[Episcopal News Service] One way to interrupt violence is simply to raise a hand as though warding it away while simultaneously extending the other hand outwards in invitation for peaceful engagement.
It may seem a symbolic gesture, but the upraised hand conveys “to an aggressor to stop what you are doing, [that] I refuse to honor the role you’re choosing to play,” said the Rev. Steve Shanks, a vocational deacon at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Trussville, Alabama.
“Then there’s the other outstretched hand, which is advocating nonviolence. It expresses that I won’t let go of you, I’m not trying to dehumanize you, I have faith you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you’re ready,” said Shanks, who teaches the gesture during training sessions for Creating a Culture of Peace, a national program founded by Janet Chisholm, a former a chair of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship.
The Jan. 21 national celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a compelling reminder of the power of nonviolence in sparking social change, said Shanks.
“Violence is an easy default for people to go to,” he said. “It occurs in so many different forms in society. So often we become inured to it [so] that we don’t even realize we’re participating in a violent system.”
“We think we know what violence looks like, but … it occurs so insidiously within our institutional structures, social structures,” he said. “It does terrible things to people. It can be so debilitating, and that’s why the training evolved. Anything we can do to help transform that, to interrupt those cycles, seems like good work.”
The CCP trainings incorporate “circles of truth” that group five or six participants to tackle a controversial issue. With a topic like gun control, for example, each participant receives a few minutes to represent to the others in the circle the viewpoint associated with a gun control activist or a handgun owner or a media-relations person for the National Rifle Association. Then each is asked to take a step to the right and repeat the exercise from the viewpoint of the person who had been standing there.
“That way, everybody takes a turn standing in everybody else’s shoes” as a way of promoting dialogue and building community, Shanks said.
Elsewhere across the country, Episcopalians are tackling violence in various ways.
‘LOVE’ task force in New York
On Jan. 24, the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York will host a forum on interpersonal violence sponsored by the congregation’s LOVE (Liberate Ourselves, Value Everyone) Task Force on Nonviolent Living.
The session, third in the “Nonviolent Living: Made in the Image of God” series, aims to raise awareness and promote nonviolent living. “It is about the abuse that can happen in all kinds of partnerships, not just romantic or coupled. We’re looking at the impact of sacred vows on a relationship that has abuse in it,” said moderator Victoria Rollins, theologian and advocate.
Holy Trinity parishioner Yvonne O’Neal, a task force member, said the series is important because “all of us have suffered violence in some form or another because it is so pervasive in our community.
“I have a child I adopted, who happened to be my great-nephew. His mother was my niece, and his father killed her,” she said. “That was quite an event in my family’s life, and it changed my life.”
While the task force seeks to create awareness, it’s time to re-envision King’s dream of the “beloved community” where nonviolence comes into being from conscious awareness of choosing gentleness, thoughtfulness and hospitality, that we are one, Rollins said.
Seeking transformation in Milwaukee
Similarly, All Saints’ Cathedral in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, explored causes of violence during a yearlong series of adult education and community events, “Living Without Fear, A Christian Response to Violence.”
“Milwaukee is a very racially divided and economically divided city, and there’s a great deal of violence,” said the Very Rev. Kevin Carroll, cathedral dean. That includes the Aug. 5 fatal shooting of six worshippers at a Sikh temple, the fifth mass killing in the city in seven years, he said during a recent interview with Episcopal News Service.
“One of the major conclusions we came to was that we can’t affect the world but we can affect how we respond to the world as a faith-based community,” said Carroll.
“The Sikh community did an incredible job of that. Less than two days after it happened, they were praying for the guy who shot everybody. That had a profound impact on people here, that we are really learning how to be good Christians from our Sikh brothers and sisters, who put prayer and forgiveness at the center of things and started working out from there.”
Transformation also happened in hearing the stories of others, including a Holocaust survivor “who bore no grudges,” Carroll said. “He had forgiven the people who had perpetrated these terrible things on him and his community.
“We walked away with the feeling that justice and reconciliation are not mutually exclusive. Justice is how the world deals with violence. Peace and forgiveness is how we deal with it. Not until we choose to forgive and move on can we facilitate peace in the world.”
