Confronting Evil: A Role for Violence?

Rev. Josh Pawelek

MLK“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”[1] Enduring words from Martin Luther King, Jr.; words that matter to me; words that matter to Unitarian Universalists; words I have repeated again and again over ten years in this pulpit—not only King’s articulation of them, but also as they manifested in the words and deeds of Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ceasar Chavez, Delores Huerta, Rosa Parks, Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Henry David Thoreau, Jesus, the Buddha, the Hebrew prophets. We rightly trumpet the values of nonviolence, peace, justice and love, not only on this long, January weekend when the nation pauses to remember King’s life, but whenever we witness violence, oppression, injustice, poverty, inequality—these social , political and economic evils that are real in our nation and still place harsh, often deadly limits on the lives of so many people across the globe.

For King nonviolence was virtually inviolable. I say virtually only because I hear it said that regarding certain historical events—the conflict with Nazi Germany, perhaps—he conceded the necessity of violent confrontation with evil.[2] What I’m wrestling with this morning is not the depth of King’s commitment to nonviolence, but ours—as Unitarian Universalists, as people of faith. We repeat and affirm the value of nonviolence again and again—it resonates deeply with us. Though our Unitarian Universalist principles and sources do not use the term nonviolence, they clearly imply it. But are there limits? In confronting evil—and I’m speaking specifically about larger, systemic evils—abuses of power, often carried out through war, often perceived by victims as terrorism, whether we’re talking about al Qaeda suicide bombings or United States drone strikes, whether we’re talking about human rights violations and torture in countries like China, North Korea and Iran, or human rights violations and torture in the United States; or systemic evils that cut along lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation, that lead to widespread poverty, inequality, hopelessness, despair, nihilism, suffering and death—in confronting such evils, is there a role for violence?

The question makes me cringe. To my ears it sounds strange. On my tongue it feels wrong, especially on the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Frankly, it has never occurred to me to ask this question from the pulpit. It’s not that we UUs can’t imagine scenarios where violence is necessary; it’s that we don’t spend a lot of energy reflecting on them. We tend to focus our attention on situations in which violence seems unnecessary and tragic—gang violence, domestic violence, state violence, unjust wars, terrorism, etc. Everything I believe in, the influence of King, Gandhi, Jesus and others on my thinking, my approach to ministry, my understanding of effective social justice work, and that place in my heart where I know my truth—it all cries out: No, there is no place for violence in the confrontation with evil! “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence.”[3] After years of affirming the power and the moral superiority of nonviolence, my gut response to the question is a resounding No!

But there’s one difference for me this year, which has always been there, but which I hadn’t looked at closely until now. Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela died on December 5th. He was and continues to be a global moral hero—the father of South Africa, Madiba, the liberator, the freedom fighter, the 27 year prisoner who expanded the moral imagination of the world with his call for truth and reconciliation when revenge would have been so easy. Mandela went to prison for committing acts of violence which he admitted in great detail at the 1964 Rivonia trial. And although it is true that through the course of his imprisonment he found sustenance and hope as he recognized the humanity of his oppressors, he also never renounced violence. In answer to the question, is there a role for violence in the confrontation with evil, Mandela’s life suggests there is.

Following his conviction and sentencing, the prevailing view of Mandela in white South Africa, as well as in many western countries, was that he was a Communist terrorist. It was the height of the Cold War. The South African government garnered western support by portraying its enemies as Communists (many of them were) and itself as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “strategically essential to the free world.”[4] Reagan put Mandela on the US international terrorist list. It sounds unbelievable, but he was not removed from that list until 2008.

There’s a debate over the extent to which Mandela was a Communist. He says he wasn’t, though he certainly considered the South African Communist Party an ally.[5] I don’t find the question compelling. What matters to me is his leadership in the African National Congress (ANC) which, through the first 50 years of its existence, pursued its goal of a non-racial state through nonviolent means. Mandela and his ANC colleagues were deeply committed to nonviolence. “It may not be easy for the Court to understand,” he said at the Rivonia trial, “but…for a long time the people had been talking of violence—of the day when they would fight the White Man and win back their country—and we, the ANC, had always prevailed upon them to avoid violence and to pursue peaceful methods.”[6] After reading his autobiography and many of the tributes that emerged in the wake of his death, after watching him act as a free man on the world stage through my entire adult life, I’m convinced nonviolence (peace, reconciliation, love, etc.) continued to be his highest aspirations, the approach he would choose under virtually any situation—but not every situation. He also said, without apology, “nonviolence was a tactic that should be abandoned when it no longer worked.”[7]

ANC

By the early 1960s, white South Africans had voted to form the Republic of South Africa; blacks had no vote, no representation, no voice; the ANC and its allies had been banned; the government routinely used brutal, deadly force to break up nonviolent demonstrations; the apartheid state was in full bloom. As Mandela said at Rivonia, “the hard facts were that fifty years of nonviolence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.”[8] The ANC now faced the question, is there a role for violence in the confrontation with evil?

