The Language of Violence

(system) #1

I'm not sure how many witnessed Rev. Jesse Jackson patiently giving CNN's Don Lemon a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement. In his comments on the riots in Ferguson, the poorly trained journalist was trying to push a revisionist narrative about the absence of violence in the Civil Rights struggle. Thinking he was posing a “deep” question, he asked the former Director of Operation Breadbasket why today’s African-Americans were not as peaceful in their protests as the Coloreds of yesteryear. His voice filled with shock and disgust, he just could not understand why the youth in Ferguson would express violent rage upon receiving the news of the Grand Jury refusal to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

Violence of Frustration

Once Mr. Lemon had issued his ignorant rhetoric, the fading icon who had marched and suffered abuse with the non-violent arm of the movement calmly reminded him of Watts, Chicago, and other American cities where the voice of violence compelled this Apartheid government to listen to Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Had he time, Rev. Jackson could have also schooled him about the Black Panthers and Nation of Islam. He could even have given him a quick lesson on Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser and John Brown[1]—courageous men who lifted the violent sword of righteous indignation against the overwhelming force of their European captors.

Judging by the way in which Lemon tried to defend his position, I doubt this was a lesson learned for him. Nonetheless, as he reflects on the powerful platform from which he peddles his producers’ propaganda, hopefully he will take the time to read James Cone’s, Malcolm, Martin and America.[2] Hopefully, he will take the time to listen to Ziggy and Damian Marley’s prophetically relevant social commentary penned in Y2K in the wake of the brutal police abuse of Amadou Diallo:

Now I know you don’t care about me, I’m just a n***** walking down the street.

The brother did nothing wrong, but now his life is gone.

So I know you don’t care about me.

Code of silence you said. Yet your actions speak so loud and clear.

[Michael’s killer][3] going free, paid by society.

Now I know you don’t care about me.

Brother Lemon, this is why while most still choose to protest peacefully, a minority have resorted to violence, because their cup is full and running over with anger and frustration. Their behavior might be socially unacceptable, but you must interpret their actions through the paradigm of a frustrated infant with limited speech who will do anything to be heard. When you have a political system that protects what Rev. Jackson and others correctly term “state sponsored terrorism,” some will eventually say, “Enough is enough”! When you have a plutocratic and despotic system of government that is neither of the people, for the people or by the people, some will choose the “bullet” over the “ballot,” as Malcolm X warned. People speak violence because they have exhausted all other forms of communication. If you don’t believe me, ask the instigators of the American Revolutionary War!

Violence of Domination

As we learn from the American Revolutionary War, violence of frustration is often a response to violence of domination. Unlike violence of frustration, which is usually temperamental and impulsive, violence of domination is careful and calculated. Its aim is not to balance power or incite justice, but to scare others into submission and maintain a societal system in which the powerful privileged are protected while the rest are appeased and neglected.

Like other “successful” empires, America has skillfully mastered the syntax of the violence of domination, and has found it to be a language that is universally understood. Indeed, it was probably while researching the section of the war grammar text that discussed the rational behind dropping Fat Man and Little Boy on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, that General Colin Powell developed his “Overwhelming Force” doctrine. The dominance of the world’s greatest army definitely decimated the Afghan and Iraqi armies, and the collateral damage has progressively rippled into violent tidal waves of screaming violence that has seen the exponential multiplication of terror cells that also want to be heard in the same language.

Sadly, the “overwhelming force” mentality is not just limited to the field of war, but has permeated multiple levels of America’slaw enforcement agencies. Protected by the “blue shield,” many police officers are a law unto themselves as they act with impunity with the full knowledge that there is little chance that they will pay for their crimes. Indeed, it is this protection from law that has emboldened them to enforce control by the type of violence that characterizes the police state in which we live.

Although some eyes are just being opened to our dysfunctional law enforcement system, this is nothing new. I often hear Whites speaking nostalgically about the days when the "beat cop" knew everybody in the community. During that same era, for Blacks in Montgomery, Birmingham, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other segregated towns, "beat cop" had a completely different connotation. Many of those whom their tax dollars paid to “protect and serve” have used their positions to maintain the system of White supremacy upon which this country was founded. As a result, the descendants of slaves are still disproportionately harassed, abused, framed and murdered by the occupying forces that have long terrorized their communities.

