I buckle my helmet, check both ways, and pull out slowly into the intersection. As I do a car comes out of nowhere, breaks hard and I swerve. We miss each other and I pull around so I’m on the right side of the road. And then I am assailed by the swearing, the shouting, the angry words pouring out of the car towards me. I am called names and the driver threatens to kill me, moving to force me off the road as she does so. I pull onto the sidewalk and she gets out of her car. I keep cycling. She catches up with me at the next intersection where I wait for a red light. As I make to cross she whips her car in front of me, cutting me off. I avoid eye contact but the barrage of hate directed toward the “f-ing white bitch on the bike” crashes into me. I wait silently and as she pulls off she swerves in again to hit my front wheel. She speeds off and I cautiously cross. I’m shaking and a tear runs down my cheek. Once again I am caught up in the dramatic and chaotic fallout of an emotionally volatile and unstable community. Still, nothing prepares me for it. Nothing prepares me for the fight that breaks out in the street, or the sounds of domestic violence coming through the walls, or the mother telling her child she wished he was dead, the erratic discipline, the man who corners me and threatens me on the street, the gunshots, the threats, the hate, the degrading names and the aggression that permeates the fabric of these relationships.
Several weeks back I wrote on things I have confused over the last few years. Hidden in the middle of that list was this one: “I have confused Not hitting people with Non-violence”, a confusion which came to a head one day as I sat in my room listening to a neighbor’s misogynistic rap. At that time, my interaction with violence – or the ever-threat of it – changed. Non-violence, pacifism, and peacemaking become less theoretical and more personal; no longer abstract, because my relation to them had become embodied. So I asked, how do i do non-violence, how do i practice pacifism, how do i be a peace-maker when violence – the threat, the call, the power of it – is tied inextricably to my being woman. Or my being white. Or my being young. Or my being out of place, a stranger, a foreigner. Or my living, walking and breathing in a violent neighborhood. Or my being hypocritical, abounding in wrath and lacking in mercy.
Here is the complexity of my interaction with violence and non-violence. I trick myself into believing that not raising my voice or my fists is a non-violent response to frustration and anger. I ignore the rage, wrath and fury that simmer within me. I don’t scream at my neighbor but I hate her nevertheless for the torrent of aggression she directs towards her kids from sun up to sun down. I think of the things I would do if I had the “courage” – I secretly hope she leaves so I don’t have to deal with the contradictions her violent stagnation causes in me. I come to believe that passivism (not doing anything in a violent situation directed toward me and not doing anything with the violence within me) is an adequate replacement for pacifism (that fundamental opposition to violence that reveals itself in demonstrative non-participation in violence and counter-commitments to establishing and maintaining peace.) I am caught in this hard space, somehow believing that not seeking retribution is the same as seeking mercy. Saying you are non-violent and lowering your weapons is dramatically and fundamentally different from disarming yourself, your attitudes, your heart, and your spirit. Not participating in violence is radically distinct from participating in peace.
How then do I practice peace and engage in pacifism? How do I make non-violence less a way of thinking and more a way of being? How do I ensure these things begin in me, but don’t end there?
How do I seek the peace (the shalom, the wholeness,the reconciliation) of the city (the place, the neighborhood, the community, the relationships) I am placed in, recognizing that my shalom is inextricably tied to its shalom, my peace found in its peace (Jeremiah 29:7 paraphrased).