The Message of Non-Violence Is a Message First and Foremost For the Powerful

As I have watched and listened to the voices rising out of the Baltimore riots, I was reminded of a poignant passage I read in Janet Pais’s book, Suffer the Children: A Theology of Liberation by a Victim of Child Abuse. The passage makes a profound connection between state brutality and child abuse and how members of oppressive classes — whether governmental or parental — always demand the oppressed adopt non-violence first. It should, however, be the oppressors — those who wield the most power — who first lay down their swords and embrace peace. The message of non-violence is meaningless unless it is a message that world power structures heed. Otherwise those power structures will simply continue to crush the powerless under their boots.

As I found this passage relevant to the Baltimore riots, I figured I would share it here:

The reactive aggression of the child is in the nature of self-defense… Understanding the rage of the abused child can also help us to understand and trust even the violent protest of oppressed peoples. Just as adults may attempt to justify abuse by pointing to the reactive aggression of abused children, politically dominant groups may attempt to justify discrimination and oppression. When children react aggressively to humiliation and control, adults see their aggression as proof that they need to be controlled. When blacks in South Africa, for example, react with violence to relentless oppression and discrimination—also forms of humiliation and control—whites in power may rationalize their own actual or threatened violence by asserting that black violence proves the need for oppressive control. In 1989 Chinese communist leaders consciously and intentionally used exactly this sort of rationalization in propaganda intended to justify crushing a peaceful movement for democratic reform in China. Protestors acted destructively only in reaction to brutal action by the army, but government television showed the protestors’ reactive acts as if those acts had come first and had caused the government to take repressive steps against the people.

Is the violence of such oppressed peoples, or of abused children, then a manifestation of evil? Or is it evidence of a will to resist the evil of oppression, an expression of the will for life and freedom, of created goodness? Thomas Merton wrote understandingly about the impulse to reactive violence in the oppressed:

“Love is unfortunately a much misused word. It trips easily off the Christian tongue—so easily that one gets the impression it means others ought to love us for standing on their necks.

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of non-violence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.”

In relation to relatively powerless children, adults are the ones with a “stupendous arsenal of power.” Adults are the ones who need to recognize the right of the “less fortunate” children to react to oppressive treatment aggressively “and study more seriously the practice of non-violence and humane methods on our own part…” The message of non-violence is a message first and foremost for the powerful. Abusive adults do quite often behave as if abused children “ought to love [them] for standing on their necks.” They expect children to honor, respect, and love them, no matter how they treat their children. They insist that children “suffer patiently the violence which [they] sweetly impose on them…” It is only when we more powerful adults accept our own feelings and understand where they come from in our own childhoods that we will be able to stop taking out our pent-up rage and hate in abuse that calls forth more aggression in the next generation. (p. 55-56)

May Freddie Gray rest in peace. And may his death not be in vain.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

2 thoughts on “The Message of Non-Violence Is a Message First and Foremost For the Powerful

  1. This post is a godsend. I’ve been looking for materials for an abuse survivors’ group at my church, particularly from a liberation theology perspective. This bad-faith use of “nonviolence” and “forgiveness” is one of the greatest challenges to my faith. And of course the analogy to how we whites react to African-American protests is spot-on.

    1. I’d definitely recommend Janet Pais’s book. It’s very powerful and insightful — not to mention that it’s “a theology of liberation by a victim of child abuse,” so probably exactly what you’re looking for with regards to your church group!

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