Transformation at Gunpoint

"Antoinette Tuff engaged, defused and offered love to the intruder, saving everyone, including the desperate young man, from harm."

As we once again come together as a nation to honor Dr. and Rev. Martin Luther King’s recognition of Jesus’ call to nonviolent peacemaking, I offer this reflection on the Spirit-in-breaking story of Antoinette Tuff.

On August 21, 2013 a heavily armed young man broke into a Georgia elementary school. The children and staff raced outside to avoid the potential shooting as the police and swat teams scrambled feverishly to surround the school. Meanwhile, Antoinette Tuff engaged, defused and offered love to the intruder, saving everyone, including the desperate young man, from harm.

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Wow! What was Antoinette thinking, responding to a dangerous gunman with the power of nonviolent love? Surely this could never work. This is naive. This is idealistic. The Reign of God is “not yet.” It’s a “sinful world.” What we need are more "good guys" with guns to get the "bad guys;" or in broader contexts more "military strikes" to deter "bad behavior" by force.          

Reality has once more opened up for us a chance to be in awe at a power and love that transcend what too many of us think about the dynamics of violence. In September 2013, key policy leaders, mass media and others were promoting military strikes as the appropriate response to the violence of chemical weapons in Syria. The scale and circumstances are different than a school gunman, but the basic logic and habit of reflexively engaging violence—by sending in more good guys with guns—is quite similar.

In August 2013, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech. A few days before this celebration, in Antoinette we received a fresh witness to King's and Jesus’ call for nonviolent love of friends and enemies. But this wasn't just a moment for collective amazement, much less for dismissals of this event as rare and lucky. Rather, this was an instructive, grace-filled moment to learn, model and activate the basic components of this realistic force that scholars call “integrative power.” What are some of the elements of these components that we can apply in dealing with conflict on various scales?

I've found at least ten:

1. Center yourself

People can do this in various ways from a deep breath, to a mantra, to a memory of someone who has inspired clarity and courage in the past. Tuff "anchored" herself in God and turned to prayer. She realized that "this was bigger than me," and was able to act in accord with her own humanity and dignity.

2. See the other as human rather than a "monster" or irrational

By consciously seeing the other as human even in the midst of their violent behavior, she kept her heart open to the goodness that remained in him and his potential for good. Such a posture allowed her to respond less out of fear toward other, which is too common in western political culture, and more out of hope.

3. Recognize and name that others love this person

She listens to him talk on the phone to a relative and senses by his responses and tone that others love him, and thus, he is not simply human, but also lovable. She explicitly states for him "they love you a lot." By verbally interrupting the interactions of hostility, she turns his attention to the good and the love in his life. This distracts him and opens up the space for him to share that he's “off his medication.”

4. Empathize with their suffering and seek their genuine good

In this transforming space of relations, she wondered what he was going through to be on medication and now without it, to "not care for his life.” In her capacity to sense his troubles and hurt, she not only prayed, but she specifically sought his genuine good by praying for him and suggesting the police take him to the hospital, rather than shoot him or take him directly to prison.

5. Accompany the other

As she grows in empathy and seeks his good, she shifts her language from a distant "sir" to a more intimate "baby" and offers to go with him to the police so they won't shoot him. He sees Antoinette’s willingness to risk at least her own status—and perhaps even her life—by walking out with, rather than against, an attempted mass murderer.

6. Offer a shared sense of suffering

In this moment of solidarity, she shares her own sufferings, about her divorce and her disabled son. This invites him into seeing someone outside himself as human and even more so as a common traveler on the road of pain and sorrow. Her offer moves his heart to ask her to go on the intercom and "tell the kids he's sorry." His sense of empathy for others has awakened and even more his sense of his own responsibility for their suffering has arisen in a desire to apologize and repent. He goes further and starts letting go of his weapons as he becomes less and less of a threat.

