide, the violence of Ludlow, the violence of our endless wars overseas, the violence of militarized policing, the violence of random acts like someone killing a room full of first graders or opening fire from a hotel room. Every image we see, from the news to the movies, tell us there's an endless supply of people who want to kill us, and Hollywood propagandizes us into believing that every “bad guy” has to get killed at the end. So, as Angela Davis implied, Why is it that it is only those who stand up for justice who are expected to be nonviolent?
I came across the speech that Thoreau (Mr. Civil Disobedience himself) gave about John Brown. He did not say, “He had good intentions but I disagree with his tactics.” He said, “You people who criticize Brown are not worthy of being in the same conversation with him.” But that's a rare and precious case.
In Judaism there's a concept called pikuah nefesh – the saving of a life. Almost any Jewish law or practice can be ignored if a human life is at stake. So I say that violence might be justified in the case of an imminent threat to life and limb. Gandhi also had a principle called “the madman with the knife” - the person who represents an imminent threat can be treated with the minimum amount of violence needed to deal with the threat. (This would be a good principle for our police forces to adopt.) Someone wearing a swastika on the subway does not fall into that category.
For me it comes to this question (synthesis): Would me carrying a gun, or punching a Nazi, really help to build the kind of world I want to live in? Not only do I not believe that the ends justify the means, I think the means are the only ends that we are ever likely to see.
The Buddha said something that I come back to, over and over: “Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love. This is an unalterable law.” Read that sentence again.
Like Jewish tradition, the Buddhist teachings recognize that defense of self or other is sometimes necessarily, and not necessarily karmically negative. It's a matter of intent. But the use of violence in such instances is a sign of the failure – our failure – to deal with the problem when it was less immediately threatening.
What it comes down to for me is that, as an activist, I am trying to increase the amount of love in the world. Much of that work has to be done within us. But when I look at any particular action I might take or organize, I ask myself, is what I'm doing here likely to put us on the path to a better world? This doesn't preclude opposing something, or confronting it. Racism, fascism have to be opposed and confronted. But the way I do that has a karmic effect. The actions I take have to be likely to increase the love, the justice in the world, for them to be worthwhile. And that's why I am committed to the path of nonviolence.