Some participants were inspired to get involved in community service and outreach ministries, as well as developed the awareness that “we don’t start from a place of fear, we start from a place of prayer,” Carroll said. “Even in the midst of great violence, forgiveness is key.”
Peace project in Rochester, New York
The Rev. Pat Cashman wanted to strengthen community bonds by offering the Church of the Ascension for a daylong peace project last August.
Located in a Rochester, New York, community undergoing tremendous change and escalating violence, the church is becoming a peace center.
“Once we know each other, respect each other, delight in each other, that bond decreases our unrest and chance of violence, plus we were learning specific skills also,” Cashman said during a recent telephone interview. “We wanted to create a positive feeling that we can do something so we don’t despair.”
The August peace-teaching event included music, dance, art and drama. About 45 people created a 14-car “peace train” made of plyboard paneling and brightly painted. Carrying the cars, they marched through the city streets to a nearby park.
“We were chanting, singing peace songs. People drove by, saw the train and honked. We had a skit, and a dance, the song and rap from teenagers. We all pulled together and worked. It was total strangers coming together, a plain human bond of people who desire peace,” Cashman said. “By the end of the day we knew so many more people than when we started. And that was a good feeling.”
Discovering and implementing ways to interrupt and redirect violence is difficult, however, “because we don’t have too much education about our inner life,” she said. “It’s called shadow work. So within us we have a whole complement of human behavior of violence and … we have to understand ourselves better, becoming much more self-aware of our own messages and how we send them.”
An antiviolence group meets at the church each month, and upcoming Lenten classes will teach mindful communication, she added. “I want to encourage people to do everything they can to increase the bonds of community between people and not to let overwork and isolation keep us apart.”
Recovering creative nonviolence
The Rev. Jeremy Lucas, vicar of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Battle Ground, Washington, has lived the power of nonviolent resistance.
“I grew up in Birmingham [Alabama], although I wasn’t of age during the civil rights movement,” Lucas said during a recent telephone interview. “I was born in 1971, but that spirit permeated Birmingham. If ever there was a place that you thought would not be desegregated and would not be somewhere that Dr. King’s message would come true, it would have been in Birmingham.”
The movement there happened when television coverage raised awareness of the violence leveled against civil rights workers, and all over the country “people rallied to the cause,” he said.
With the gun-control debate, “we have to attack this problem of violence, to use a rather aggressive metaphor descriptor,” said Lucas, who also participates in CCP training. “But we have to go at it in many different ways.
“Individually, we have to find those places in ourselves that are violent and pray for their redemption and work in a way that leads us to see that there is another way.”
The CCP training “seeks to change minds, to change attitudes, to really step out in a new way,” he said.
“Our culture right now has a lack of imagination and a lack of creative thinking around how to deal with violence. Something about our society says: If you step out of line, if you don’t follow the way things are, you’re going to get ostracized, you’re not going to be able to change the system. And we remain isolated in spite of all the new connections of technology.
“We do live in isolation and small pockets in individual homes, not even knowing our neighbors,” he said. “It makes it hard to believe that, if you want something to change, it can.”
Building community is the bottom line, he said. “Although individual actions had to be made, individual decisions had to be taken, the first action was to get involved with other people doing the same thing and to work in community and to work with others struggling along the same path to help one another.”
“We get so individualized and individualistic about our thinking, that this is a private action and I need to be a better person, but truly Christianity at its very heart is about living community, living and working and growing together as a wholeness that is beyond any of us as individuals.
Lucas said that King was a great leader in the civil rights movement. “But if we define the civil rights movement as just Dr. King and his speeches and the things he did, we miss most of the civil rights movement. We miss most of those people on the ground who risked life and limb and many who gave their lives in the struggle for equality.”
He added, “When we can stop long enough to say, hey, I don’t want to do this any more. I don’t believe that this is the way Jesus calls us as his disciples in the world to live, we say, this is not going to make our lives immediately easier. But what it will do is it will allow us to live with integrity about who we are and what we believe. It’s just that one action: of not cutting somebody off in traffic in anger or not telling somebody who’s told you to shut up to go jump off a bridge. Whatever that small action is, small actions build into bigger actions.”
Information about the CCP trainings and other resources on nonviolence are available at the Episcopal Peace Fellowship website. EPF interim executive director, the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles, could not be reached for comment.
— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.