by Tom Cordaro
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The following is part four of an article written by Tom Cordaro, a member of the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team and a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. Reflection questions have been designed for small group discussion by the Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team.
It is important that you read the earlier parts before reading this one:
- Part One can be found by clicking here.
- Part Two can be found by clicking here.
- Part Three can be found by clicking here.
We’re interested in hearing your responses to Tom’s article. Please consider posting comments on the website in the comments area after each section of the article or joining in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter. Additionally, Tom welcomes direct feedback and can be reached at email@example.com.
PART FOUR: Nonviolent Civil Disobedience
and the Theology of Unaccountability
Probably one of the most unacknowledged forms of power and privilege in white faith-based peace and justice groups like Pax Christi is the perpetuation of a theology of unaccountability under the guise of being “faithful.” Far too often we use one-liners like, “We are called to be faithful not effective,” as a mechanism to excuse ourselves from being accountable for what we do.
There is an important truth in the idea that faithfulness to the gospel should not be measured by the dominant culture’s idea of “success.” It is also true that in justice work we do not often see any immediate positive results from our work. However, far too often white liberal peace activists use this simple truth to shield themselves from having to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It is a way of acting in the world that makes it easy to cultivate spiritual individualism (I decide/my group decides what it means to be faithful) and autonomy (I act/my group acts out of my/our personal call from God) over the needs of those who suffer the violence we oppose and without accountability to those for whom we seek to speak and act. It is a form of being in control while feigning a commitment to following God’s call. It is a luxury afforded to those who want to be taken seriously as a follower of the nonviolent Jesus without having to answer to anyone.
This is especially a problem in relationship to the practice of nonviolent civil disobedience in the white peace movement. Although few would openly admit it, there is a hierarchy of authenticity and commitment in the white peace movement that is based on one’s arrest record and time served on behalf of peace with justice. These resumes of courage separate those who are serious about peace from those who are just spectators, second stringers and/or members of the chorus. And this makes perfect sense within a culture of white power and privilege that prizes the heroic action of the individual over the more mundane work of community.
It is not true that every white person who engages in nonviolent civil disobedience is seeking glory or individual recognition; in fact most do not. It is more likely that the reinforcement of this hierarchy of authenticity is driven by those who admire and raise up these heroic individuals for recognition and adulation. For a white community that has little or no direct experience of oppression or violence, the witness of fellow members putting themselves at risk of arrest, police abuse and prison would seem to demonstrate the highest forms of solidarity with the poor and oppressed.
But of course, in most circumstances, the experience of white middle class peace activists in the criminal justice system is not the same as the experience of people of color who encounter this same system. I have spent less than 3 months total time in jails and prisons for my own nonviolent civil disobedience, but I can say that in each and every experience my white power and privilege gave me protection, benefits and special treatment in the criminal justice system that were not available to my brothers and sisters of color.
Because of this special treatment by the criminal justice system and because most white peace activists engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to make injustice visible and to demonstrate their solidarity with the victims of injustice, their nonviolent tactics may differ from people of color. As De La Torre explains, “Because Hispanics realize that direct challenges to existing social structures (although necessary at times) will usually lead to violence against them, if not their demise, they employ forms of deceptive and cunning resistance, whereby their chances of success could be improved.”
These forms of deception and cunning might include seeking to avoid arrest for their civil resistance. White nonviolent activists want to get arrested in order to use the court system (and accompanying press coverage) to shed more light on the injustice they oppose. People of color are much more interested in continuing the struggle of resistance (live to fight another day) because they know the court system is stacked against them and no one in the media will care about another person of color going to jail. White nonviolent activists are often content with making a symbolic statement with their nonviolent civil disobedience. People of color often engage in nonviolent direct action as part of a wider struggle to protect the rights and human dignity of their communities. Effectiveness is optional for the white nonviolent resister, but it is crucial for the survival of the nonviolent resister of color and their community.
Can the white peace movement make allowances for nonviolent acts of resistance that are “deceptive and cunning” towards the institutions and systems of oppression? De La Torre talks about the importance of civil initiative as opposed to civil disobedience. Civil initiative is the legal right and moral responsibility to protect the community from violations of human rights by the government or institutions protected by the government. It is grounded in an ethics of communal liberation. As De La Torre writes, “Euroamericans enjoy the privilege of driving to a march. To get arrested for some movement earns them a badge of honor. But for disenfranchised communities, arrest is a frequent risk of living as a person of color. There is no need to go out and seek direct confrontation with the authorities just for the sake of seeking confrontation, to prove how liberal we are. Confrontation is the possible consequence of engaging in liberative ethics, but we do not seek it. Why? Because confrontation takes the focus and resources away from the disenfranchised and places them with those seeking to prove their activism.”
If the primary focus and goal of nonviolent civil initiative is the liberation of oppressed communities, then the crucial test of authenticity for those engaged in nonviolent direct action (including civil disobedience) is whether they are accountable to the oppressed communities with whom they seek to be in solidarity. In my own experiences of discerning, planning and participating in nonviolent civil disobedience, I confess that I made little effort to be accountable to any community outside of my own collective of co-conspirators. In almost every circumstance the entire process was a matter of individual choice.
How can we insure that our nonviolent actions are genuinely focused on the liberation of oppressed communities and not just a reflection of our individualistic culture or a manifestation of liberal white power and privilege? Is it enough to simply ask for the approval of the folks who visit our soup kitchens or who stay at our shelters and houses of hospitality? (Can people over whom we have such power really feel free to be honest with us?) Have we established the kind of honest and open relationships with the leaders of oppressed, marginalized and disenfranchised communities where we live to be truly accountable to them? When we do seek input from these community leaders do we genuinely invite them to participate in our discernment process or do we just seek their blessing?
[Part Five, “Solidarity Without Giving Up Control, Conclusion,” will be posted on Monday, August 13.]
REFLECTION QUESTIONS FOR PART FOUR
1. Make a list of individuals your peace and justice work is meant to help (i.e. Name a person on death row you hope to save by your efforts to end the death penalty; name an Afghan child, family or village that motivates your work to end the war in Afghanistan , etc.) How might these individuals respond if you were to tell them that it is more important for you to be faithful than to be effective?
2. How can we make sure that our nonviolent direct action for the sake of peace with justice is directly tied to the liberation of oppression communities where we live? Why is this so important?