On Not Being Nice in Times of Violence

Police presence at Prenzlauer Berg synagogue in Berlin
After this past week, I'm sure many of you, like me, are reeling, first from the news of pipe bombs that were sent to some of our nation's most prominent political leaders, secondly by the cowardly, despicable and apparently racially motivated shooting of two elderly citizens at a Kroger grocery store in my home town, Louisville, KY, and finally by the horrific mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. My heart has been sighing in my prayers and meditations for the victims of these attacks and attempted attacks.
I also have been reflecting on these trends and thought I'd share briefly from my experience. When I lived in Berlin (1992-1997), I lived for two years in the far eastern suburb of Berlin Marzahn, and then three years in the East Berlin squatting and arts district, Prenzlauer Berg. Throughout my time in Berlin, there were tensions between right wing nationalists and outsiders, leftists, Jews, and ethnic minorities. As an ecumenical volunteer who worked in the churches on causes related to Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC), numerous folks from all over visited me. Sometimes they stayed in my little apartment when they came to Berlin, folks from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast and East Asia, Latin America, and from various countries in Europe and North America. In addition to doing ecumenical youth and children's ministry in the churches, part of my work was raising cultural awareness together with my Japanese and Vietnamese colleagues among schoolchildren in East Berlin. Another project was working with a social worker and his youth group in Marzahn. These mostly leftist kids were at risk of embracing violent ideologies. Our job was to hang out with them and train them in the history and methods of nonviolent action. Our year of work with them culminated in the kids organizing a rally and punk rock concert to raise consciousness about violence and its consequences. What fun!

These actions did from time to time make me a target. Of course, I knew which pubs the skinheads hung out at; and did my best to avoid them. Nevertheless, I can recall--a week or two after I hosted a North African friend--Nazi leaflets being shoved in my apartment mailbox. The church where our ecumenical organization was based also received a steady stream of such threats, and at one point was even vandalized by right-wing extremists, with some of its beautiful and irreplaceable stained glass windows getting broken. Every May Day, from my balcony in Prenzlauer Berg, I could count on being able to witness the skinheads, police, and Antifa kids square off, throw stones and shoot/lob tear gas canisters at each other. It was a crazy and violent time, but also a wonderful time as a young grad student to immerse myself in the writings of Gandhi and King, and participate and train folks in nonviolent practices and communication.

As I stroll down memory lane, I also thought I'd make a couple observations about the current moment.

First, I never thought I'd see the day that a US president would openly use rhetoric to stoke up right wing anger to such an extent as we are currently seeing. The past two years have seen as a result an surge in violent acts, after a period of long decline since the 1970s. I also was shocked to hear that the president partially blamed the Tree of Life Synagogue for not having an armed guard. I remember the synagogues in Berlin. For one shabbat service I attended in Berlin, I distinctly remember having to be patted down by armed guards and go through a metal detector. At the synagogue in Prenzlauer Berg down the street from me (it wasn't active at the time, because the communists had never rebuilt the burnt out shell leftover from the Nazi's destruction of it), there was a 24/7 armed guard posted by the Berlin Police strolling before it bearing automatic weapons. This apparently is standard practice for synagogues in Germany. It makes sense given Germany's history and the tensions that were present, even when I was living there. It is a bit surprising to me that such vigilance should be necessary here in the US in 2018. But then again, given the recent church shootings in South Carolina and Texas, and the 16th St. Church Bombing during the Civil Rights era, I guess I shouldn't be so naive. This is our history in the making now. We must find a way to engage, whether by recounting our own stories, participating in movements, or lending our voices to peace and social justice causes. Of course, we must vote.

Second, the US president is now telling the media, his supporters, and whatever nut jobs still take him seriously that he is going to respond by being "nice." I've found it better lately for my mental health to simply ignore him. However, I will say that I think it is OK not to be "nice" in moments like this. As nonviolent activists, Gandhi and King were not always "nice." Satyagraha resists societal structures that are premised upon lies and injustice. It has nothing to do with being nice. In fact, if you are an oppressor and are actively engaging in injustice, you will experience the truth-telling associated with Satyagraha as anything but nice. It may just prick your conscience. It may just help you to realize that your privilege is premised upon others' suffering. That is and should be an unpleasant sensation.  Nevertheless, Satyagraha must be coupled with Ahimsa, so that one's engagement of the opponent causes no physical harm. If you truly love others, you will engage them in such a way that you call out their enslavement to unjust practices and ideologies, even and especially if they are the oppressor. When practiced virtuously, justice entails the moderation of anger. It has little to do with being "nice."

I don't have many more words at the moment. As I pray and meditate these days, I am trying to calm my spirit and refocus my energy toward divine justice. There are many days that I fail at staying calm and beaming forth positive energy. On such days, I am particularly thankful for others near and far who give me strength and offer me gentle correction. Let's stick together, take care of ourselves, and support each other mutually. I firmly believe that justice and peace will prevail. 


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