Undoubtedly, some who read this essay are so saturated by racist ideology that they have become deluded by their own twisted sense of victimhood. However, others know that Darren Wilson unleashed a volley of bullets in an unarmed teenager, who according to eye-witnesses was in a mode of surrender, simply because he could. For Officer Wilson, Michael Brown was no different than a deer in a hunter's scope. The same is true for unarmed Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin,[4] John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Timothy Russell, Ervin Jefferson, Ousmane Zongo, Tamar Rice and untold others gunned down by police for the "crime" of "living while Black." Sadly, for the most part, the media is selectively silent about state sanctioned violence of domination as it continues to vilify the frustration borne violence of those who feel they have no recourse through legitimate venues.

Conclusion: Violence Of Liberation

I find myself wondering how or if all this is going to end. I applaud outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder’s willingness to bring civil rights charges against some of these officers, however in order to fully address the problem he and others in the Administration must stop using terms like “recent spate of incidents.” With those for whom their version of the American Dream was written by Steven King, the word “recent” lessens the ingrained seriousness of the problem. I hope and pray that something can be done to end—or even lessen—the ongoing violence of domination so that there would be no impetus for the sporadic violence of frustration.

As a follower of Messiah, I am convinced that God expects me to respond to the violent dialects that express themselves through domination and frustration. If I can borrow an analogy from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I cannot keep silent in the face of oppression as the domineering elephant has its foot on the frustrated mouse. As an agent of God’s grace, I cannot be indifferent to systemic and systematic government abuse of the “least of these.” Additionally, my Messianic citizenship also compels me to speak words of peace and wisdom to the frustrated. The architects of the Lexicon of Violence have mastered the syntax and know that sporadic violence of frustration tantrums are no match to the methodical violence of domination machine that will always have the final voice.

Well, not exactly always. According to scripture, the time is coming when political systems of domination will be forced to drink a tenfold dose of their own poison when they come face to face with the God who not only understands the language of violence, but can speak it with a holy and righteous accent. At that time, as the avenging God makes his final appearance with his terrible sword, the unrepentant perpetrators of the violence of this age will be the object of God’s eschatological violence. This is the violence of liberation foreshadowed in the Exodus, which lays the foundation for the eternal Kingdom of Peace.

As you think about the way you respond to the language of violence, always remember that, “a tree is known by its fruit.”

[1] Yes, I know Brown was White, but he sided with the oppressed.

[2] (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991).

[3] The original lyrics say “Diallo’s killers going free….”

[4] I know George Zimmerman was not a police officer, but if you recall the case he was strongly supported by the Ferguson Police Department.

Keith Augustus Burton is the Director of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University. He is also on the Advisory Board of Adventist Peace Fellowship.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(le vieux) #2

It’s long past time for listening to the Jesse Jackson’s and Al Sharpton’s of the world, whose only purpose seems to be to keep the nightmare of racism alive. They seem to have no other purpose that to keep the myth alive, that race relations are as bad as they ever have been. To listen to them, no progress has been made in the past 50 years. I believe they have retarded race relations in this country by many years. It is shameful that the sound-bite media gives them any credibility whatsoever.

Instead of listening to those has-beens, we should be listening to men like Jonathan Gentry:

or even Charles Barkley:

While I disagree with Barkley on the Garner case, I believe he is right on regarding Ferguson. All the facts were laid out, and many Black witnesses agreed with the police account, but none of that mattered. It was time to torch cars and destroy businesses, local businesses which were owned by Blacks. That really solves the problem, doesn’t it?

