In early December 2020, a valued colleague mentioned an abstract she read and the desire to find the article. The focal point of the article was the necessity for violence and the shortcomings of nonviolence. We discussed the concept for a short spell (and have returned to it since) and, in so doing, my interest in the conversation grew. Since then, we witnessed violence unfold at the Capital of the United States and, as I write, we are approaching the national holiday of the exemplar of nonviolence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I must confess, I am writing this in many ways to continue the conversation with my dear friend, but I do hope the ideas presented help spark conversation and interest in your circles as well.
A (not so) Bold Proclamation
Let’s begin with a self-evident proclamation: violence exists, and it causes undeniable suffering. I know; I really jumped out on a limb right there! Generally speaking, we human beings are also drawn to violence as a form of entertainment. MMA and boxing continue to attract large numbers of fans and generate huge revenues for their respective athletic bodies. The National Football League’s popularity has soared over the past two decades and, despite increased concerns about concussions, remains a collision (as opposed to a contact) sport. Clearly violent sports make money and attract millions of fans, including me. I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that I occasionally go to Youtube to look up old clips of Mike Tyson’s devastating knockouts and the classic “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler – Thomas “Hitman” Hearns boxing match.
Movies and films also present us with stories where heroes routinely utilize violence to overcome obstacles, defeat the forces of evil, and save the proverbial day. Many can relate to the feeling of satisfaction delivered when the hero of a tale subdues, or even kills, the villain through violent confrontation. Quentin Tarantino is counting on the audience enjoying that feeling!
History too communicates not only the existence of, but perhaps the necessity and utility of violence. In one of his contributions to The Great Courses, Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life, Professor J. Rufus Fears proclaimed, “Violence sometimes solves problems.” He uses the American Civil War has his example as the war was utilized to end the violent horrors millions suffered due to slavery. In the mid-twentieth century Hitler was most definitely not talked out of building his “Thousand-Year Reich.”
Stokely and Malcolm
On a different field of battle, the US Civil Rights struggle of the 1950’s-1960’s, we witness a good number of voices calling for the use of violence or, at the very least, embracing the possible use of violence. The most well-known inclusion here would likely be Malcolm X. In his 1964 speech at the founding of his new organization, The Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm – under the heading of self-defense – proclaimed, “We assert that in those areas where the government is either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property of our people, that our people are within our rights to protect themselves by whatever means necessary.” He used the concept “by whatever means necessary” eleven other times in the speech, declaring it to be his organizations motto. Violence, particularly in self-defense, was on the table. We will return to Malcolm X a bit later. For now, let’s call in another leader.
Stokely Carmichael, who served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from May 1966 – June 1967, became best known for promulgating – though not originating – the phrase “black power.” He clarified that black power was about building the economic strength of black communities, building a sense of self-worth and pride in those who had lost those important feeling, and building improved social and political institutions. He also clearly distanced himself from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s path by stating, “…the only thing nonviolent about the civil rights movement has been Martin Luther King. Now we’ve never defined it (nonviolence) as a way of life, I never have. I’ve always defined it as a tactic.” When one considers just two of the litany of horrific incidents from that era – Sherriff Jim Clark leading his “posse” against peaceful protesters at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and, a mere three weeks after the delivery of the “I Have a Dream Speech,” the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church – it becomes clear why Carmichael once exclaimed, “We have been too nonviolent…”
Brief Stop at Recent Days
We do not have to look too far into the past to feel the tension between violence and nonviolence. On January 6, 2021, the Capital of the United States was attacked, and briefly taken, by rioters. Many people wondered in the aftermath of the event, why wasn’t the response of law enforcement more forceful? For clarity sake if you wanted law enforcement to be more aggressive then you wanted them to be violent. I do not embrace the idea that acting in self-defense or in the protection on another is somehow nonviolent. It is violence performed in the act of a particular goal – often a laudable one – but still violence.
If a Shaolin Monk walking a dusty road in 17th Century China used his staff to beat back three would be muggers, the act of putting the staff upside the head of a person – even in self-defense – is still a violent act. Intention can make some acts of violence more palatable, but it does not negate the act as one of violence. There is a tension here between intention and action that may cause some discomfort.
