The Uneasy Balance of Civic Charity and Violence in Our History

The Uneasy Balance of Civic Charity and Violence in Our History
July 5, 2022 Maggie Lynch
In musings
picture of protestors in San Jose holding signs saying: Enough is Enough; No Justice No Peace; and Silence = Violence

Note: This is a continuation of a post I did on the 4th of July about The Price of Freedom and Independence.

The history I learned in college seemed to use violent acts as the demarkation of changes for good or ill around the world. Classes are taught from conquest to slavery, from slavery to the Civil War, from the Civil War to the Iraq War, from World War I to World War II. We teach about Vietnam and the Cold War. We learn about colonialism and post-colonialism through a study of the consequences, and lessons of violence. Even our language for culture or social problems use the language of war. We fight a war on poverty, wars on drugs, and war on crime. Even when we teach about the civil rights movement, though we talk about Martin Luther King’s belief in non-violence, we also spend a great deal of time on the violence and the response to violence during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Violence at the voting booth. Violence at the lunch counter. Violence in the march to Selma. Violence in the bombed churches killing four little girls.

Is Violence The Only Way to Achieve Change?

a picture of a tree in a field divided in two with the destruction of war on the left, and the growth of new plants of peace on thoe rightWas it Martin Luther King’s nonviolent approach that brought freedom? Or was it public acts of violence that guaranteed it? Freedom means little if you cannot obtain citizenship, exercise the right vote, or access public facilities and services. Frederick Douglass said: “Until it is safe to leave the lamb in the hold of the lion, the laborer in the power of the capitalist, the poor in the hands of the rich, it will not be safe to leave a newly emancipated people completely in the power of their former masters, especially when such masters have ceased to be such not from enlightened moral convictions but irresistible force.”

Is it true that the way to freedom always contains violence? As a pacifist, and a true believer in the power of love and charity, I find that really hard to swallow. Yet, history, at least the way it is traditionally taught, would suggest otherwise. Or do we teach history that way because it has always been taught that way? Because it is easier than looking for examples of how nonviolence or love and charity moved important issues forward? Is there any curriculum in public schools that teach the tactics of nonviolent change?

Violence appears to get immediate action. But what about the long-term? Does the oppressed person remain subjugated in the long-term because of the violence of their overlords? I think history shows us that is not the case. The resentment builds and they rebel, sometimes violently. So, who is winning the violence game?

No one is winning. It is just shifting back and forth based on who has accumulated enough violent machinery or the most people to temporarily suppress some group. What is the cost of this continuous wanton destruction?

In waging war we inevitably must kill even those things we cherish. Any soldier who has fought in war knows that killing another human being is against scripture in most religions. Yet, it has been religions that are often at the center of wars. To go to war against others requires putting aside the commandment of “Though shalt not kill.” When we kill, we must find a way to justify it, a way to continue with our action. In the justification itself we must give up something we cherish.

In wars where cities or entire countries are brought to ruin, the only way to regain what was lost is to rebuild again. But who will do it? In the rebuilding who will win in the end? In Ukraine, the Russian plan is that by destroying the buildings they destroy the people. They believe nothing is sacred–not hospitals, schools, grocery stories, or homes. If the Russians win, will they rebuild? I doubt it? They have no plan for rebuilding. Look at their history. Their plan is only annihilation of a people who would stand up to them. Will the Ukrainians rebuild? They will if they can. They will need help. And it will take decades. It will NEVER be the country it was before. Because the people will never be the same.

When a mass shooter takes the lives of 10, 20, 30 or more people, what has he gained by that violence? Death or imprisonment is always what happens. But why does a mass shooter believe this is the way to resolve whatever is bothering him? Yes, I know they are mentally ill. But there is still something that pushes them, something that directs them to this end. I suggest it is our constant talk of violence to resolve issues. Our media, our games, our superheroes all resolve things with violence. We are allowing it by being silent.