(Ron Osborn) #3

Keith, while I agree with you that the violence in Ferguson is the outcome of a long history of systematic injustice, structural as well as physical violence, oppression and racism, I cannot disagree with you more strongly in your conclusion. You write, “the time is coming when political systems of domination will…come face to face with the God who not only understands the language of violence, but can speak it with a holy and righteous accent. At that time, as the avenging God makes his final appearance with his terrible sword, the unrepentant perpetrators of the violence of this age will be the object of God’s eschatological violence. This is the violence of liberation foreshadowed in the Exodus, which lays the foundation for the eternal Kingdom of Peace.” Leaving aside the deeply problematic nature of the Exodus narrative, which is at one and the same time a narrative of genocidal conquest (see, Edward Said’s troubling essay, “Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading”), I would offer this alternative reading of the book of Revelation for your consideration:

(Thomas J Zwemer) #4

“My kingdom is not of this world or my servants would fight!” In the early seventies, I was threatened with my life for urging the acceptance of Blacks as students in the School of Dentistry. yet, A young Black was put in jail and the next morning he was found dead. the Black section of the city erupted. I was the last one out of the parking lot before the angry young men started smashing windows of the faculty cars remaining, some with the drivers already in their cars. one block away was a G. E. Warehouse. By Monday calm had been restored. I found my office windows smashed. I also saw every Black teenager with a G.E. radio to their ear. G. E. Moved their warehouse.

the national guard was called. three teenagers were killed in the act of burning down a retail store after they had looted it.

A few years later a Black mayor was elected but was imprisoned for seeking a bribe from an undercover FBI officer posing as the agent for a corporation seeking to build a high rise apartment complex on the river front. the mayor wanted two upper level apartments for his signature on the waver of existing city ordinances. My point is simple Man regardless of color is capable of obscene actions of violence and extortion.

The highest crime statistic in Augusta is Black on Black homicide. our police chief is Black as is our current Mayor, who demanded of the city council double his salary, double his office space, and add two high level assistants.

It is not the color of the skin, it is the darkness of the human heart, mind, and soul. Tom Z

(Matt Burdette) #5

Ron, I didn’t realize you were a universalist :-p

The vast majority of biblical eschatology is profoundly violent, and one needn’t read Revelation at all to see that. And the conquest imbedded in the exodus narrative notwithstanding, Exodus is Scripture, it is the paradigmatic event of the Old Testament, and it is central for the New Testament and its eschatology.

May I suggest that the real problem is death, not violence. When we creatures wield violence, we wield death, but death is an enemy to be destroyed. Scripture seems to suggest that when the Lord enacts violence, this is a violence against death also, and so is an establishment of life. (As you probably know, I am quite open to the idea that the Lord may use us as agents of his violence - an admittedly unpopular belief.)

(Winona Winkler Wendth) #6

Yes: Violence is violence. This is not the message of the NT, however physical pushing the moneychangers out of the temple might have been. We have inherited a narrative of “God said I can have that, so I’ll take it . . .” When we talk about “The land of milk and honey,” few of us ask about who had been raising the cows and keeping the bees." Our cultural celebrations emphasize that “terrible, swift sword,” again excusing violence and leaving us to determine when to use it, rather than thinking about moving beyond that (possibly impossible, but that’s not the point). Using violence to convert didn’t work well (well, it did, somewhat) during the Crusades or the Inquisition. This is anger and resentment that perpetrates the “God will make them suffer in the end,” not post-Sacrifice transformation.

(le vieux) #7

I don’t believe there was any “physical pushing” of anyone. Read the account in the Gospels, along with that in Desire of Ages, and it’s clear that they fled in fear, not from being pushed.

(le vieux) #8

There are also some interesting statistics of Black on Black crime in Chicago. Far more Blacks were murdered by Black than by whites, and more whites were murdered by Blacks, than vice versa.

Your last statement is right on; skin color is irrelevant; it’s what’s inside that counts.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #9

P.S. at Loma Linda I was the first to accept a Black Graduate Student in the Graduate Program in Orthodontics. later he was invited to give the Graduation address at LLU. later he endowed a Zwemer fellowship in the ADA to fund students on field trip to third world countries. you can Google Dr Thomas Zwemer and get the full picture, included a number of my comments on Spectrum. Tom Z

(Keith Augustus Burton) #10


Thanks for taking the time to respond. It is not my practice to respond to comments, but I will make a few exceptions for this column as time allows.

You seem to think that you have made your case by appealing to these two voices. Have you ever wondered why you are so repulsed by the voice of the majority? Further, have you ever wondered why you seek for Black voices that support your view of a post racist America (e.g. Charles Barclay over Kenny Smith)? Finally, do you understand Malcolm X’s “house negro” and “field negro” categories?



