Paul F. Knitter - Theologian
Paul Knitter - October 2011
“The appalling silence of the good people” – a Buddhist Dialogue with Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the New York Times of May 15, 2011, Michelle Alexander wrote an op-ed piece that hit me soundly in my Buddhist-Christian stomach.
In her essay, she comments critically on a recent good news/bad news scenario: many politicians, including Republicans, are calling for a reduction of mass incarceration (good news), but not out of any concern for the racial bias that stokes our prison system but because maintaining our prisons in this state of economic crisis will call for “raising taxes on the (white) middle class” (bad news).
While that distressed me, what really slammed me were Alexander’s quotes from Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King pointed out how we white people are complicit in the ugly reality of racial injustice. These are words many of us have heard before. For me, there were phrases that I seemed to hear for the first time:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action.”(My uneasy italics.)
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
And then Alexander pointedly applies King’s observations to the question of our prison system in particular and to the present state of racial injustice in general: “Those who believe that righteous indignation and protest politics were appropriate in the struggle to end Jim Crow, but that something less will do as we seek to dismantle mass incarceration, fail to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge.” (Again the discomforting italics are mine.)
In forthright, unsettling, but always friendly discussions with my colleague, Jim Cone, and in recent discussions in one of my courses here at Union Theological Seminary, I’ve had to face what King and Alexander are talking about.
I have been among the good people who, all too often, have maintained an “appalling silence” in the face of white supremacy and my own white privilege. As a good Buddhist, and with the help of colleagues and friends, I have to be mindful of that – I have to keep up the effort to break my propensity to silence.
But King and then Alexander push me to face another aspect of how I may be silent even when I’m speaking. So often, when I hear of the “righteous indignation and protest politics” of my Black and Latino students, I have, as King forces me to recognize, responded with something like “I agree with your goals, but can’t agree with your methods.” And I have done that, I think, when I respond from my Buddhist convictions that all “righteous indignation and protest” must somehow contain compassion for the oppressors. Protest cannot be motivated by hatred. It must always prefer non-violence.
All that, I believe, is true and so very important. But what King and Alexander – and my students and colleagues here at Union – are asking me is this: before I make my appeals for compassion, have I really felt indignation!
Buddhists don’t rule out indignation or anger. They just don’t want anger to lead to hatred and to hate-inspired action.
But anger and indignation play a very important role in the response to injustice. They should not be short-circuited by a too quick, and perhaps too facile, call for compassion.
When one feels indignation, one cannot keep silent. Indignation assures protest and action.
Only after truly feeling anger over injustice, only after deeply feeling indignation at the realities of racism (as such reality is embodied in a US prison system that has the highest rate of incarceration in the world) -- only then can we (as we must) call for compassion for both victims and victimizers.
Only then – only after truly feeling and being mindful of anger at injustice – can we be assured that compassion will not lead to “appalling silence.”
Paul F. Knitter
Paul F. Knitter, is the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, he holds a licentiate in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a doctorate from the University of Marburg, Germany, and is the author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian.
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