Tension of Opposites & Non-Violent Direct Action
This week’s reading beautifully displays perspectives spanning the continuum of both subjective and objective historical viewpoints while centering leadership in its most honest, visceral, and human forms. MLK Jr’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail provided an intimate, incarnate, and soul wrenching glimpse into the imprisonment black Americans experienced from our nation’s inception through Civil Rights era. Conversely, Global Leadership Perspectives displays incredible objectivity, both by the editor (Simon Western and Éric-Jean Garcia) who so beautifully encapsulate and analyze the various leadership perspectives, and the individual authors who present excellent insight into their national and cultural context while casting vision for what leadership must look like moving forward.
Western and Garcia’s work is grand in its scope, yet humble in its attempt to propose an ideal leadership model. Instead, writes Western and Garcia, “[…] the gaps identified in the insider-analysis (Chapters 1-20) allowed us to look for what was left out […] Lack leads to desire, and desire points to the symptom, which in turn points to the Lacanian ‘Real’. The ‘Real’ in this case is the leadership that cannot be spoken, the leadership that cannot be captured by empirical research or by knowledge, that sits outside of language and the symbolic, yet resonates in mysterious and unidentifiable ways. This research analysis approach aimed not only to define knowledge but also to gain a glimpse of the Real; to loosely name symptoms that emerged from the chapters, and to use these symptoms to get a sense of the unobtainable ‘Real’ of leadership […]”
Truly, Western and Garcia beautifully hold the tension of the opposites. They do not hold this tension simply by deferring to the median opinion, or by scouring for the common ground among vast differences in leadership perspectives, but by guiding the reader through the ‘narrow way,’ which requires presence with the individual and collective symptoms, while actively choosing engagement rather than disenchanted naïveté. Their work is objective, yet not detached; incarnate, yet clearly not under the illusion of a utopia void of the opposition.
Martin Luther King Jr’s admonishing composition, Letters from a Birmingham Jail provides an incisive, subjective, and personal recollection of the unimaginable injustices done to black Americans. However, though King speaks intimately of the injustice he and his fellow African Americans’ endured, he does not loosen the tension of opposites. King’s commitment to non-violent direct action is case in point. Non-violent direct action is by definition, non-violent, and highly active, and requires a conscious decision to stand firm yet not return violence for violence. King writes, “There are two kinds of laws. Just laws and unjust laws. We have a moral responsibility to keep just laws, but also have a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” He paraphrases Saint Augustine writing, ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’
For King, keeping the tension of the opposites requires non-violence while being conscious of the personal and systemic violence committed against black Americans; likewise, holding this tension requires active civil disobedience, which he saw not as anti-law, but rather an ascent to its highest forms and ideals, to justice. He poignantly writes, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just, and any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
Such tension is archetypal, meaning it is essential and ontologically rooted in the human experience. Due to America’s historical-global influence, economic affluence, and our undergirding myth of Manifest Destiny, exceptionalism, and white supremacy, coupled with our vast land mass, isolated geography, and enormous population, such tension is nearly impossible. However, non-violent direct action enables us to see the collective tension, which go unnoticed to the powerful, privileged, and societally affluent. To paraphrase King, non-violent direct action is not the creator of tension. It merely brings tension to the surface.
One of MLK Jr’s most notable paradigms in his letters is around the white moderate. He poetically and prophetically writes, “The negros’ great stumbling block in his great stride towards freedom is not the white citizen’s counselor, or the Ku Klux Klan, But the white moderate who is more devoted to order then to justice. Who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.” Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst, John A Sanford puts it this way, “Indeed, if we strive to be too good we only engender the opposite reaction in the unconscious. If we try to live too much in the light, a corresponding amount of darkness accumulates within.” I would go as far to say that this ‘negative peace’ is led and perpetuated by a diseased Christian imagination that refused to confront its shadowed complicity with racial, ethnic, and gender injustice.
