Stand Your Ground


Poet Maya Angelou once said that courage is “the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” It takes courage to “stand your ground” and I am not talking about the law in Florida (or others like it around the country) which cruelly allows a person to commit murder without meaningful legal accountability. Standing your real ground is a powerful act; we can find that ground by refusing to be guided by our fear and refusing to lose sight of the other’s humanity.

One of the main misconceptions that surround laws like Stand Your Ground is that somehow violence is an adequate, effective response to a threat; that violence is the only form of power that the individual can exercise. However, peace researcher and economist Kenneth Boulding believed that power had more than one face. He acknowledges that there is ‘threat power’, the kind of power released in when one party says to the other, “do what I want or else.” He also notes that there is ‘exchange power’ where one party will say to the other, “you give me what I want and I’ll give you what you want.” The third face of power is ‘integrative power,’ the kind of power released in a nonviolent interaction. In this dialogue a person will say, “I will not shrink out of fear from you, but I will not harm you, either, and this will bring us closer together.” When we draw upon integrative power, we offer our authenticity, our supposed vulnerability of not striking back, and we hold ourselves up in dignity in the face of a threat, injury or insult. This actually has transformative results.

Fear is often a product of our imaginations, while case studies of nonviolence show us, time and again, the power of nonviolence is quite real, even if we are conditioned by the mass-media not to believe it. I am thinking of David Hartsough. During the Civil Rights Movement he participated in a lunch counter sit-in in Virginia. He had been sitting for a while, quietly praying, when a segregationist walked up to him, placed a knife at his throat and threatened to harm him if he did not leave. David stood his ground, however, and said, “You do what you feel you have to, brother, and I will try to love you anyway.” The man’s hand began to visibly shake; he dropped the knife and walked out of the restaurant with his eyes tearing up. David did not submit to a threat and he was not moved to respond to his fear in an irrational manner. Yes, it was dangerous; yes it was a risk, but imagine what might have transpired if David chose to respond with violence.

Another, more recent example of a nonviolent response to a threat happened in a Walmart parking lot in Tennessee. 92 years old at the time, Pauline Jacobi put her groceries in her car and was ready to leave the premises when a man opened up her passenger-side door, entered the car and pointed a gun at her. He demanded that she give him her money or he would shoot her. She refused outright. She instead told him that she was not afraid of death because she “would go straight to heaven.” Pauline then calmly spoke to him for 10 minutes about what she cared about the most before the man broke down in tears and said he wanted to change his life. Before getting out of the car, he was startled when she voluntarily gave him all the money she had–10 dollars. Pauline refused to be coerced by a severe threat and clung to her innate sense of dignity, power and yes, faith. Her act not only saved her life, it brought her closer to her would-be-attacker and transformed his life, not to mention inspiring countless others who hear her story, perhaps even to act with similar courage in the face of such contingencies.

Let’s not forget to mention the extraordinary–though still not isolated– case of 16 year old Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by gun-carrying extremists in Pakistan. In her recent address at the United Nations she firmly maintained that violence did not diminish her determination or scare her into passivity:

“They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed. And then, out of that silence came, thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.  I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same. (…) This is the philosophy of nonviolence (…).”

David, Pauline, Malala: three faces to innumerable daily acts of courage, faces of ordinary people like you and me. They do not possess some exceptional power that is the luck of the draw among human beings. They do not experience less fear than you and I would. No, they have every natural capacity that we have for both violence and nonviolence; for either bitterness and hatred or detachment and creative action as we do.

What their stories show us, if we are willing to hear it, is that the nonviolent response is the only solid ground we have. It creates a common ground where we are all invited to inhabit and move beyond the shaky ground of our violent institutions, laws and systems that tend to allow, if not encourage, people to act on their fears and insecurities. Think about it–has there been a time in your life when you responded to a threat with a threat or with violent force in kind? Ask yourself:  Did it lead to the long-term results you expected? Did it make you feel safer? Did it increase your independence?  And what about the other person: Did it add to their safety and security, leading to better and more secure community? Ask yourself the same questions about a time when you or someone you know accessed the power of nonviolence.

Let our stories be heard. Security is not a zero-sum, winner-take-all, game. We cannot make others insecure in search of our own safety without consequences. When we realize that we will evolve the kinds of institutions worthy of a human being, institutions that draw upon our natural ability to convert fear into what Gandhi calls “a power that can move the world.” We are called now to stand our ground for one another in the face of “realists” who say that a less violent world is not realistic. In the words of Rabbi Michael Lerner, we have to be the new realists. Let us draw upon our courage and not be disheartened in our struggle toward beloved community.

Stephanie Van Hook  is Executive Director of the Metta Center for Nonviolence in northern California and writes for PeaceVoice. She can be reached at: Stephanie@mettacenter.org.

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