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King’s pursuit of positive peace

I remember learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. in middle school, when one of my teachers played a recording of his “I Have a Dream” speech.


Virtually all my knowledge of King was derived from my single watching of that video.

Over time, I’d boiled King’s years of fearlessly advocating for change down to a gentle message of hope and peace.

Everything I told my son in early 2014 was everything I could have told my son. It was all I knew.

A few years ago, protests beginning in Ferguson opened my eyes to much more serious, present inequalities than I’d understood still existed. As I expanded my social networks to include Black Lives Matter activists, I started seeing Black people expressing frustration about the mild, whitewashed version of King White people use to decry virtually any kind of action toward change.

“If he were really that mild, would the FBI have tried to get him to kill himself?” they asked. “Come on, now!”

The last few months, I’ve tried to point out to many White people I know that the U.S. has so much more blood on its collective hands worldwide than I understood, and for reasons far from humanitarian.

Many have more or less tuned me out. Others have tuned out my sister, even after she moved to Portland, Oregon and began expressing alarm at racism more prevalent than she ever could have witnessed in our overwhelmingly White hometown.

White liberals around us already see themselves as good guys. This passive “being a good guy” is enough, so they don’t appear to perceive any responsibility to do anything. Shrugging, they ask, what are they supposed to do about atrocities overseas or somewhere off in the U.S. South, anyway?

It’s all closer to home than that, but they don’t have to see … and largely seem to choose not to.

I’ve understood that their comfort–and my own recently forfeited comfort, to be clear–is part of the problem, but haven’t been able to articulate it.

Yesterday morning, thinking of the many White people I know who continue to whitewash King to the mildest version of himself to help sustain their own comfort, I revisited King’s letter from a Birmingham jail. My heart eased as I read it and found expressed truths I couldn’t yet articulate in my own words.

“We are doing horrific things to people around the world!” I’ve tried explaining. “All injustice is interrelated, and a people that hurts other people won’t stop there! It should be taken as just a beginning. What we do in Yemen, we already do to poor Black and Native people especially here. The circles of injustice are becoming wider as we sit quietly by!”

Wrote King (emphasis my own):

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. INJUSTICE ANYWHERE IS A THREAT TO JUSTICE EVERYWHERE. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

As protests against state killings of brown-skinned people have received more media attention, I’ve been shocked to find self professed liberal White people tsk-tsking over loud, sometimes unruly response.

“Don’t they know there are better ways to achieve peace?!” such White people have commented on literally any and every expression of understandable rage over the fact that brown-skinned people are daily killed with impunity by state actors.

King’s letter is clear about this, too (emphasis again my own):

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that THE NEGRO’S GREAT STUMBLING BLOCK IN HIS STRIDE TOWARD FREEDOM IS NOT THE WHITE CITIZEN’S COUNCILER OR THE KU KLUX KLANNER, BUT THE WHITE MODERATE, WHO IS MORE DEVOTED TO “ORDER” THAN TO JUSTICE; WHO PREFERS A NEGATIVE PEACE WHICH IS THE ABSENCE OF TENSION TO A POSITIVE PEACE WHICH IS THE PRESENCE OF JUSTICE; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

King soon expands on the concepts of negative and positive peace:

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.

Many of those whom I’ve tried to reach have accepted negative peace. I’ve tried to explain that their peace is bought at someone else’s cost, but I haven’t had the right vocabulary.

If I’d only known to use King’s words instead of stumbling around seeking my own, I might have had an easier time explaining my frustration in a way that could be understood: “You are witnessing negative peace, which is relatively affluent people’s relative peace obtained at others’ expense.”

I’m not sure, though. Beneath all the various words of protest I’ve heard, between all the affirmations of self goodness that preclude introspection necessary for positive peace, I’ve heard resistance. I’ve heard reluctance that sounds like, “But if I accept these things are happening now, that means the world is not as kind as I thought I was … and I’ve been helping keep it that way.”

It sucks to acknowledge this. It really does. I know from very recent experience. Yet the more previously comfortable White people withhold acknowledgment to maintain their own increasingly fragile sense of comfort, the more people will die at home and abroad. It’s as simple as that.

So instead of remaining stuck at “What have I helped sustain?!” I’d like to encourage people willing to work for positive peace to instead ask, “What lives might I help improve, now that I’m willing to begin seeing?”

You can’t change what you did yesterday. That’s not how time works.

You can do better today, and I am hopeful you will.

daddy littler j

For my little ones

This 11/14/16 post transferred from L2SP 11/13/17.

So much amazing awakening has happened since,
but I’m reposting this today because I still see
much “I’ll only listen if you’re really nice”
that’s the embodiment of
negative peace

  1. November 13, 2017 at 5:23 am

    Does it frustrate you that people tend to look past these great political posts? Hope you don’t mind my asking. This is, of course, a great post. You already realize this I hope. But . . . silence. I find something similar: that when I write ones like this, my words get much less attention than the happy ones about raising kids receive. So I come over here, read this, and am like, gah, everyone is so silent, like they’re scared or unwilling to listen to hard truths.

    • November 13, 2017 at 5:41 am

      That silence, which I experience as well, frustrates me a little and saddens me a lot. In this age of social media, folks quickly navigate away from things that cause discomfort and misunderstand there’s no consequences for doing so. There are in fact consequences; they’re just borne by someone(s) else.

      Sometimes I think the silence originates from a sense of hopelessness: What can I possibly do? Seeing and wondering how to engage is a GREAT start, as it happens!

      My hope is that people who read quietly haven’t just ignored because they figure it’s irrelevant. I hope that, rather, they’re taking the seeds and letting them grow a little before watering and working with them. I see many hopeful signs this is true, and that people are willing to overtly accept a little discomfort of their own that tens of millions of people might be horrifically uncomfortable, always.

      (“Seeds” post here: https://deborah-bryan.com/2017/07/31/seeds/)

      • November 13, 2017 at 5:51 am

        I like your thought process here, and just after I commented, I thought about something positive I’ve seen. Last month, I wrote a piece about Charlottesville (it’s right near us, mind you, so it really struck close to home). You know I talk a lot everywhere I go right? So I told my doc about my books, my blog, etc. The next time I saw him, he smiled at me and said, “Read your latest blog.” I was like wow. He nodded and then said, “Hey, it’s always good to see you,” and I was like, “Likewise.” And then (two weeks later) I met another doctor in the practice. She had heard about my writing and basically told me she appreciated that I was a good human, or something like that. And the other day, a lady came up to me in the store, and with trepidation in her voice, said, “El?” I smiled and said, “That’s me, hi!” She said, “I’m [so and so] from Facebook. “Oh, that’s you? Yay!” I replied. We talked a bit, connected, etc. And then last night, at the same store, the lady checking us out listened to me and Stoney joking about the impossibility of feeding three kids cheaply and said, “Hey, aren’t you the one from Facebook that has a page?” Again, I just smiled and said yeah, and we talked a bit. So I’m reaching people, but these folks don’t comment on my serious stuff. It’s okay actually. Just keep putting it out there right?

  2. November 13, 2017 at 6:07 am

    “who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” — how awakening that is.

  3. November 13, 2017 at 11:52 am

    The sooner we realise that the world is a community the better. No us and them, but only us. Without regard to colour, to location, to religion, to gender…
    And in the intermim I do what I can. Some of what I can (there is always more).

  1. November 13, 2017 at 7:23 am

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