Violence, violence, and non-violence

A reflection by Rev. Unzu Lee (Presbyterian Church U.S.A)

“Can violence ever be a viable option for people of faith?” was a question that was posed to us students who were taking a class in Christian Ethics many years ago. We were reading A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., an iconic figure of the non-violence movement. Yet, I was not yet fully converted to his non-violence as a form of resistance. My answer to this question at the time was closer to “yes.” If my memory serves me right, I believe I responded to the question indirectly by stating that, in the struggle for civil rights for African Americans, it took a combination of violent and non-violent strategies that worked together to challenge the racist systems, policies, and practices in the U.S. society. I didn’t believe that the same would have been achieved through non-violent resistance alone.

During an interfaith panel on the fifth day of the travel study workshop, Father Patrick Cunningham brought to us a report from the Catholic Non-violence and Just Peace Conference he attended in Rome recently. He said, as the conference affirmed that, “non-violence was central to Christianity in its beginning, we as the Christian church need to confess the sin of violence that the church has perpetuated throughout the church’s history in the name of just war.” Furthermore, he said that an urgent appeal was made to the Catholic Church “to recommit to the centrality of gospel non-violence.”

dr-noh-presents-web
Dr. Noh, Jong Sun presents on unification to the NCCK Peace Treaty Workshop

Thus far, I was in full agreement with him. I started to feel uneasy; however, when I started to think about how to keep our commitment to non-violence and our commitment to the oppressed in tandem. I remembered the slave revolts in the context of slavery. I remembered the armed struggles engaged in by Korean nationalists, some of them Christians, against Japanese occupation. I remembered the women who are serving long term sentences in jail for killing their partners who had abused them for years and years. I remembered all the black, brown, and poor people incarcerated in our jails. I remembered small Palestinian children who are forcibly taken to custody and are kept in jail after being forced to falsely confess that they were guilty of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Certainly, violent acts of the oppressed must be understood in the context of much bigger violence perpetuated by those in power. Given that this is our reality, I started to feel a real need to differentiate the violence of the powerful from the violence of the oppressed. Hence from here on, I will use the capital V for the Violence of the powerful and a small letter v for the violence of the oppressed.

What is interesting is that we seldom hear about the Violence perpetuated by the powerful. Even military actions are not construed as Violence because the actions of the powerful are meant to HELP the less powerful or to protect the civilized world. Usually, what we hear is that those actions were meant to restore democracy, to civilize the uncultured, to save people from human rights violations, to remove a threat and so on. In other words, it is commonly understood that the Violence used by the powerful is almost always for good, and therefore, the means justify the end. Seldom do the powerful ask those “helped” as to whether they consent to such violent means, and thus, Violence of the powerful is not only justified but legitimates the perpetual growth of its power for the supposed “good” of all.

I am a Korean American. So, let me discuss this in the context of the U.S.-Korea relations. In the States, the media bombards us with messages that tell us how dangerous North Korea is, and it tells this story whenever North Korea has taken some action that demonstrates its prowess in some way. Every one of these actions signal a threat to the civilized world, according to the media. While growing up in South Korea, I too believed in this story. North Korea did not have to do anything to make me perceive it as a threat. I had thoroughly internalized the image of North Korea as threatening in and of itself?that was an integral part of my socialization in South Korea. In fact, the fear of North Korea was in the very air I breathed and the water I drank. The North Korea that I knew was capable of violence at any time.

eagle-preyNow that I am much older and a bit wiser, I try to understand North Korea in the context of larger Violence perpetuated by bigger forces, specifically that of the United States. Based on what I have learned over time, I cannot help but think of the US as a predator and North Korea as prey. As prey, while I am aware that North Korea is capable of using violence, I believe its violence must be understood in the context of the larger Violence perpetuated by the United States, the predator.

As a citizen of the United States, I feel called to dismantle the military industrial complex that feeds on the fear of violence perpetuated by our “enemies.” Our enemies keep changing. Once, our enemy was the Soviet Union which then was another super power. Once, it was Japan, the country that dreamed big and attacked the U.S. For a while, it’s been the Middle East. President Obama’s pivot to Asia policy signals that China is now our perceived enemy. In comparison to these “enemy countries,” North Korea is so small, almost insignificant in terms of its actual power. So, why is there so much angst about what North Korea might do to the U.S.?

At the conclusion of the travel study workshop, I have come even more clearly to see the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea in terms of predator and prey. What does prey do? Prey develops its survival skills in relationship to the threat that the predator poses. To understand the actions of North Korea, we must first understand the actions of the U.S. as predatory. North Korea has not invaded any country. Yet, it is perceived to be very violent. I urge everyone to try to understand the perceived “violence” of this prey in the context of the larger Violence?the Violence of the predator. When I do this, I understand why North Korea has acquired nuclear capability although I earnestly hope it will never use it.

Honestly, I do not have a heart to tell the prey not to grow its power and choose the way of non-violence. If you agree with me in seeing the U.S. as the predator, I urge all of my friends in the U.S. and around the globe to compel the U.S. to give up its ways of Violence and choose non-violence. I can demand this of the predator. One day, we shall overcome.

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