7. Offer a window to restoration

Nevertheless, he may still be struggling with feeling like a "monster" or being condemned by the human community. Would his confession lead to some opportunity to be accepted or even reintegrated into the community? This deeper perhaps even unconscious fear could still drive him to violence. Yet, like Jesus, she refuses to condemn him by saying clearly "we're not going to hate you." Beyond acceptance, she goes on to say that she's "proud" of him for giving up the weapons. This reveals his capacity for good or giftedness, that is, his inherent dignity in the eyes of others.

8. Share your love

Everything that has happened so far is amazing, but Antoinette goes further, saying to the young man, "I love you." Imagine that the person you terrorized offers you love—how could this not transform your heart? This is precisely the fruit and fullness of the challenge and call to "love your enemies.”

9. Broaden the solidarity in suffering

As her love pours out, she goes beyond her shared suffering and expands this to the broader human community by saying “we all go through something in life." In the midst of this growing compassion for humanity, she deepens her own vulnerability by revealing the utter darkness of her life and shares her suicide attempt. This reverts back to #6, but at a deeper, more vulnerable level, and thus, more transformative potential. While he previously refused, in this new moment, he finally gives her his name: "Michael Hill." In the shared depth of darkness, he senses being identified as a person again and thus, offers his identity.

10. Build Common Ground and Offer hope

She had been exploring and finding common ground with Michael. Near the end, she continues to build this as she says her mom's name was also Hill, that she saw him play the drums before and that they played "real good." She also said to him multiple times that it was all "going to be ok." In the same way she survived the darkness, there was realistic hope that Michael too could survive and find something to live for.

If you listen to the 911 call, notice the difference in tone between her interaction with him versus when the police finally come in. Even though Antoinette invites the police into the school, there is a flood of chaotic yelling, threatening and hostility by the police officers as they react out of habits likely oriented by intimidating others and fear. Imagine if Antoinette chose a similar logic in her responses. She and many others, children and/or police, would more likely have been harmed if not killed.

Antoinette imagined and offered these responses in the context of some "training" from her pastor and role-plays engaging conflict at their church. She also got some form of school training on emergencies. Ongoing training in nonviolent conflict intervention is key to making us better at imagining, choosing and sustaining such practices.

But are there other examples? Yes! On various scales here’s just a few: Angie Gorman faces a man who breaks into her house while she’s alone; David Hartsough faces a knife wielding racist during the civil rights movement; Karen Ridd faces her torturers in jail; Colleen Williams faces a group of a Hells Angels; Loyau-Kennett talks down an armed "terrorist" in London, etc.

To summarize these 10 components: interrupt the hostilities by humanizing the situation through centering yourself and offering resistance through empathy, solidarity, vulnerability, dignity, and even love.This “power” of nonviolent love, i.e. “integrative power,” means one chooses to act in accord with human dignity regardless of what the other does, and this draws the parties closer.

Does it mean these components will work all the time? Not necessarily, if we limit our sense of "work" to the immediate, visible moment and suggest any suffering or death by those attacked makes the response fruitless. Yes, suffering and death is tragic, but tragedy will be all the greater when we respond with violence, and much less the more we practice the power of nonviolent love. And, as the scientific discoveries about mirror neurons suggest, we physiologically draw the other toward love when we practice this integrative power. In other words, we plant seeds in those involved that gradually grow into transformation in their behavior as they continue to encounter such power, even if noticeable change doesn’t occur immediately. Thus, we know nonviolent love is “working” if we look through a longer-term lens, and we can also improve its “working” in the shorter-term by practicing and strategizing.

Let us take the opportunity to enter more deeply into this power in our daily interactions and better prepare ourselves for those rare but intense moments of violent conflict. In this way, personal and social transformation will blossom, while God's grace increasingly shines forth to guide us.

“For this reason, I appeal forcefully to all those who sow violence and death by force of arms: in the person you today see simply as an enemy to be beaten, discover rather your brother or sister, and hold back your hand! Give up the way of arms and go out to meet the other in dialogue, pardon and reconciliation, in order to rebuild justice, trust, and hope around you!” – Pope Francis, World Day of Peace Message, 2014.

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