Nonviolence exposes the brutality of naked power. By responding to violence with courage and grace, nonviolence provokes the conscience and inspires solidarity.
When organized and mobilized, nonviolence can change the world, as it has in many cases. I discuss this in my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion. Nonviolence has been used to overthrow colonial regimes, to oust oppressive governments, and to transform unjust social conditions. Some of the strategies of nonviolence are quite forceful, involving marches, boycotts, and protests.
But there is also the startlingly subtle power of unarmored, unclothed vulnerability. We’ve seen this in recent protests in Portland, Oregon. One lasting image is of Christopher David calmly withstanding the assault of security forces who beat him with batons and sprayed gas in his face. There has also been a “wall of moms” who turned out in yellow shirts to challenge the brutality of federal authorities. And then there was the so-called “Naked Athena,” a woman who danced nude in front of the camouflaged troops.
These techniques have a history. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. included terrifying images of police beating unarmed people. One famous image is of John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee being beaten by cops in Alabama. This image changed minds. Lewis himself went on to become a Congressman and an influential advocate of racial justice and nonviolence. Lewis died last week.
Images such as these demand that we pick sides. Violence muddies the waters, making moral judgment more difficult. When fists fly on both sides, it becomes hard to tell who is right and who is wrong. But nonviolence is edifying and enlightening. When armed forces assault vulnerable and exposed bodies, clarity dawns. When bullies beat and gas defenseless people, moral judgment crystalizes.
By exposing themselves to violence, these activists enact what Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless.” Havel demonstrated how simple acts of defiance were used in resistance to Soviet-backed totalitarianism. In the background of his account is the parable of the emperor’s new clothes.
The act of pointing out that the emperor is in fact naked exposes the false reality of the power structure. It soon dawns on us that what we are seeing is a mere show of power, camouflaging its cruelty beneath titles, insignia, flags, and guns. And once naked power is revealed as such, it appears as flaccid, shameful, shriveled, and puny.
Guns, gas, and truncheons can do real damage. But when they are exposed in their pathetic nakedness, they lose their legitimacy. They can kill us but they can’t convince us. They can harm us but they cannot dominate our thinking. They can enforce conformity but they cannot destroy the spirit of liberty.
Which brings me back to the Naked Athena who exposed her body and did so while dancing. This brave woman transfigured vulnerability into strength, power, and grace. She revealed a moment of beauty and freedom in the face of brutality. She thereby transformed the power structure. The unclothed body is typically seen as a symbol of vulnerability. Consider the cruelty of forced nudity, as seen in images of naked bodies that come from the Holocaust or from the techniques of torture employed by American forces in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison.
But in affirming her nakedness, the Naked Athena forces us to choose sides. On the one hand, we have guns and uniforms. On the other, we have vulnerable human bodies—mothers, dancers, and unarmored men. Which side are you on?
The advocates of nonviolence have always been on the side of the vulnerable. Jesus offered praise for those who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and visited the sick. The Catholic priest John Dear explains, “we come into this world as a vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless baby, and we live in that same vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless state. In our vulnerable humanity is the power of nonviolence, compassion, and love.”
It is our shared vulnerability that unites us. The forces of domination want to create unity through violence. But the advocates of nonviolence aspire to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.” The recently departed icon of nonviolence, Representative John Lewis put it this way: “We are one people, one family, the human family, and what affects one of us affect all of us.”
When brutality is unleashed upon “the least of these,” as Jesus would put it, we see the shame of violence. This opens the door toward solidarity. It pricks the conscience. And in moments such as these the nakedness of power lies indicted before the power of nakedness.