Violent and Non-Violent Protest by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergFor those of you who have read my blogs before, you may have gathered that my approach to justice-making is not entirely non-violent. Researching and writing about the movement away from abusive community paradigms in my dissertation, I argue that we need to care for the kind of refractory violence or counter-violence that arises in our movements away from abuse.

The idea here is not that violence should be a goal, or even that violence is “good”—but rather, that we are in (close) relationship to violence of all kinds. All violence, as I define the term, is destructive in some way; but as many religions of the world remind us, destruction, like creation, is an important part of life. Not all violence is “bad.”

Some violence is a part of our natural world—the Earthquake in Nepal and the devastation facing so many of its citizens right now speaks to this. I was once told in a process ethics class (based upon principles of process theology and process philosophy) that such violence is sometimes considered a “natural evil.” I am not comfortable with this characterization; but having never experienced the full force of such a disaster, I would rather defer to the characterizations of survivors here.

Other violence is the result of our movement away from abusive and oppressive forces. This violence too, is not simply “bad,” because it is necessary to destroy attachment to abusive relationship. It may be experienced as bad, very bad or even evil; it may be the result of bad things that have happened in our lives—but the violence of redirection can also be life-giving. Shedding abuse in my own life was a violent process. I had to learn how to love again outside of the abusive context and progressively “destroy” (take apart, deconstruct, refract and tear down) what I thought was love. But the counter-violence I experienced was one of rebirth.

Of course, some violence is about control and domination—and this is the violence that so many of us are working to change with counter-acts of non-violence. I wholeheartedly support this kind of action. I even see it as ideal. Yet, I think our relationship to non-violence is often shaped by our relationship to the “gravity” (the significance, weight, power and pressure) of the situation. This discussion of gravity, and what it means to act violently or non-violently takes on particular importance when we consider the significance of violent protest.

I have read several articles in the past week or so about the murder of Freddie Grey, resultant nonviolent protests, and rioting in Baltimore, Maryland. Many reports criticize African American residents for their violent response, others articles describe how student rioting was actually incited by police measures, while still many other reports describe the importance of such violence and/or its significance as an act of protest and identity.

When interviewed about the Vietnam War on the Mike Douglas show[1], Martin Luther King Jr. was asked about the 1979 study “Protest and Prejudice” regarding attitudes and beliefs prominent within the African American community at the time. When questioned about rioting in particular, King stated: “riots are the language of the unheard.” Describing his own work as “militant non-violence,” King did not favor rioting or see it as constructive. However, he does suggest that riots call attention to problems, and arise from a people who have been failed.

I was reminded of his words when reading an article entitled, “Dear white Facebook friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now,” by Julia Blount. Asking that whites really work to listen to the langue of violent protest, the Blount tells her readers what she hears:

I hear hopelessness
I hear oppression
I hear pain
I hear internalized oppression
I hear despair
I hear anger
I hear poverty[2]

Violence, like anger, tells us something important—and all kinds of violence tell us something important, even if we don’t like or agree with what one kind of violence or another is communicating to us.  I hear so loudly this past year, particularly since the death of Michael Brown, that America (and particularly white America) is failing, has failed and continues to fail the African American community and other communities of color.  I hear frustration; and sometimes the fear that oppressive violence is reaching a kind of critical mass. I sometimes feel this fear. But, I also hear that human dignity is leading people to fight back.

Violent and non-violent protests refuse self-negation, howbeit differently. Our creative counter-violence does not take just one form. As King and Blount suggest, we need to listen to hear what these responses are communicating, creating and destroying.

[1] This is an important interview, and I hope that you will watch it. You can access part one of the interview here:, the quoted material comes from Part 3 of the interview.

[2] Julia Blount, “Dear white Facebook friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now,” Salon, Wednesday April 29, 2015,

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: civil rights, Community, Social Justice

Tags: , , , , , ,

12 replies

  1. I do not disagree with anything you have said here. I wanted to add something further.

    Not responding to violence with violence is sometimes misunderstood as not responding at all–or as not responding in the strongest possible way. I think Martin Luther King understood that militant nonviolence is a more disciplined way of responding to violence in a way that can transform the world.