Sometimes violence – as in protecting the Capital Building of the United States – is warranted. It has a utilitarian purpose. There is a reason that Charles Cobb titled his book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible or that George Orwell wrote in his “Notes on Nationalism”, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.”
Nonviolence, You Say
Thus far we have seen a rather strong case built in favor of violence. Honestly, as I write these words, I am planning lessons on Reconstruction, the tumultuous time period following the Civil War. From 1865-1866 President Andrew Johnson did nothing to curb, or even address, the violent activities of southerners as they tried to reclaim their pre-war position of power in the South. The horror of the Memphis Massacre of 1866 (May 1-3) and the New Orleans Massacre of 1866 (July 30) spurred the “Radical Republicans” at the time to take control of Reconstruction and begin a time period of Military Reconstruction (started in 1867), which established military districts in the South and created an environment that allowed for rapid growth in southern black communities (black voter registration among eligible voters, for example, increased from 1% to 80% in 1867). Sometimes it takes a bayonet to get people to the ballots. What then can be said about nonviolence to allow it a place in this conversation? Is it little more than a tactic, and a rather ineffective one at that?
We have been told that the answer to violence lies in its opposite, the philosophy of nonviolence. Allow me another self-evident proclamation; nonviolence is a lofty ideal, one that seems out of sorts with the worlds in which we live (by worlds I mean the large world of international and even intranational conflict as well as the small worlds of our communities, homes, and entertainment choices). Yet, if we were to engage in a simple thought exercise, I wonder how you would answer. Which would you prefer to see: all citizens of the world – for 24 hours – to embrace and LIVE by the tenants of nonviolence or increase violent tendencies (as this thought exercise asks us to increase the nonviolent tendencies) for 24 hours? I think the answer is clear.
As we prepare to give nonviolence its due in this conversation it is important to note a disagreement I have with the words of Stokely Carmichael. This disagreement lies in an implication of his statement, “…we’ve never defined it (nonviolence) as a way of life, I never have. I’ve always defined it as a tactic.” The implication here is that nonviolence is “a way of life.” It would seem to me that nonviolence is not “a way of life” so much as a manifestation or trait exhibited by an individual who has developed a complex and interconnected inner world
A Pivot to Pop Culture or
Dr. King meets Luke Skywalker
I teach a course called P3: Philosophy, Psychology, and Pop Culture, utilizing song, stories, myths, and movies to help make sense of philosophic and psychological theories for my students. I would submit to you that one of America’s most beloved and iconic cinematic series endorses the concept of nonviolence to its viewers. I bring you to a galaxy far, far away as we enter the Star Wars universe, specifically into the shoes of the iconic Luke Skywalker. Let us start with the climactic scene in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi where Luke achieves his final victory over the Emperor and simultaneously reawakens the goodness within his father, the Sith Lord, Darth Vader.
The scene unfolds as Luke is engaged in a brutal light saber dual with his father, Darth Vader. Luke cleaves off Vader’s hand and stands over his foe, light saber pointed at his throat. The emperor cheers this situation, imploring Luke to strike Vader and become the new Sith Lord. Luke stands on the threshold of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dire prediction, “The chain reaction of evil-hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars-must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” King, while seeking national justice and reconciliation, was also a master psychologist. Individuals, as well as nations, can plummet into a personal “dark abyss.” King noted, in his searing and brilliant “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the need to eradicate the twin traps of segregation and racism; one the false senses of superiority and the other being the false sense of inferiority. The dark abyss of these paths can bring personal and communal destruction in their wake. Let’s return to Luke, for we paused him as he prepared to kill his father – not a pleasant place to linger. With that final blow he would be “plunged into the dark abyss.” It is here that Luke makes an instantaneous decision.
Throughout the film Luke has been attempting to bring forth his father’s goodness, now his violence has him on the brink of doing the complete opposite, killing his father and replacing him as an agent of evil. He remembers his dual mission, defeat the emperor and convert, not slay, his father. Therefore, he tosses aside his light saber, declaring he is a Jedi, not a pawn of the emperor. In doing so he is simultaneously taking a great risk and showing incredible faith.
