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Reflecting on Alternatives to Violence, Part 1


Most of us know from experience that groups of people can encourage violence. 

  • We remember being drawn into a knot of kids gathered around to watch a fight on the playground and know how the excitement of the spectators egged the fighters on. 
  • We have been in community meetings that got ugly and have felt our hearts race and our faces flush as we listened to speakers confront a principal or a policy-maker with demands.  
  • We may have even found ourselves caught up with a group of sports fans who, with the help of alcohol, decide to destroy the symbols or the property of an opposing team. 

We look back on those experiences and shudder.  We know we got “caught up” in something.  There was an energy those groups which was greater than the anger or frustration of any one individual.

Groups can encourage violence.  Can they also encourage peace?  When we feel ourselves getting worked up, when simmering discontentment starts to rise to the boil of rage, the smart people in the room usually take a step back.  They go for a walk, get some distance, and come back to the conflict once everyone has cooled down.  De-escalation seems to mostly involved de-grouping.

But then there is the witness of the Civil Rights movement.  One person may not have been able to endure the abuse that came with a lunch counter sit-it without retaliation, but twelve people could hold strong.  Every march, every protest was preceded by intensive training in non-violent resistance.  At the heart of that training was instruction on how to stay connected to the group.  Protesters linked arms as they walked.  They chanted together and they sang and sang and sang.

I’ve been thinking a lot these past couple of weeks about how groups can promote violence.  National and international news has been filled with stories of people who seem bound together with violent energy, intent on spreading it.  Often, the response to violence seems violent as well, from drone attacks to name-calling.  Mostly I despair, but there are moments when I find myself agitated enough to want to take some action.

Last weekend, I finally had a chance to do something.  I participated in a weekend-long training in the Alternatives to Violence Program at the Patuxent Correctional Institution, a state prison for men near my home.  I’ve wanted for several years to become trained as a facilitator of this program so that I could help lead trainings in prisons, juvenile facilities and elsewhere.  This weekend’s experience was my first step towards that goal.

AVP, as it is called, was first developed in 1975 when a group of inmates in New York’s Green Haven prison sought assistance from local Quakers in developing a non-violence curriculum that they could share with incarcerated youth.  From the beginning, the program has been led by volunteers.  “Outside facilitators”, volunteers from the community work in partnership with “inside facilitators”, inmates who had been through advanced training in the practices the program is designed to teach.  One of the inside facilitators who helped lead my weekend training told us he had been leading AVP workshops since 1992. 

Together, the facilitators lead a group through a variety of highly interactive experiences—one-on-one conversations, role plays and small group discussions interspersed with a number of “light and lively” games of the sort that we’ve played in my youth groups over the years.

In a way, this was surprising to me.  In the midst of an energetic round of a familiar circle game called “Zip, Zap, Zoom” I found myself wondering.  What are we doing here?  How does promote an alternative to violence? 

There was very little direct instruction throughout the weekend.  No power points, no worksheets, no “three keys” or “five simple steps” to memorize.  Instead, we spent a lot of time getting to know each other, taking turns listening and being heard, building trust.  Laughter was a part of that and so were tears.  In short, we built a sense of community among each other, a community that held out the possibility of an alternative to violence. 

That was all.  That was the beginning.  And maybe, that was enough.

Bottom Line: Safety


I want to be Carolyn Hax when I grow up.  I don't want to write an advice column but I'd like to be as wise as she is.  She's funny and insightful, hopeful and realistic.  And she has just about the best BS detector of anyone I've ever read.  

This morning's column was a good distillation of all her advice on relationships.  A reader wrote in questioning whether there exists in the world a relationship which is completely free of the "red flags" Carolyn has warned about in her column.  Carolyn wrote in response:

"My lone standard for relationships, romantic and platonic, is that you both feel safe enough together to be your honest selves.  That to me defines a close and healthy bond--which doesn't rule out disliking some things about each other or annoying each other sometimes.  These relationships will look different for different people, just because we all have different ideas of safety and comfort." 

Exactly!  And what's more, this is the standard by which we should judge our communities:  are we safe enough together to be our honest selves?  

Physcial safety is obvious a base requirement for civil society.  In order for people to be able to engage with the people around them, in order for them to talk to neighbors, walk down the street and greet each other, in order for them to be willing to stop and help someone in obvious need they first need to be assured of their physical safety.  

During one of the very first sessions in my Leadership Howard County training we had a small group discussion about the question, "What is the basis of Howard County's high standard of living?"  While every other small group decided that our excellent public school system was the foundational community asset in Howard County, my group came up with a different response.  Several of us had previously lived in communities where we feared for our physical safety.  For us, it was clear that public safety was what everything else rests on.  

But physical safety isn't the only thing that Carolyn Hax is talking about, and it isn't the only thing that matters in a community either.  Emotional safety is essential to intimate relationships. I would argue that the same is true for communities.  

This doesn't mean that we can expect all our emotional needs to be met by our faith communities or our neighborhood.  I've been in settings where someone comes into a community with that hope and the people around them scatter.  But there are, I'm convinced, emotional needs that can only be met by a community--and in order for that to happen, we need to feel safe.  

What does emotional safety look like on a community level?  For starters, we need to be sure that we won't be ridiculed or rejected.  We need to feel like we can voice our opinions or share our experiences without being mocked or ignored.  We need to be confident that the people we engage with are not lying to us or intentionally misleading us.  We want to know that they people we are in community with are basically trustworthy, people of good will.  Everything else, absolutely everything, rests on that.

I haven't always seen things this way.  Some years ago, the Kittamaqundi Community did an exercise at one of our annual Community Retreats which generated a wide range of responses to the question, "What are we called to create together?"  I remember being excited about the conversation.  I had every expectation that God was nudging us to reach out, to push out of our comfort zone, to be daring.  So I was surprised--and to be honest, disheartened--when the responses that came back kept highlighting safety.  The strongest call our community felt, it seemed, was to create a place where people felt safe.

Really?  That's it?

My first reaction to these responses was that the community hadn't really discerned God's call.  We simply were recording our sense of what WE wanted.  We wanted to be loved and affirmed and taken care of.  But was that really what God wanted for us?  Most of the people who hear a call from God in the Bible understand that they are supposed to leave places of safety to do or say things that feel very risky.  I highly doubted the Kittamaqundi Community would be any different.

It took me several years to finally admit that the community might have been on to something.  To use Carolyn Hax's phrase, they put their finger on the "lone standard" for relationship.  We expressed with astonishing clarity our bottom line for being in community with each other:  we needed to be safe.  Only then could we be our "honest selves" with each other.  Only then could we consider what it might look like to construct a relationship with God that might take us somewhere we wouldn't go on our own.

We have a sense of how to protect and promote our physical safety.  What are the equivalent measures for emotional safety?  We know that community policing helps deter crime.  What would a preventative approach to emotional safety look like?  What would the equivalent to a street patrol be--a person who inquires after their neighbor's health and well-being?  We know that communities feel physically safer when we fix broken windows and remove graffiti.  Would we feel safer emotionally if we tended to minor infractions of civility like name-calling in public forums?  What do you need to bring your "honest self" to your community life?