Building a Culture of Non-violent Change

A knotted gun in the foreground with the United Nations in the backgroundIn our culture wars, what is being destroyed? In the back and forth of trying to convert someone to one side or the other, what are we willing to sacrifice? Violence is certainly not the answer as we sacrifice children to our anger and hate, as we show them that life is not worth living if we don’t get everything we want in this moment. That is not to say we do nothing. It is only to say consider the example. Consider the sacrifice and what we are teaching in our actions. Yes, teach children to stand up for themselves. Teach them they have agency. Teach them to know their own minds, to make their own decisions. Teach them how to live in a society of rules that ask for discussion, perhaps heated discussion, and compromise. Teach them not to expect immediate satisfaction but to keep working year after year and decade after decade.

Here are three examples of nonviolence that I know made changes in our society. There are many others around the world.

The suffragette movement for women’s voting. These women were extremely proud that there was no violence used by the women. The only violence was TOWARD the women by the male-dominated political system. It took them 100 years to get the vote. Would it have happened faster if they were violent? I doubt it. I think it would have only ended in more violence and fear.

Cesar Chavez advocated for peaceful boycotts and protest over five years, and ending in a grueling yet nonviolent 25-day hunger strike which led to legislative changes to end exploitative abuse of America’s farm workers in the late 1960s. His belief was that “the truest act of courage, the strongest act of humanity, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non violent struggle for justice.”

Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., was her non violent defiant act for greater civil rights. It spread the message that all people deserve equal seats. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a year later in 1956, segregation on public buses unconstitutional.

If you are interested in non violent participation to change what is happening, considers these 198 methods from the Albert Einstein institute for Nonviolence.

Our Founding Fathers Believed in Talking and Compromise

There is much talk about the “Christian values” that are at the core of our founding. As we learn more about those leaders of our county, we also learn that their faith was not all the same–just as those who identify as Christian do not all have the same faith today. My own faith has change over the years. My family was Catholic until Vatican II, when they changed to Methodist. I was a religious study minor in college and came to learn of many religions and where we have similarities and differences. I do not believe that my faith practice is the only way. I believe there are many ways to serve faithfully and morally, including humanism and atheism. I would never consider attempting to force others to to convert to my way of believing.

A pie c hart depicting the diversity of religious beliefs in the early 1800s

The concept that America was of a single Christian faith is ludicrous. People escaped religious persecution of all kinds when they came to America. Harvard Divinity School scholar Catherine Brekus, an expert on the history of religion in America, in talking about the Smithsonian exhibit of early American religions in Washington D.C. said it’s appropriate for the exhibit to reflect the range of religions that existed in early America. ‘We tend to think much more about the Pilgrims, but in fact the original 13 Colonies were really very religiously diverse,’ including ‘lots of different Native American religions,’ as well as Catholics, Jews and Muslims. ‘The middle colonies – Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Maryland – were the most religiously diverse in early America and most linguistically diverse too.’ It was estimated that 20% of the enslaved people brought to America were originally Muslim.”

Our founders fled religious persecution and the reason they included the separation of church and state in the constitution is because they did NOT want to force people toward one specific dogma. There were Jews, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, and yes even atheists among the colonies. There were 13% of people who did not practice any faith publicly. We will never know what they thought privately.

Even with this diversity of personal spiritual and moral belief they still agreed to engage in earnest, often heated discussion, listening and persuading, talking and compromising. All for a greater good–a country that could survive on its own as a democracy. They knew that no democracy could survive without support. If any of the 13 colonies had left the union or decided to split, would it have still worked? Or would they have a continuous war of who got what land and which resources as they expanded west?

The Golden Rule and Civic Charity

Scripture across many different religions have something akin to the Golden Rule I learned as a child: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, giving charity, love, good to others is a statement of core belief. It is a statement that if I treat you well, you will do the same for me. Certainly there have always been criminals, even in Biblical times and certainly at our country’s founding. I truly believe that some version of the Golden Rule is the way the majority of people in America believe is the right way to live, and they endeavor to live that way no matter their religion or atheism.

Civic charity stresses the public importance of charity not only for our neighbor with whom we agree, but also for our enemies with whom we have major differences. This concept was in place even before our nation’s founding. It influenced George Washington and the other delegates to the constitutional convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. During that long hot summer, the delegates engaged in heated debates, saw tempers nearly out of control, sometimes expressing the thought that this just might not be possible to accomplish, and many even saying they would just as soon go their own way rather than become a union of states. But they kept working until they could come out with a compromise. They knew it would not be perfect. They knew that whatever they came up with would have things each side wanted and things each side hated. That is the nature of compromise.

