Something we have recognized as a group in our discussions about Jesus' nonviolent way is that it is easy to advocate nonviolence having never or rarely experienced violence firsthand.
It is certainly not everyday that I experience violence, and for this I am extremely grateful. Yet, because my work is in ministry among Boston's homeless, I do occasionally find myself having to intervene in a conflict. Thursday was a perfect, albeit strange, example of this.
I was sitting on the sidewalk next to the Harvard Square MBTA entrance with several young homeless guys. We were passing the time, making small talk, and playing guitar as we often do. One of the guys, who was sitting next to me, had had quite a bit to drink. For the purposes of this reflection I'll call him "Ray". A friend of Ray's was sitting across from us playing guitar and, for the most part, keeping to himself when a man walked by wearing a skirt and a feather boa. He looked very uncomfortable in his outfit and nothing he was wearing seemed to fit. He was slightly overweight, somewhat short, had a buzz cut and several tattoos. As this stranger walked by Ray's guitar-playing friend, Ray's friend decided to ask him for two dollars to buy some coffee. The man ignored him and accidentally dropped a part of his feather boa on the ground in front of Ray's guitar-playing friend. A minute or two later, noticing that he had lost part of his feather boa, the stranger walked back to Ray's guitar-playng friend and angrily asked for Ray's friend to pick up the feather boa for him. "You think I like wearing this skirt??!!" He said loudly, "Pick up the feather! You think its easy to bend over in a skirt out here??" No one quite knew what to make of this, so someone picked up the feather for him and the man walked a ways down the sidewalk and sat down to reassemble himself. And then the trouble started. Ray yelled across the sidewalk at his guitar-playing friend and asked what had happened. His guitar-playing friend said, "I don't know, this guy was giving me trouble." And before anyone could stop him, Ray had stumbled over to the stranger and was yelling at him looking to fight. Within moments, the two of them were exchanging punches and the fight quickly spilled out into heavily-trafficked Harvard square. Several of us ran in to try to break up the fight, grabbing the shoulders of each man and pulling away. We thought we had restrained them at first, but then insults were again exchanged and Ray grabbed the man's bag and angrily scattered its contents, including a laptop computer, into the air. They clawed and punched at each other, rolling on the brick surface of the square. Ray had managed to rip the shirt off of his opponent and by this point a very large crowd of passerby's (probably 60-80 people) had gathered and were watching. Several friends of Ray's shouted out to him, "Rip him apart Ray! You got this!!" But the stranger had straddled him and was laying on blow after blow to Ray's face, tearing open his lip. Prior to this second round of the fight, I had withdrawn to pray for the situation, hoping that it would come to a quick end and that someone would walk away defeated. But I realized, as Ray was taking the brunt of the beating, that no one had any intention of stopping them or getting involved. Afraid that someone would get seriously injured, I decided it was time to involve myself and I stepped in and grabbed the shoulders of the stranger a second time and pulled him away. Several other people saw my efforts and stepped in and grabbed Ray. Finally, just at that moment, several police officers showed up bringing the conflict to a swift end.
As I have reflected on this situation over the past several days I have realized its worth as a greater metaphor for larger institutional forms of violence. Although there are clear differences between micro-violence between individuals and macro-violence between nations, I saw in this conflict just how easy it is to make quick irrational decisions based more out of instinct and fear than reason and peace-making. I saw this impulse at work in several players who found themselves involved last Thursday.
I first observed this instinctual reaction in the response of Ray's friends. Since they knew Ray and had his allegiance, their impulse was an emotional one. Initially it was to attempt to break up the fight, but once it was clear that Ray didn't want to back down, they were unquestionably on his side. If I hadn't intervened, they would have continued to encourage him. If the stranger had pulled a knife, I am sure that this would have turned into a small brawl. To draw a comparison to the larger political metaphor, his friends were like a countries allies.
The second group of people I have found myself reflecting upon is the crowd who watched the fight. They were emotionally and relationally uninvolved since they didn't know Ray or the stranger. Curious about what was going on, they watched. Some of them called the police, but none of them involved themselves. They assumed that someone else would bring this to an end and therefore chose their own safety over intervention. I found myself surprised that no one did anything. I looked around and though there were several strong men standing on the edges of the circle who could have easily broken up the fight, no one acted. Perhaps they were all afraid of getting hurt. Perhaps they didn't know what to do. Perhaps they didn't feel that it was their moral obligation to involve themselves. I would draw a comparison between the crowds and third-party nations in political violence. Perhaps this is similar to America's lack of involvement in some of the ongoing African conflicts. Afraid of the implications of getting involved and having no quick answers, they stand aside and watch.
Lastly, I observed the police response and its effect on the conflict. It took longer than I would have expected for them to arrive, considering that the square is typically very well policed. They came and quickly split up the fight, restraining both parties and forcing them to sit down and cool off. They made no arrests, but did a background check on both combatants and questioned them. Ultimately, they did their job. Yet looking back on the resolution to the conflict, I observed that although a show of force had stopped the conflict after it had begun, it failed to respond to the root causes that had begun the argument to begin with. Again thinking back on the similarities between this micro-violence and political violence I noted that this "show-of-force" method is what we see many of the worlds nuclear countries practicing when they find themselves drawn into the conflict of smaller nations. Taking a side in the conflict, they usually bring a temporary end to further fighting by generating fear in the other side.
As I've reflecting on my own role, I was able to recognize my unique perspective. Although I know Ray and care for his safety, I have continually made it clear to those I minister among that I do not take sides in a fight and that my concern will always be for the peace and safety of all parties. Ray's friends know that I do not want to see ANYONE get hurt, no matter what they do to Ray. A second aspect to my presence that I feel makes a difference is that I have never been associated, and hopefully never will be associated, with violent intervention and everyone knows that I would never carry a weapon. This makes me an innocent and neutral third-party. However, unlike the crowd presence, I have stated my vested interest in the well-being of the community in conflict. This involves me directly. I believe that this combination of characteristics makes for a very powerful presence that, if applied with wisdom and caution, can be very effective at disarming conflict and bringing about reconciliation. Applied to the world of international conflict, I have wondered if the formation of a third-party with the aforementioned characteristics might be very effective in resolving disputes and preventing bloodshed. Here are some attributes I believe would be necessary for this organization to function:
- It would have to be clearly stated that the organization was concerned for the well-being and safety of all. Therefore, it would have to discerningly evaluate how an action might be perceived before involving itself so as not to appear to take sides.
- It would have to hold no allegiances to government or political entities.
-It would need to have a longevity of presence in each nation involved. It couldn't simply show up out of nowhere and expect for both sides to respect it.
-It would need to be completely unarmed. As a rule it could never provoke a conflict or participate in conflict through the use of violence. This would need to be strictly adhered to, even at cost to the lives of its membership.
As I write these attributes it seems to me that the Church could be a perfect candidate for this role. Yet sadly, without the ethics of nonviolence to guide it, I'm afraid that it would only encourage the status quo.
I would be interested in your comments on this reflection. What has your experience been with violence? What did you notice about the different participants involvement? What other attributes would you recommend for an organization whose goal is to promote peace and reconciliation?