Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: a “riot is the language of the unheard.”
What happens when folks do not feel like their voices are being heard?
They shout louder.
Rioting is what almost happened in Ferguson, Mo., and all of us who live in fragile neighborhoods with a backdrop of deep racial injustice need to pay attention.
In Ferguson, a close-knit community was devastated by yet another perceived injustice. They wanted to be heard. But as peaceful marches began, they were met with unprecedented force.
Tears were met with teargas.
It was as if authorities were putting their hands up over their ears. So the people shouted louder — and the world began to pay attention.
At a fragile moment when emotions were running high, the people of Ferguson had to choose between rioting and nonviolent direct action in the streets. A very small group, many of them arguably out-of-state activists, resorted to some forms of property damage. And it caught the media’s attention.
Some might say it hijacked the headlines.
But that is not how I will remember Ferguson.
What was far more remarkable than the brief moment of property damage was the disciplined care with which the people of Ferguson began to organize and train. They did not fight fire with fire. They hosted seminars on nonviolence and community organizing. They set up voter registration and prayer services. Entire new networks of clergy formed.
This nonviolent uprising has been incredible to watch. A slow, steady, disciplined movement in Ferguson has caught the world’s attention. On a phone call with faith leaders the other day, someone said so well:
“They are turning a moment into a movement.”
Dr. King was right. Rioting is one way to get people to pay attention. But it’s not the only way.
We remember the nonviolent demonstrations of the civil rights movement — the sit-ins, the boycotts, the marches. They also got people’s attention. Nonviolence has the power to expose injustice so that it becomes so uncomfortable that people have to respond. It’s why Dr. King considered nonviolence to be the most potent weapon available to black folks in the civil rights movement.
From his own experience, Dr. King argued that violence is “both impractical and immoral” and that riots are “self-defeating” and “socially destructive.” King insisted that if every person in the movement were to turn against nonviolence he would still stand up and say, “Violence is not the way!”
Violence gets people to watch TV. But nonviolence gets people to listen . . . and to give of themselves for genuine, lasting change.
When I left Ferguson, folks were discussing what might happen if 100 people kneeled in prayer, blocking the doors to the police station — a modern day “pray-in”? Even opportunistic media would jump on that one.
So I think of what Dr. King might say in light of Ferguson. I think he would say: “LISTEN.”
Even to the small minority of folks who are prone to violence, we might ask: “What is it that you so desperately want us to hear?”
As we listen to Ferguson, we can learn from Ferguson — just as we learn from Montgomery, Ala., and from South Africa. Many of the worst pits of oppression have later become the brightest beacons of hope. Some of the worst moments of injustice have sparked some of the greatest movements for justice. And those places known for acts of evil later inspire the world towards freedom a generation later — out of these places rise up people like Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks.
May it be so with Ferguson.
We need to learn from Ferguson so that we will be prepared for the Fergusons of the future. We can prepare ourselves and our communities to respond to violence without letting it overtake us. We can fight evil without becoming evil.
We can find the third way that is neither fight nor flight.
After all, if we do not find nonviolent channels to release the holy rage, it is likely to erupt into unholy rage — into violence and riots. Rather than going to jail for something that compromises your dignity and integrity, go to jail for doing something that emphasizes it. It is time to renew our commitment to building a nonviolent revolution.
Imagine hundreds of folks kneeling to stop the deportation of children at the border. Imagine thousands laying down to stop the executioners before the next state killing. Imagine a precedent being set in Ferguson that anytime there is an injustice in our neighborhood we make it go viral. And then we put our bodies where they belong — in the streets, in nonviolent marches, and sit-ins and campouts and vigils.
Let’s envision those prone to violence becoming convinced that there is another, even better way to get our voices heard — a nonviolent uprising.
And let’s submit our bodies as living sacrifices for God’s movement today.
Shane Claiborne is a prominent author, speaker, activist and founding member of the Simple Way. He is one of the compilers of Common Prayer, a resource to unite people in prayer and action. Claiborne is also helping develop a network called Friends Without Borders, which creates opportunities for folks to come together and work together for justice from around the world. This blog post is provided thanks to our partnership with Red Letter Christians.