Luke’s decision to cast his light saber aside is a cinematic example of the tension between violence and nonviolence. Violence had brought Luke to the threshold of a physical victory over Vader, but this would have been achieved at the eradication of his grandeur goal of reconciliation with the father. Therefore, he dramatically alters his course, leaving himself open to a possible assault from the Emperor. The Emperor is happy to comply and Luke writhes in agony, not defending himself, but calling to Darth Vader, his father, for aid.
Dr. King asserts that the nonviolent approach is a “means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation.” It does seem the choice of whose conscience one is attempting to stir is relevant. Luke could not stir the conscience of the Emperor any more than peaceful protesters could move Jim Clark. Thankfully, other consciences, even Darth Vader’s, can be touched.
Vader, moved by the sight of his son being killed by the Emperor, decides to act. Vader lifts the Emperor above his head and tosses him down a shaft into the Death Star’s power core. This action, while clearly violent would be endorsed by one of the most ardent practitioners of nonviolence – Mahatma Gandhi. While always professing nonviolence as “infinitely superior to violence” Gandhi did concede, “…where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” Here we must pause to realize the difference between realizing there are no other options available to merely choosing to ignore other options and strike back with violence. Vader had no other options available than to assault the Emperor. This was not a man who could be talked out of his perspective or moved by silent protest to stop the slaying of Luke Skywalker. The Emperor would never abandon his dreams of domination. The only option left was violence. Vader stepped into the tension point between violence and nonviolence.
The Emperor, when hoisted above Vader’s head, loses control of the energy flowing from his hands. His power, rage, and violence engulf him and Darth Vader. When the Emperor is tossed to his death we see an energy wave erupt from the shaft and quickly recede to its source, the Emperor’s corrupt energies seeming to cause his death rather than the fall. Vader, near death, thanks his son for saving him, bringing him possible redemption at the end of his life (my willingness to embrace Vader’s redemption is a topic for another essay).
If I accept the film’s message that Luke did in fact redeem his father, it was not by using his skills in combat, but the strength of his character. In the song Chimes of Freedom, Bob Dylan sings, “for the warriors whose strength is not to fight” This is the strength Luke found, a strength that liberated the universe, that allowed the proverbial “chimes of freedom” to liberate the soul of Darth Vader, and freed Luke from the fear of becoming a Sith Lord like his father.
King stressed, “It is evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat…if there is a victory, it will be a victory…for justice and the forces of light.” It is so important to remember, and so daunting to consider, that Dr. King saw evil itself as his opponent, not unjust and bigoted people. Let’s be clear, these were not mere words from King, these were the words that grew from an inner world configured in such a way that truly sought the elevation of all. His words are routinely parroted by people on both sides of the political aisle, but the tone of these individuals often drips with disdain and reeks of moral superiority. Reconciliation and fellowship of humanity is not the goal of many, despite how magnanimously one presents themselves.
A Hard Road
It should come as little surprise that King often felt isolated and, according to some members of his inner circle, became very anxious and depressed at times. How exhausting it must be to regard the transformation of the human heart from calloused to compassionate as the ultimate goal. While changing laws mattered, and King clearly understood the importance of laws, it was the inner landscape of people where King sought true changes. In an interview granted to NBC’s Sandor Vanocur King wearily noted, “I must confess that dream that I had that day has, at many points, turned into a nightmare.” He admitted to having many “agonizing moments” in the years following the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in 1963. Agonizing and doubting are words that can also be used to describe the Luke Skywalker we meet in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
In The Last Jedi an embittered Luke has exiled himself to an island on largely unknown planet. We learn the road to this life began when he started a new Jedi temple and sought to train his nephew, Ben Solo, in the ways of the force. When he felt the depths of Ben’s darkness, he considered killing the boy rather than risking the damage that Ben’s dark inclinations would cause. Going so far as drawing his light saber as Ben slept, Luke stood once again on the precipice of violence and nonviolence, the darkness within himself roaring for release. Luke stopped himself, but Ben awoke to see Luke standing with his light saber drawn, unaware that his teacher had already stepped back from the temptation of preemptive violence to choose, yet again, the transformative path of nonviolence. Ben pulled his hut down on Luke and fled, killing various other students as he left. While not giving in to the temptation of violence, Luke was left with the knowledge of his “agonizing moment,” a moment that – while he did not act on it – led to a cascade of violent acts. The “dark abyss of annihilation” was calling yet again.
