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Occupy the Heart of Nonviolence

On Martin Luther King Day I had a dream. I dreamt that the man himself returned and crisscrossed the nation, visiting Occupied spaces and Occupy meet-ups everywhere in a single day. At each stop he began the conversation with the same question:  “Does God love the one percent?”

Some Occupiers said, yes, of course. God certainly does not like what the one percent do, because their greed inflicts so much needless suffering on the rest of us. But He or She loves them because they too are God’s children, just as much as the rest of us. some gave this answer out of their own religious faith. Others said it because they assumed that’s what Dr. King would want to hear, since he had believed it himself.

Then there were those who said, no, God could not love the one percent. He or She is a just God. Surely in God’s eyes the one percent must deserve punishment, even (some might say, if their theology led them this way) being sent to hell.

What about atheist Occupiers? They ignored the “God” part and translated the question into a secular idiom (as Dr. King himself so often did in his own lifetime). They took it to mean:  “Are the one percent worthy of being loved?”

Again, there were differences of opinion. It’s not easy, devoting so much effort to resisting an evil yet seeing the people who do the evil as worthy of love. Some of the atheists thought that, from an ideal point of view, all people must somehow be worthy of love, no matter what they do -- again, echoing the belief Dr. King had preached so often. Others disagreed. They simply could not separate the doer from the deed.

In his visits to the Occupiers (in my dream), Dr. King made no judgment. He simply asked questions. moving from “does God love?” to “Are they worthy of love?”, he took the next logical step and asked:  “Do you yourself love the one percent?” -- a much more challenging question, for believers and atheists alike.

Many who had answered the first questions affirmatively, as if seeing from a God’s-eye view, found it hard to translate that transcendent ideal into their personal attitudes and feelings. They had too much frustration, anger, even rage inside them. So, when it became a matter of “you yourself,” the group who could not separate the doer from the deed grew quite a bit larger.

Yet many among them had studied Dr. King’s life and message. They knew that the nonviolence he preached means much more than refraining from throwing rocks and bottles. The heart of nonviolence is the call to love every person. Not to like them. There was no way to like the white racists who terrorized black people, Dr. King knew. And he never asked for that. Surely he would now say the same about the greedy one percent.

But the love he called for was not affection. It was wanting the best for the other; a commitment to promoting the fulfillment of every other person in every possible way. Love can be expressed through political and economic pressure, he taught, as long as it aims to make a better life for every person, the oppressors as well as the oppressed. Because the oppressors, in their own way, also suffer from an unjust society.

Genuine nonviolence begins with the sign seen recently in Zuccotti Park (and quoted in a New York Times article detailing the diversity and complexity among the one percent): “We are the 100 percent.” Or, as Dr. King put it, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.

Nonviolence ends, as he told us, with a Beloved Community in which every person is sincerely devoted to the welfare of all -- which means that the gap between rich and poor, though it may not disappear, must become infinitely smaller than it is now.

It was hard for some of the Occupiers to accept the idea that their economic goal should be achieved by loving the one percent. It reminded them too much of Barack Obama’s pious-sounding wordsat Otawatamie:  “this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. ... These aren't 1% values or 99% values. They're American values.”

Even worse, it reminded them of the conclusion to that Obama speech, a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “In the long run, we shall go up or down together." Who wants to be aligned with presidents who profess to confront the one percent while actually promoting their interests?

Yet if Obama could live up to his words, he would be moving the nation toward nonviolence, economic justice, and the Beloved Community that Dr. King envisioned. And even if every measure for economic justice were put into practice, the formerly dominant one percent and the newly empowered 99 percent would still all have to live together and go up or down together.

There were plenty of Occupiers who were not persuaded by this abstract theoretical argument. Still, some of them saw its practical value. Ultimately the Occupy movement aims to change laws and political practices. That depends on changing public attitudes, as the civil rights movement demonstrated. Now, the public must be made as sympathetic as possible to the Occupy movement.

Confrontation is not likely to evoke widespread sympathy beyond the one-fifth or so of Americans who call themselves liberals (and probably not even among all of them). Obama’s 2008 message of bipartisan cooperation resonated with millions of Americans; many of them still long for it. Any sign of moving beyond the ubiquitous “us versus them” dualisms is bound to score political points.

Moreover, a public message of love for the one percent would put that ruling class at a distinct political disadvantage. They would no longer be able to cry “Class warfare!”. They would be hard pressed to come up with any way to portray themselves as victims of unfair attack. Of course they would try. But their claims would be much less believable beyond the most conservative circles.

Dr. King (in my dream) finished his day among the Occupiers knowing that plenty of them might never find a place in their hearts to love the one percent, whom they oppose so fiercely -- and rightly, he would surely have agreed. But he was satisfied to know that his questions about love would continue to stir discussion, reflection, perhaps even controversy in the Occupy movement.

And from that movement his questions, like so much else, could spread in ripples throughout society. Perhaps, he concluded, the Occupiers just might resurrect the vision of nonviolence that his own civil rights movement once brought to the surface of American life.

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Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of"American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea."

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