This same concept of civic charity also influenced key elements in the political thought of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others as they struggled to achieve something that seemed impossible. The contest for the presidency between John Adams and Jefferson was very bitter. To unite the divided nation, newly elected Jefferson famously declared in his first inaugural, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists.” (Those were the two opposing sides then.)

During the campaign Jefferson was attacked for his less-than-orthodox religious views, and some New Englanders reportedly hid their Bibles for fear of confiscation under his administration. Ironically, throughout this period, including his presidency, Jefferson was assiduously studying the New Testament trying to glean moral precepts taught by Jesus that he found “more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers.” During his inaugural, Jefferson made it point to praise “religion” for inculcating throughout the Republic “honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.” Following the speech, reports indicate that old friends who had long been divided over partisan differences were reunited.

a quote from Abraham Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural address to "bind up the nations wouns"

More than half a century after Jefferson’s presidency, Lincoln used his second inaugural address to speak to a nation boiling with the acids of human hatred spawned by civil war. In an unmistakably biblical voice, Lincoln urged “malice toward none” and “charity for all,” as America’s bloodiest conflict neared its conclusion. By resisting the great temptation to focus on his own accomplishments as a leader, he spoke about both the North and the South as contributing to the injustice of more than two centuries of human slavery. Instead of leaving the southern soldiers to die and their widows and orphans to starve he offered charity, by asking to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” The great, black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass called it a “sacred effort.”

Now, Instead of Majority Rule We Are Living Under Minority Rule

As we celebrate the 4th of July this weekend, I’ve been struggling with the continued deterioration of rights that are happening before my eyes. Not because the majority wants to see these rights removed. Not even because centrists on both side of the aisle want to see these rights removed. No, it has everything to do with retaining power at all costs. It has everything to do with the short game and a class of people and leaders who care for nothing but themselves.

No, instead corporations an other billionaire individuals are playing a giant simulation game of the trade offs of increasing corporate profit vs loss of rights. This tradeoff was borne in the specific support of conservative judges who would rule in their favor around taxation, and lack of regulation of pollutants and/or mergers and acquisitions. I believe the judges were not chosen because of their desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. They were chosen for business interests and if “cultural” reforms were made it didn’t matter.

Their business interests were pitted against possible trade off of abortion rights, voting rights, and perhaps future LGBTQ or same sex marriage rights.  Like so many leaders without a sense of civic charity, it is an attitude of “It doesn’t impact me personally, so why do I care?” Or, I’ve also heard the sentiment of “I’ll be dead when climate change starts killing people.” It is an attitude of zero civic charity and one that plays only the immediate short game.

This has played out recently in the supreme court ruling striking down 50 years of precedent in Roe v. Wade and turned it over to the states. Just as our founders turned over slavery enforcement to states, they have not considered the deaths that will result. I can’t begin to pretend to understand the reasoning to return to the state of the world in the 1800s before women even had the right to vote.  I’m fortunate in that I am far beyond childbearing and I live in a state that has codified abortion. However, I have sisters, nieces, granddaughters and grandnieces who do not live here or may one day move. Some of them are in states that have already allowed trigger laws from the 1920s or even earlier to dictate women’s rights in these decisions.

In some states, they’ve included rules that criminalize women and children for anything that happens with pregnancy that “looks” like someone has chosen to terminate for a reason the government doesn’t like. It also seeks to criminalize anyone who helps the woman or child. Sure, it makes a lot of sense to put a woman into prison for up to ten years because she has chosen not to have a baby. That makes perfect economic and cultural sense. Pay approximately $50,000 per year to keep one person in prison. Put her children in foster care at a cost of $6,000 per year per child plus insurance. Make sure that these negligent women do not contribute to the economy for ten years. That is a loss of  $140,000 to $200,000+ over ten years even at minimum wages of $7 to $10 per hour. Without even dealing with the cruelty it doesn’t make economic sense.

