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What’s Suffering Got to Do with It?

By Tamika Thompson

A September 1964 photo of Martin Luther King, Jr.

You’ve probably heard this Bible passage before:

“Love is patient. Love is kind. It is not jealous. It does not boast. It is not proud.” ~ 1 Corinthians 13:4

Maybe you heard it at a wedding or at church on Sunday morning. I had certainly heard this verse for years as I went to Catholic school during my childhood.

But a couple of years ago, I happened to pick up a New King James Version of the Bible, and the same scripture went like this: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up.”

And I thought: ‘Love SUFFERS long?’ What happened to ‘Love is patient?’

I can do patient. Patience means waiting in an unusually long line at the grocery store. Patience means reminding your husband that his shirts go in the hamper and not on the floor when he is done wearing them.

But suffering? I’m not exactly interested in suffering.

Suffering could mean that I would have to sacrifice my social status, my comfort, my safety and security for something that I believe in or for a person that I care about.
Thanks. But no thanks.

The concept of suffering came up for me again as I began having conversations (see here and here) about the nonviolent strategy of Dr. King and re-reading his speeches and sermons.
He actually mentions suffering in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

To help me better understand nonviolence and what suffering has to do with it, I called up United Methodist minister and nonviolent advocate and practitioner Richard Deats.

Deats was a wealth of knowledge on the subject as he used to work for Fellowship of Reconciliation and taught workshops on active nonviolence in over a dozen countries, including South Africa, Bangladesh, Palestine and Israel.

Deats, who lives in Nyack, NY, is the author of several books including Martin Luther King: Spirit-led Prophet and Mahatma Gandhi: Non-violent Liberator.

Check out excerpts from my exchange with Deats below, and watch MLK: A Call to Conscience.

An undated photo of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the political and spiritual leader in India who used nonviolent tactics during the Indian independence movement.

THOMPSON: In your booklet, “Active Nonviolence Across the World,” you point to the fact that Dr. King said, “unearned suffering is redemptive.” What does that mean?

DEATS: That was one of the recurring messages of Dr. King and also of Gandhi, that unearned suffering breaks the heart of the person who observes it … That the innocent suffering again and again and again opens up the heart of a person in a way that retaliation does not.

If you look at the great martyrs of history like Jesus, like King and Gandhi, here were people who, through nonviolence and love, were nonetheless struck down by the assassin’s bullet or the drinking of hemlock or the crucifixion.

And you know, in Christian theology there’s been a lot of reflection on the meaning of the cross.
There was one concept called the Moral Example Theory. Abelard said that the power of a moral person suffering willingly because of what he or she believes in has a way of transforming history. And we see it again and again and again. And many times the martyred person has been killed but not the dream that they were proclaiming or living for.

THOMPSON: Nonviolence, nonviolent resistance and nonviolent social movements take time. Some of these issues span decades and half centuries. How do you sign people up for that?

DEATS: It’s a struggle. That’s why having a vision and having hope is so necessary.

One of the great things about King was that he brought the religious and the political together by saying that you don’t bomb a nation into democracy, that constructive movements are slow, they do take time.

When a parent is having a problem with their kid, they may have to struggle with that issue for 5 years, 10 years, 15 years. That’s kind of the nature of life itself.

Life is struggle. I think nonviolence is focusing on the cause and the future and recognizing that it may be difficult, it may be long, we may be weary but you keep on because it’s the right thing to do.

An August 1999 photo of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy opposition leader in Myanmar, who has been detained for much of the past twenty years. The Nobel Prize laureate remains on house arrest and is barred from communication with the outside world.

THOMPSON: How can I, as a regular, everyday person, contribute in a nonviolent way to society without necessarily sacrificing my life or putting my safety and security at risk or that of my family? Is there anything else for me to do? Is it all or none?

DEATS: I don’t think it’s all or none. I think it’s best when it’s all, but we all have to do what we can and what we’re able to do and what we have the strength to do.
It is going to involve struggle, and some people get exasperated by this and they say, ‘any means necessary’ and ‘whatever it takes we’ll do it, and we’re not going to hesitate to pick up weapons if it’s necessary.’

And one of the big struggles in King’s time was that people thought that the vision of Malcolm X was more practical than the vision of King. The interesting thing about this is that they were growing closer together even though they didn’t work together. At the ends of their lives they had met, and they had realized their visions were, in many ways, very close to each other.

THOMPSON: What about something seemingly practical like having a gun in the home? If someone comes into a person’s home to rob or harm them, isn’t it necessary to have a gun for protection? Does using violence to protect ourselves somehow mean that we are contributing to an overall culture of violence?

DEATS: We have in our history a strong nonviolent current and a strong violent current. And there is a segment of our society, quite large actually, that really adheres to a warrior society. They don’t want any control on guns. They want to conquer our enemy through bombing them, through war. There is also a nonviolent tradition that tries to use the democratic process to resolve problems and issues step-by-step, building consensus.

And in a community, for example, here in Nyack, we have crime. One way that our family could deal with that could be to get guns and to make our house a little fortress.

Another way would be to vote for leaders who want to build a just county … and to support them, and to work toward a police force that is capable and that is trained and that … if you call them they will come.

There is a kind of vigilante tradition that we often see in movies and T.V. programs where you have your guns and you kill the intruder.

Gandhi was asked about this. Let’s say you’re in a mental ward in a hospital and a person who is mentally deranged gets a knife and starts running down the hall. And Gandhi’s critic says, “what are you going to do? Just let him run?” And he said, “No. You have to stop them. You don’t have to … kill them.”

We have to deal with the criminality in society, but our vision should not be a vigilante society where everyone has a gun.

THOMPSON: But then that makes me wonder how long do we have to wait to see some results? Take the case of Darfur.

I understand if you are a nonviolent practitioner, and you go in and say “I am willing to sacrifice myself, and I am going to work nonviolently.”

But if you are the victim, if you are the one who is displaced within your own country and you may not be aware of or have the resources to help yourself, then I have a difficult time thinking about that person being sacrificed in the process because the nonviolent struggle happens to be a long struggle.

DEATS: All movements for justice, all movements for peace take a long time, whether violent or nonviolent. During the time of the Gandhian struggle in India, which was decades, the Maoist struggle in China was going on. Both took decades before they achieved success. One believed that violence was necessary, one believed that nonviolence was the way. They both took a long time. And huge problems, for the most part, take a really, really long time.

In the case of Darfur, we need to have international forces like the U.N. peacekeeping forces and the Organization of African Unity (now known as African Union) to send in troops to protect the innocent.

And the vision is a peace vision, rather than simply going in to kill the enemy. It’s going in to protect the victims and to build a consensus within the community of nations in Africa for protecting the people whose lives are being destroyed by what has been happening there.

Nonviolence is not being passive in the face of injustice. It is trying to find a way out without deepening the tragedy and struggle.

I’ve been to Israel and Palestine many times and that, like Darfur, seems insolvable. But we can’t give up. We have to keep struggling for the way of peace and justice.

Tamika Thompson is a journalist and blogger for Tavis Smiley on PBS.

Last modified: August 21, 2013 at 5:57 pm
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