Considering Nonviolence in Baltimore | Sojourners

Considering Nonviolence in Baltimore

Recent protests in Baltimore are raising the question of (non)violence anew. Should violent protesters be criticized? Should Christians call for nonviolence?

Some bluster “Of course!” while others say that’s not the point.

Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in Baltimore, is challenging calls for nonviolence in an article entitled “Nonviolence as Compliance.” Calling “well-intended pleas” for nonviolence “the right answer to the wrong question,” Coates writes:



When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise."

The line bears repeating: “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse.” Are newly scared white folks simply “calling timeout?”

Coates wants to ground our conversation about violence in the narrative of a larger “war.” For him, violence did not “break out” last night – violence has always been present. Coates wants to shift our focus from the shorter story of rock-throwers to the much longer story of the black experience in the United States.

As the clergy marching in Baltimore put it, “There’s been a state of emergency way before tonight.” Their response to this ongoing state of emergency was to march peacefully, arm-in-arm with other protesters, decrying all violence.

Sojourners has long heralded nonviolence as a core virtue of Christian social ethics, even while recognizing its paradoxes. As Jim Wallis put it in a Sojourners magazine article called “Hard Questions for Peacemakers,” “for nonviolence to be credible, it must answer the questions that violence purports to answer, but in a better way.” 

What do you think? How should we be talking and thinking about nonviolence in Baltimore while putting events in their proper context of institutionalized racism?

Ryan Stewart is Online Assistant for Sojourners.