Why is this happening? Is it because these leaders actually believe that abortion is so abhorrent it is worth this cost to liberty, to their economy? Of course not. I would venture that not a single one actually believes it. But they say it to hold on to power. They say it because they believe in riling up the base (less than 20% of all republicans). Because a few men want power so much, they are willing to step on and kill anyone in the process. A few men believe that they should be the final arbiter in the decisions of doctors, pastors, and most importantly individual women and families.

If any leader actually believes abortion is wrong, it would be Joe Biden. His catholic faith would prohibit abortion. However, he is not a leader who believes everyone in America must practice the same faith that he does. He knows and supports the separation of church and state enshrined in our constitution. Many leaders don’t personally believe in abortion, but they also recognize the reality of the world and the circumstances that make it so popular. They work on eliminating abortion by eliminating the need for it. They work on providing more options for contraception, for child care costs, for low-income people, for those who suffer from domestic violence. They work on those aspects of law and life that make it safer and desirable to have children that can be raised with good opportunities, good education, and the same chance to become a congressman or senator as those who already serve there.

Living in a Science Fiction Future

original cover for Native Tongue by Suzette Haden ElginIf you are starting to feel like you are living in a science fiction future, you’d be right. The most egregious laws that are being implemented to police sex and conception are right out of science fiction books and movies. Right now the SF versions I hear lead to the creation of some type of watchdog environment to ensure that no one is having the “wrong” kind of sex, and that all pregnant women are monitored from the moment of conception. How do they do that? Practically, how do they prove when that was, who it was that participated, and follow it for nine months. Even doctors can’t accurately state when the exact moment of conception happened.

When Suzette Hayden Elgin wrote Native Tongue , published in 1984, she returned to a world where the 19th Amendment was repealed and women were property of men once again,  procreation was regulated, and many other rights were taken. Why were women’s rights removed? For greed, for power, for control of trade where women were the only ones able to successfully learn alien languages. In her world, she created a language just for women–Láadan— so they might make their plans for revolt without men’s knowledge.

Cover for The. Handmaid's Tale by AtwoodWhen Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, published in 1998 , she also conceived a society where women had no rights. In this society, birth rates have declined due to environmental disasters. Therefore, the few fertile women are forced to produce children for those in leadership. They are removed from their own families and assigned to specific men in power for sex and procreation.

You may be thinking to yourself: Maggie those are fictional accounts and will never happen. Perhaps that is true. But it is interesting that they were both written in times when politics featured a growing interest in applying specific religious values to pregnancy decisions and the rights of women. Much of science fiction is written as commentary on current or potential problems. It is written as a way to say: Be careful. Hang on to and continue to fight for your rights.

I know that I am guilty of believing Roe V. Wade would never be overturned 50 years later. I now wonder what other rights are next.

Of course, as with all laws. There are ways around them for people with money. You can bet if a politician gets his mistress pregnant he will find a way for her to get an abortion even though it is illegal in his state. You can bet if a woman with money gets pregnant with her fourth child and she only wanted three, she will find a way to travel to another state. These laws are not meant for anyone with money. They are meant for people who are poor, people of color , people who traditionally have not had the same economic opportunities, education, or access to power as those who make the laws.

Violence Begets Violence

Yes, it can feel very comfortable to be an all or nothing person. Then you never have to question any decision anything. But the implementation is never easy. Drug addicts are bad, except when it’s my child who I understand why she takes drugs. Killing is bad except when it is my boy, because he has a mental illness and I failed to see it. Abortions are bad, except when it’s my granddaughter who was raped when she was twelve or my daughter who was forced by her abusive husband who leaves her for months on end to raise four children alone. Then our all or nothing edicts only apply to “others” who we deem don’t have the capacity for understanding that we do.

This is placed at the feet of those who talk the words of violence. It is placed at the feet of those who have encouraged people to take the law in their own hands whenever they are unhappy with what is happening in their lives.

I refuse to use the words of violence. I choose charity. I choose accepting that there are many diverse thoughts and beliefs that are equally as good as mine. I choose to educate and to learn. I choose to be open to the challenges so many face and to work toward legislation and change that recognizes that and provides help.

I choose peace, I choose non-violence. I choose the long game, even though it is extremely frustrating right now.

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