(Winona Winkler Wendth) #11

Probably not, no. My point was not to point out physical anything, only that that’s as close as we get in the NT. Sadly, voice, tone, and irony are lost on blogs.

(Winona Winkler Wendth) #12

. . . and? This material was presented to cultures who lived very close to vengeance as a necessary and self-preserving politic. In any case, violence exists in a real, phenomenological world, philosophy does not—philosophy and theology are in our heads and hearts. I can think of no phenomenological evidence of violence in the way Jesus went about navigating through life here. And what does Universalism have to do with this? An inclination toward peace?

(Matt Burdette) #13

“Universalism” meaning that in the Eschaton there is no violence or imposition of death. If there’s such a thing as being eternally lost, there is surely violence on the Last Day.

And I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the content of the Bible on the basis of the author’s and original audience’s cultures. We live in no less a violent society than they, and we are no less inclined to vengeance and self-preservation. This isn’t an abstract theological or philosophical problem. The question has to finally be answered: what will God make of human history? The answer has to be concrete in some sense. And one answer that the Bible seems to give consistently is, “God will kill some people.” Jesus himself seems to have said as much.

(Keith Augustus Burton) #14

Hi Ron,

Thanks so much for your respectful comments. I’ve briefly skimmed through your competently delivered presentation and see that your argument against the concept of Divine violence begins around the 23 minute mark. Since you have pointed me to this presentation, it appears as if you may be under the impression that I have a literal interpretation of the war images in Revelation. Let me assure you that this is not my position.

Notwithstanding, I don’t accept a pacifist reading of Revelation. As I shared in a sermon last week at the Oakwood University Campus Church, the “lion like lamb” of chapter five is both forgiving and avenging. As such, I do not agree with your picture of a “non violent suffering servant God.” Neither do I agree that God’s violent execution amounts to a “participation” in evil (37 minute mark). The violent destruction of the earth in Genesis, the violent acts against Israel’s Egyptian oppressors in Exodus, the violent destruction of the apostatizing Israelites in Numbers and the violent end of the wicked in Revelation are all pictures of a God who has claimed the exclusive right to vengeance.

Perhaps our different understandings may be shaped by our individual experiences, but as a fellow person of peace who endorses non-violent responses to human violence, I am not at all disturbed by images of an omniscient and perfect God afflicting terminal violence on unrepentant perpetrators of violence.



(Keith Augustus Burton) #15

Hello Tom,

Thanks for your response. I must admit to being confused by the peroration to your litany. If your aim was to demonstrate that “it is not the color of the skin, it is the darkness of the human heart, mind, and soul,” then why is it that the litany is filled with examples that give the impression that it is the color of the skin? More importantly, what is your real purpose for structuring your response as you did?



(Steve Mga) #16

It is one thing to be Angry at an event happening. And one can shout and scream, have a parade, have a sit in.
It is quite another thing to demolish the store where the cigars were stolen and the owner shoved around by the thieving criminal, seen on video tape doing it.
It is quite another thing to demolish and burn businesses and steal tennis shoes and other things from innocent owners who had nothing to do with the event.
Why do we excuse this “Burn Baby Burn” mentality and actions? The Press condones it. The Religious Leaders condone it, and justify it.
WHY do we as a Nation say it is OK to do these things? WHY do we encourage criminal elements in society to these things and applause them for their behavior?

(le vieux) #17

I don’t pretend that this country is “post-racial,” but it never will be as long as people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson see everything through the lens of racism, and find a racial motive behind every negative incident where both Blacks and whites are involved. Whatever happened to assuming good motives over bad motives, rather than vice versa? It also doesn’t help that whenever a Black person disagrees with the Jackson/Shaprton status quo, they get labeled as a “house Negro,” or an “Uncle Tom.” The mold will never be broken as long as there are enough people around wanting to perpetuate the victim mentality. Unfortunately, plenty of whites are aiding and abetting in that department, and most of the media are complicit.

(Sirje) #18

The obvious solution to all this is that all cops have to be black, since there will be no justifiable action by police toward a black man from this point on.

(le vieux) #19

Ah, yes, and a frequent cause of misunderstanding and confusion. I understand better now where you were coming from.

(le vieux) #20

At least that way Sharpton won’t be able to place the race card. :slight_smile: