I look at it this way: I’m not going to effect a change in anyone’s condition by doing X, Y, or Z “take action” thing (from Oxford, as an academic theologian) right away. I can continue engaging in the political system, work with university life to underscore the devastating folly of uncontrolled gun ownership, and so on. But at this minute, in the face of such catastrophic evil, I can take an action that binds me closer in solidarity with many others around the globe, and that (in the faith by which I live) responds positively to a divine command and orients me toward a radically more benign state of affairs. So I pray.
I get the force of the “don’t pray, do something” admonition — but it relies for its force on the premise that prayer is “doing nothing” (a premise I don’t share), on the premise that I’m trading away a more effectual course of activity (when prayer and activism are not zero-sum alternatives), and on a general resentment of public figures who make much of theological platitudes without directing any of the executive or legislative authority they have toward ameliorating a situation. Is tweeting, “Don’t pray,” an improvement over tweeting, “I’m praying”?
Tag Archives: violence
“Legal interpretations pronounce guilt, deny custody, demand payments, and destroy lives. These are violent acts. The grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson was a violent act. Like many acts of legal interpretation, it confronted two different narratives, two different claims of truth and justice, and chose one over the other. In affirming one narrative, it necessarily negated the other. And there were consequences to that act.
The violence of legal interpretation does not make the grand jury’s decision a moral failure. Nor does it make the grand jury in any way responsible for the physical violence that has ensued. Rather, the decision is one of many violent acts within the violent system of law that we inhabit.
The grand jury would not have escaped the ubiquity of law’s violence with a different decision. Its interpretive act would still have chosen between two narratives, and its act would still have had consequences. In fact, it’s possible that the decision not to indict was the correct interpretation of law and facts. […]
The law that structures our society kills people. Some of the people it kills are innocent. All of the people it kills are human.”
—John Inazu, “Law and Violence”
In that same essay there’s a discussion of Blake and the deformations of morality that come from, as you put it, the “compulsion to do something”. The disastrous results of that compulsion are the focus of the essays in part four of the book. I was reminded, when I was reading that section of the book [Moral Imagination], of Mark Danner’s article on Dick Cheney in a recent edition of the New York Review. He quotes Cheney saying in a CIA briefing in 2001, “It’s not about our analysis, it’s about our response.”
I recognize that strain of thought. It means acting quickly. There’s a compulsion that unites power with the necessity of action, which is understood to be rapid action—action without considerable deliberation and without a great deal of relevant thought. There’s an almost reflexive violence that comes from this need to act.
When you start reading the politicians of some depth of mind who I discuss in this book, you recognize that there’s a line of thinking about action which is wary of the trouble action as such may inflict, that makes you think hard before doing and makes you see some possible good in not doing. Now this is, of course, deep in the texture of Burke’s conservatism, for example. You also find it in Gandhi’s insistence that the actor in a programme of non-violent resistance take on himself the burden of the consequences of that resistance. This led to Gandhi, in more than one protest, asking the people in his movement, when it turned violent or chaotic, to fast, to take upon themselves the burden of self-recrimination. That’s what Martin Luther King was doing in Memphis when he assassinated. There’d been violence in the street and it was partly the fault of the demonstrators. Gandhi-like, instead of saying “Let’s do the next thing now,” King said, “We have to go back and do it again.”
I find this also in Wordsworth. This is not unique to my reading of him—you’ll find other critics sensitive to this train of thought or feeling. A poem like “Nutting” and even elements of the Prelude are full of the evidence of something equivocal about action, something to be concerned with even after you’ve committed yourself to the action. Of course, the mentality of empire goes absolutely in the opposite direction—one conquest must lead to another.
“Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can one not be sensitive to their plight? Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere. That applies to Palestinians to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore when they lead to violence. Violence is not the answer. Terrorism is the most dangerous of answers. They are frustrated, that is understandable, something must be done. The refugees and their misery. The children and their fear. The uprooted and their hopelessness. Something must be done about their situation. Both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have lost too many sons and daughters and have shed too much blood. This must stop, and all attempts to stop it must be encouraged. Israel will cooperate, I am sure of that. I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from their horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.” — Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, 1986