    I am reminded of a conversation I once had with Rita Gross about feminist anger in relation to Mary Daly’s statement that “rage is not a stage” and Beverly Harrison’s argument that “anger is a work of love.” Rita said that for her the real question is not whether rage and anger are justified–the answer to that question is that that in many cases they are. But, Rita went on to say, the really important question is how to transform rage and anger into effective means that can change the world–rather than simply repeating the violence that has already occurred.

    This is why King insisted that nonviolence is not passivity in the face of injustice but a form of militant resistance. It is also why he believed that we must learn and be schooled in the methods of nonviolence because they can teach us not to respond to violence with violence but to respond in a way that can break the cycles of violence. This is not easy. It is very hard.


  2. Very thought-provoking and interesting. I wonder, too, about the role/necessity of aggression in life – especially regarding that suggestion about “turning the other cheek” in the Bible, that has always confused me.


    • It confuses me, too, Katharine. But I saw my sister Amy (as a child) use this idea — literally — to good effect. My sister Barbara slapped her, and Amy turned her head and said, “Slap me again.” So Barbara did. Then Amy turned her head to the first side again, and said, “Slap me again.” So Barbara did. This went on maybe one more time, when Barbara just turned away in defeat. I’m not so sure it works on a more than personal level.


  3. I am reminded of an insight by Starhawk, which I believe is essential, that the type of protest we engage in must look like the outcome we seek, that is, in order “to dramatize the difference between our values and theirs.”


  4. There is that passage in the New Testament where Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10: 34). And the text continues talking about different families members are “set against” each other–man against his father, daughter against her mother, daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. This does seem to be a “violent” text. I’ve heard it “unpacked” in various ways–never to my satisfaction, but perhaps, Sara, this movement away “from violent and oppressive forces” (as you note) is one way to understand the text. Thank you for this essay.


    • A sword can be a metaphor. Jesus commits no acts of violence in the gospels (other than turning over the money changers’ tables), yet the people in power so him as so much of a threat that they put him to death.

      What does that tell you? Words alone can be a powerful way to wage war. “The pen is mightier than the sword.” goes the cliche (although in this case the sword is to be taken literally).


  5. Lots of thought-provoking statements here. One thing that came to me is that we are even discussing non-violent protest or what someone has called “non-violent non-cooperation”. Seems not that long ago people just killed the offender … it feels like Gandhi and King and all those searching for a better future are bearing fruit. I hope our politicians catch on soon.


  6. I lived in the midst of the 1964 riots in Rochester, NY during which there was a lot of store looting and destruction. That neighborhood, my neighborhood, never recovered. Those stores who in many cases had been helpful and supportive of everyone in the neighborhood lost everything and were never replaced. Maybe these actions of looting result from a feeling of being failed but I’ve never seen the situation improve for anyone after looting. And I can’t think of any violence, if you are defining violence as dictionaries do (the use of physical force to harm someone, to damage property), that has eradicated a problem.


  7. Sara, Thanks for this post. I agree with you that “natural evil” isn’t good terminology. Just having read _The Varieties of Religious Experience_ by William James, I realized that for James death, natural disasters, and wrongdoing on the part of people were all “evil.” I think this must come from the confusion within Christianity of death with sin (“The wages of sin are death,” etc.). I think this conflation needs to be undone, because we can’t do anything about death and natural disasters, but we can and should combat human wrongdoing. As your post points out and as Carol adds, it’s HOW we deal with human wrongdoing that’s important.


  8. My mom put ti this way “Grant every person you encounter the complete respect and dignity due another person right up until the last second before you smack ’em up side the head ” Following her advice I’ve not had to smack anybody for 68 yrs(Did have to throw to the ground and sit on a couple tho)


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