Meeting Malcolm on the Hard Road
It is time to bring Malcolm X back to the fore. I believe it essential to note that, despite his more aggressive rhetoric, Malcolm X performed as many acts of violence (according to my studies) in the 1960’s and Dr. King did – none. While not dismissing the possible use of violence, Malcolm lived a largely nonviolent life. He also experienced the inner transformation that King declared the nonviolent life could cause. Consider this excerpt from an interview Malcolm X granted to Gordon Parks:
He stopped and remained silent for a few moments. “Brother,” he said finally, ”remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant — the one who wanted to help the Muslims and the whites get together — and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying?”
“Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping Black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then — like all [Black] Muslims — I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.”
“That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days — I’m glad to be free of them. It’s a time for martyrs now. And if I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country. I’ve learned it the hard way — but I’ve learned it. And that’s the significant thing.”
Reflecting on that interview, Malcolm’s friend Ossie Davis stated, “Malcolm was free….he had completely abandoned…separatism, and hatred. But he had not abandoned his…bristling agitation for immediate freedom in this country not only for blacks, but for everyone.”
As I look at Malcolm’s, as well as Davis’, words I can picture Luke Skywalker in exile; a zombie, making a fool of himself, his decisions costing him years, and even his attempts to turn Ray away as Malcolm had the college student. Ultimately Luke kept his strength (As Malcolm did in his quest to agitate for freedom) while releasing his self-loathing and personal recriminations (abandoning hatred) and coming to the aid of the universe (abandoning separatism). Sometime, however, multiple teachers are necessary to help us reach the end of a hard road successfully.
Ok…Bring him Out
Hello Yoda. Master Yoda makes his appearance in The Last Jedi as a Force ghost, offering council – yet again – to “young Skywalker.” Stirred from his malaise Luke decides that this may be his time to be a martyr, but he does so in a way that fuses violence and nonviolence into a beautiful deception that delays the First Order and allows the beleaguered rebels to escape. Using Force projection, Luke created an illusionary copy of himself that enticed (not that it takes much) Kylo Ren into a lightsaber duel. Let’s look at that again, a goal was achieved (the rebels escaped) because a man was tempted to violence (a lightsaber duel) with a phantasm that, but its very ethereal nature could not perform an actual act of violence, because it has no physical form. The tension of violence and nonviolence was released and deeper well-spring of humanity, where the “forces of light” reside was opened.
Yoda’s final words to Luke in The Last Jedi were, “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore reminds us of another burden “masters” must face. When describing Gandhi, Tagore wrote, “Perhaps he will fail as the Buddha failed and as Christ failed to wean men from their inequities, but he will always be remembered as one who made his life a lesson for all ages to come.” The burden of the master could well be that feeling of failure for they have laid out a path to follow but few walk it. This could well be the existential source of King’s “agonizing moments.”
Why can’t we follow those roads…those difficult paths laid out by exemplars we supposedly admire? Could it be that attempting to live by the idea “what ought to be” instead of following “what is” is just too difficult? Is it because the road demands so much inner work to be done and we live at a time that gives short shrift to our inner worlds? The inner life of people is a world largely ignored, dangerously misunderstood, and possesses a depth tragically denied by our culture. It may also hold the keys to our ultimate successes. So why not dare to learn and walk the path? Could it be we are afraid? If so, let Luke’s advice to Rey in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker become a call to action, “Confronting fear is the destiny of a Jedi.” Battle on, fellow Jedi. May the Force be With You.