24 February 2011

The tumultuous wave of people power in the Middle East and North Africa in the last few weeks might not qualify as pure nonviolence. (Although some of it came very close, thanks to discipline, dedication, and excellent organizing.) But in nearly every location, people were rising up against powers that had an overwhelming advantage in the tools of violence--and in some cases great willingness to use them. Whether from conviction or from necessity, soul force was usually the only "weapon" available. And one of the most powerful bullets in that weapon is the word "no."

Some say that the crucial revolutionary spark was the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose act of violence against himself I'd prefer to interpret as systemic murder. His final "no!"--amplified by a media machine with remarkable prescience (considering that Al Jazeera's budget is a tiny fraction of America's intelligence agencies'!)--resonated with millions of others who were also just one prophetic nudge away from that same cry: No!

As I once again keep vigil in a regional crisis, this time with the people of Libya, I can't pretend to have even the slightest degree of geopolitical wisdom. I leave the expert commentary to others (for example, Zunes; Cobban; Cole); instead, I'm thinking about the power of that word.

The word "no" might appear to be the opposite of the word I've adopted as my life theme: "Yes." I got that theme from 2 Corinthians 1:20: "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ. And so through him the 'Amen' is spoken by us to the glory of God." (Context). I understand that Jesus and his Body (us!) are in the world forming the "yes" to God's promises. Proclaiming God's promises of peace and abundant blessing, and working to flesh them out, to say "yes" and help enable others to join us in joyful "amen" ... all of that is the great work of the church.

But maybe you can't say "yes" without sometimes saying "no." When God's promises seem blocked by idolatry, greed, addiction, or fear, we have to take the risk of saying no, even though it might not be the nice thing to do. When Rosa Parks said "no" to Montgomery bus driver James Blake, she was saying "no" to the whole system that saw her as less than others, that made her fare worth less than others', and that eventually crumbled when Parks and her community were no longer willing to "give in."

There's no absolute guarantee that our "no" is ultimately correct, but I think we're seeing now that "giving in" is even less likely to be righteous. In the context of today's North African upheavals, I'd like us to try some specific experiments with this risk of saying no:
  • Can we as believers agree to say "no" to the received definition of "strategic ally"? No more should we agree that, in evaluating other countries as "allies," their treating human beings like dirt is ever worth giving us parking spaces for our warships, or doing our bidding in the United Nations, or any other standard that implies our convenience is worth someone else's suffering.
  • Can we say "no" to the indefinite holding of prisoners offshore--whether in Guantanamo or in Afghanistan or in secret prisons anywhere--without any certainty of appeal or relief? There is no excuse, legal or military or bureaucratic, that can possibly cover the resulting stink of hypocrisy or muffle the cries of those isolated from friends and family simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even because they resisted the wrong invader!!
  • Can we agree to say "no" to the use of our taxes for endless undeclared wars, the setting up of new military bases and garrisons, "withdrawals" that really aren't, all hyped by experts with vested interests in the aggressive policies they seek to "explain"?
  • And can we do this in the Name above all names, realizing that everyone we say "no" to also deserves to hear about the One who loves them, too, the One who is history's "Yes" and in whose hope and service we're saying "no"?
  • This is not an exhaustive list! Add your own item....

The analytical power of saying "no" is, at least in part, to interrupt the hypnotic power of imperial expertise in favor of actual definitions. What is an "ally," for example--an ally of whom? Do we value our friends because they are (1) actually sympathetic to our values and the resulting bond raises human dignity for all? Or (2) they function as part of our business infrastructure, providing cheap utilities, pathways, or markets for our businesses, and we citizens are not encouraged to see the full trade-offs? Or (3) they are enemies of our enemies? With these lenses in mind, I read these two recent New York Times articles: "If Not Now, When?" (how much is that "vaunted stability" actually worth?); and "Europe Longs to Back Mideast Change, Fears Chaos" (Instead of following first principles, let's play "rank the threats." What are the discussions of Europe's Christian roots worth if they are not applied to today's real-life struggles for justice and dignity?).

"There is power in the Name."

"The Power of Comic Books for Social Change." (Thank you, David Finke.) And, some sad comics-related news: two Washington Post items (one, two) on the late Dwayne McDuffie.

"What were the Ulama Doing in Tahrir Square?"

Celebrate Joe Volk. Add your own appreciation.

Two of my favorites--


Bill Samuel said...

What we need to avoid is the unthinking yes. The unthinking yes is what gives the forces of institutionalized oppression their power. The "system" comes with built-in assumptions. The unthinking yes just accepts those, even though they may be terrible assumptions.

What we need to do - and what I think many of the protesters in North Africa and the Arab world have done - is to look critically at these assumptions and challenge those that are not valid. The thinking no has great power, especially when it is linked to a thoughtful yes - such as that for a democratic society by those that have been in the public squares.

If we have got our yeses in order, they will also result in the proper nos.

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said ....
I hope that everyone reading this
or listening to this knows that Bonnie Raitt grew up as a Friend. Her father was a well-known singer
Broadway, and her mother also
on Broadway. The blacklist of the
late 1940's threatened the family, who managed to find a haven of sorts among Friends. Bonnie is a graduate of Oakwood Friends School, as well as
Harvard Univ. Look at her website,
and you will see how much work for human rights she does. She also has
become known for marking the graves
of bluesmen. She had an uncle who
worked for AFSC.
And what great music! When I
went to one of her concerts, about
fifteen years ago, the audience stood up and literally danced in the aisles.
Jeremy Mott

Anonymous said...

The middle east would be better off with good jazz or blues festivals....maybe that would help them to relax a little.