Mandela was one of the first to say yes. Recalling the ANC deliberations on the question he wrote, “I argued that the state had given us no alternative to violence. I said it was wrong and immoral to subject our people to armed attacks by the state without offering them some kind of alternative. I mentioned…that people on their own had taken up arms. Violence would begin whether we initiated it or not. Would it not be better to guide this violence ourselves, according to principles where we save lives by attacking symbols of oppression, and not people? If we did not take the lead now…we would soon be latecomers…to a movement we did not control.”[9]

The ANC sanctioned the creation of a military organization known as Umkhonto we Sizweor Spear of the Nation (MK). Mandela, a self-described military novice, was given command and told to start an army. He did. That story in itself is phenomenal. What stands out to me is his attempt to identify and hold onto principles of engagement as he entered into violent conflict. MK identified four forms of political violence: sabotage, guerilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution. They regarded sabotage as the most principled because it could be used in a way that would minimize or prevent loss of human life. “Our strategy,” he wrote, “was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines, and transportations links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy. This we hoped would bring the government to the bargaining table. Strict instructions were given to members of MK that we would countenance no loss of life.”[10] For this he was sentenced to life in prison.

MK Bombing

MK Bombing

In December,1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., on his way to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize, spoke in London about South Africa. He said: “In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States…we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa. We know how Africans there, and their friends of other races, strove for half a century to win their freedom by nonviolent methods. We….know how this nonviolence was only met by increasing violence from the state, increasing repression…. Clearly there is much in Mississippi and Alabama to remind South Africans of their own country, yet even in Mississippi we can organize to register Negro voters, we can speak to the press, we can in short organize the people in nonviolent action. But in South Africa even the mildest form of nonviolent resistance meets with years of imprisonment, and leaders over many years have been restricted and silenced and imprisoned. We can understand how in that situation people felt so desperate that they turned to other methods, such as sabotage.”[11] King offers no judgment, no yes or no. Just understanding. Perhaps this is one of those moments when he recognized the necessity of confronting evil with violence.

Many times over 27 years the government offered Mandela release in exchange for renouncing violence, but he wouldn’t accept such offers. Many times the government offered to negotiate if he and the ANC would renounce violence, but he and they never did. “I responded,” he wrote, “that the state was responsible for the violence and that it is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle. If the oppressor uses violence, the oppressed have no alternative but to respond violently. In our case it was simply a legitimate form of self-defense. I ventured that if the state decided to use peaceful methods, the ANC would also use peaceful means. ‘It is up to you,’ I said, ‘not us, to renounce violence.’”[12]

I offer this story this morning not to chip away at the moral foundations of nonviolence. Indeed, Mandela’s pursuit of truth and reconciliation as president after a century of racist atrocities announced to the world those foundations are unassailable, enduring and worthy of our ongoing loyalty. But a careful study of his whole life helps us identify the outer limits of nonviolence, helps us say with appropriately uneasy confidence, yes, there is a role for violence in the confrontation with evil. The dilemma of this yes is King’s warning that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence.” Certainly South Africa witnessed such multiplication before the end of apartheid. And while such multiplication may not be a forgone conclusion, it is always likely. No perpetrator of violence, no matter how principled their intentions, no matter how just their cause, can imagine, let alone control, all the consequences of their actions. Once unleashed, violence takes on a life of its own. It may have a role to play, but given its multiplying effect, it must be a role of absolute last resort.

A further risk in acknowledging a role for violence in the confrontation with evil is the descent into the cynical belief that violence is inevitable, that there is an aspect of human nature prone to violence and thus we ought always be prepared for it at some level. For me this is not the lesson of Mandela’s life. For fifty years the ANC refused to prepare for violence. We know King refused. We know Gandhi refused. And Mandela refused once he had sufficient power to pursue a nonviolent future for his country. Whether or not human beings are prone to violence, there are countless stories of people refusing to use it or only turning to it under extraordinary circumstances. Let’s remember that. However prone we may be, in those moments when we witness and resolve to confront evil, let us always begin by placing our confidence in nonviolence, reconciliation and love. Let us always call perpetrators of evil again and again and again back to those unassailable, enduring moral foundations. Let us believe, in those immortal words of King, that what self-centered [people] have torn down [people] other-centered can build up…. [and] that one day humanity will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.[13]

Amen and blessed be.



[1] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62, 63.

[2] Howard Zinn mentioned this in a December 2001 article in The Progressive entitled, “A Just Cause, Not a Just War.” See: http://www.progressive.org/0901/zinn1101.html

[3] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[5] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) pp. 251-252.

[6] See Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of the defense case in the Rivonia trial, April 20, 1964 at the ANC website: http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3430.

[7] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 272.

[8] See Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of the defense case in Rivonia trial, April 20, 1964 at the ANC website: http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3430

[9] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 272.

[10] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 283.

[11] See King’s speech on South Africa at http://www.rfksafilm.org/html/speeches/africaking.php.

[12] Mandela, Nelson, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994, 95) p. 537.