In conclusion, it is the American Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast who so eloquently writes, “In its enthusiasm for the divine light, Christian theology has not always done justice to the divine darkness […] Then we try to live up to the standard of a God that is purely light and we can’t handle the darkness within us. And because we can’t handle it, we suppress it.” Our collectively suppressed darkness does not go away. Rather it comes out sideways in the form of policy, social structures, unconscious bias, and passive moderation. This is the leadership gap in the United States. We see glimpses of this gap filled in by Joe Biden, but then he/his administration return to ‘white moderation’. I do sense a socio-political shift to a spirit reminiscent of MLK Jr’s vision, but it’s longtail. The birth-pains are felt through the protectionist spirit of MAGA republicans, who shamelessly identify with our collective shadow. Certainly, rumblings of a moderate/centrist movement seek to find common ground, but this does not confront our shadow, and inevitably maintains ‘negative peace’.
 Simon Western and Éric-Jean Garcia, Global Leadership Perspectives: Insights and Analysis (55 City Road, London, 2018), https://doi.org/10.4135/9781529714845. 266-290.
 Martin Luther King, “Letter From Birmingham Jail” (Read by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr), 2021, https://open.spotify.com/episode/4A0ZSkg3tWF6ZLixBP49DN.
 John A. Sanford, Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality (Crossroad, 1981).23.
 Connie Zweig, Meeting the Shadow (Penguin, 2020). 132.
7 responses to “Tension of Opposites & Non-Violent Direct Action”
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Michael, I like how you highlight King’s observation that there are just laws and unjust ones because it encourages serious reflection over the laws that govern us today. In what ways can we encourage the church to be more aware of current ungodly laws and more inclined towards engaging in civil disobedience, if need be?
Yeah great questions Henry. I think in the US, one of the issues that we have a huge contingency of people making laws under the guise of “godliness” but the laws look nothing like Jesus. Christianity is being rebranded as xenophobic, racisms, classist, and gender exclusive. I think the label “godly” is problematic because anyone can cast laws as divinely ordained, in order to uphold injustice. That’s why I like King’s words that “any law that uplifts human personality is just.” Many US laws, and really our economic structure, directly violate humanity, especially the poor and marginalized, and yet they are cast as godly. It feels like a mess.
What further thoughts do you have?
I resonated so much with your section on King’s implications for today.
And yet, it never ceases to amaze me that people still to this day vilify him instead of learning from him and listening to the story of those that surrounded this movement.
Just look at the issue of voter suppression alone, which the different expressions of the Civil Rights Movement fought against. Identical tactics are being used today to mute out the voice and rights of the black and brown community.
It’s honestly gross and yet so predictable. MAGA is appealing to and identifying with the unconscious collective shadow, rather than serving to identify it and integrate it. That’s dangerous stuff.
Michael, such a good post. I especially enjoyed your last paragraph. The authors of “Global Perspectives” diagnos America with a leadership “melancholy.” Do you believe the “repression of our darkness” is a major cause of that melancholy? Also, a question around the idea of uplifting or degrading personality – what standard would you use to assess uplifting personality versus enabling a person’s emotional unhealthy brokenness?
Yeah, I think melancholy is often time a symptom of of repression. Shadowed parts of our personhood often lead to chronic depression (clinical and otherwise), and when it comes to leadership, melancholy is a great descriptor for this. If we look at the US as a patient (as Jung did with Christianity), we have ego-oriented political leadership focused on simple survival and maintaining of control, and a populous that is largely hidden, repressed, unactivated. That’s why I’m worried about midterms, because MAGA has tapped into the repressed sentiment, and identified with the collective shadow.
To your second question, I King uses personality the way we may use personhood. I think enabling unhealth is essentially degrading of one’s personhood. I think many evangelicals don’t have the tools to facilitate health because they define health on their terms using their interpretation of scripture. For example with LGBTQIA+ people, the company line is that they are “living in sin” or broken. Conversely, the queer community has few elders who can guide toward health and integration. More to discuss here for sure.
Good read, Michael. Deep. I have to think more in-depth on this one. Your thoughts on the white moderate are worth considering. How do you see this most at play in our country right now? If you could exhort the Church on this matter to think and act differently, what would be the theme of that message?