Monday, January 26, 2009


On Friday evening I went with a group of students to see the film Defiance, about 4 Polish brothers' resistance to the Nazi regime. Although it is hardly an "enjoyable" film, they wanted to process it afterwards, so we went back to my house and stewed about it for a while. I kept going back to a question that I have been working over in my head for a long while, in particular, was nonviolence possible against the Nazis? Of course the Danes and the Norwegians managed to pull off campaigns of nonviolent resistance, but those were rather atypical situations because of the Nazi position in the war at the time and the relative importance of those two countries in the Nazi vision (with requests for corrections and apologies for whatever inaccuracies come from my all-too-partial knowledge of the topic). Looking at the forest camps or the liquidated ghettoes, could a large-scale nonviolent resistance have been genuinely possible?

For the past few years I have done an activity with the Micah program freshmen around MLK Day, which includes talking about the way his nonviolent campaigns worked. We pass around the picture I have included below, talk about what was going on there, ask how the nonviolent strategy worked and what it might have been like to be in that situation, and I typically close by asking, "What would have happened if these three people and others with them had come to that street corner in Birmingham with rifles and shotguns to respond to the fire hoses, batons, tear gas and police dogs that were waiting for them?" Our history would certainly have been quite different if the spiral of violence had carried on. Yet, as brutal as Bull Connor's reaction was, he didn't simply mow people down with machine guns. On the other hand, Robert Jay Lifton talks extensively about the amount of psychic barriers necessary to keep German soldiers from having psychotic episodes: the development of the gas chambers as means of mass killing, extensive euphemistic reshaping of the German language, the enormous psychic weight of the bureaucracy, and so on. That all signifies the human conscience beneath the brutality that needs those psychic barriers to be able to carry on. Still, I can't imagine the kind of mentality it would demand to be in the belly of the beast, in Germany or Poland and trying to create and maintain some kind of nonviolent pressure, nor how slim the odds of surviving such an effort would be... I think I understand Reinhold Niebuhr's "realist" stance that would have us read the Sermon on the Mount as a judgment upon us who are unable to live up to it, but the fact that the folks in the picture ARE living up to it won't leave me alone...

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