I just watched a video that’s got me thinking.
I included this picture in my last post, but didn’t say anything about it. So let’s take a step back and consider.
What do you see when you look at this image? What do you notice?
I took this picture in 2006 while touring historic 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It is a large stained glass window, gifted to the church by the people of Wales in response to the violence and rupture of the 1963 bombing that took the lives of four young girls. As the tour guide on the day of my visit explained, the window’s design includes Jesus’ two hands, each in a different position, one saying “no” to sin and injustice and one saying “yes,” outstretched in forgiveness and invitation to a new way.
Last year I was privileged to collaborate with Roger Scott Powers on a study resource for the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. It is a guided journal titled Resurrection Living: Journeying with the Nonviolent Christ, and one of the entries centers around this idea of prophetic activity, saying yes and saying no. The entry follows the set pattern: a graphic (the picture above), a quotation about nonviolence, a scripture passage, and some questions for reflection, and I’d like to share them with you:
Pam McAllister writes these words on Barbara Deming’s two hands of nonviolence: “With one hand we say to an oppressor, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. . . . I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. . . .’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out-stretched. . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you’re ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’ The peculiar strength of nonviolence comes precisely from the dual nature of its approach — the two hands.” (You Can’t Kill the Spirit: Stories of Women and Nonviolent Action. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1988, pp. 6-7)
“Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” (2 Timothy 4: 2-5)
1. What connection do you see between the description of the “two hands of nonviolence” and the scripture passage?
2. What makes it difficult for you to reach out to those who commit violence or acts of oppression and see them as brothers and sisters?
3. Do you favor one hand over the other? What can you do to practice using both hands of nonviolence?
Those questions were challenging to craft, but I find them even more difficult to answer. Take the third one: Am I favoring one hand over the other? Do I favor one in action and the other in words? Am I remembering, as the biblical witness teaches, that prophetic vigor must be coupled with prophetic humility?
A dear friend from seminary told me once, on a late-night drive back to Chicago from a prayer vigil and demonstration we had attended, that I was like a sharp, slicing blade. I was taken aback by her assessment, although she assured me that she meant it in the most positive way, a clarity of purpose and commitment, unyielding ethical resolve.
I think I’ve come to understand what she meant, and to recognize and appreciate that quality in myself. It is important to say no, to disentangle truth from lies, love from violence. But I also recognize a need to strengthen the other hand, to be actively engaged in the business of building things right, lending my strength, creativity, time, and gifts to the task of collaborating with God in the creation of that already/not-yet reality of living fully into the promise of the resurrection. Which hand do you favor? It’s a question I continue to ask.
But I started out about a video! Let’s get back to that.
My friend Katie Rains was one of four Presbyterians arrested in an act of civil disobedience last week, protesting the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. One of the interesting things about Katie is that she is not a person who’s long been comfortable with the title “activist.” And yet she has found herself transformed and compelled to take action in new ways lately, something she talks candidly about in this video:
Toward the end, Katie talks about the two hands of nonviolence. She closes with these words:
On the one hand there is the dismantling of systems of violence and oppression. On the other hand there is the need, the demand, to create just and sustainable systems of love and support in our society. I think that looks like working with fair trade artisans and literally creating products with our hands, creating a sustainable life. And dismantling the systems is getting arrested because I oppose the Colombia free trade agreement. And I think you need both to create real change in society.
What are you doing to exercise your hands?