Sunday, January 9, 2011

Join the Continuing Call to Nonviolent Action

"Action for one’s own self binds, action for the sake of others delivers from bondage." - Mohandas Gandhi

They were born 32 years and 748 miles apart. The man born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 15, 1929 would grow up to be a Baptist minister and civil rights leader. While the man born in Havana, Cuba on July 20, 1961 would grow up to be a medical doctor and human rights leader. They never met because an assassin shot the 39 year old Baptist minister in the head on April 4, 1968 at 6:01pm. The older of the two grew up in the Jim Crow South while the younger grew up in communist Cuba under the dictatorship of the Castro brothers. Despite the distance in both time, geography, and language they are brothers. Both are Christians and disciples of Mohandas Gandhi's teachings on nonviolence.

Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Oscar Elias Biscet would spend time in prison defending human rights and human dignity accepting imprisonment as a necessary sacrifice to expose and challenge injustice with the goal of ending it through nonviolent means and loving their enemies. In a speech he gave in St. Augustine in 1964 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. described both this kind of love and the impracticability of violence:
"Its difficult advice and in some quarters it isn't too popular to say it...Let us recognize that violence is not the answer. I must say to you tonight that violence is impractical...We have another method that is much more powerful and much more effective than the weapon of violence...Hate isn't our weapon either...I am not talking now about a weak love it would be nonsense for an oppressed people to love their oppressor in an affectionate sense I'm not talking about that too many people confuse the meaning of love when they go to criticizing the love ethic. ...I am talking about a love that is so strong that it becomes a demanding love. A love that is so strong that it organizes itself into a mass movement and says somehow I am my brothers keeper and he is so wrong that I am willing to suffer and die to get him right and to see that he is on the wrong road."
In July of 1999 Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet ending a 40-day fast in Havana at a residence in Tamarindo 34 spoke to other activists who had joined him in the fast and international media gathered explained:
“To love one's neighbor is also to love one's enemy. Although in reality that qualifier-'enemy' does not exist in my vocabulary. I recognize that I only have adversaries and I have acquired the capacity to love them because in this way we do away with violence, wrath, vengeance, hatred and substitute them with justice and forgiveness.”
They are neither willing to idly stand by as injustice is being committed nor are they willing to commit new injustices to remedy the old and both suffered and in Dr. Biscet's case continues to suffer the consequences. Imprisoned in harsh conditions since November 1999, save for a month in 2002, Oscar Elias Biscet continues to denounce injustice and advocate nonviolence for example in an open letter to all Cubans in August of 2006:
“The people of Cuba have been suffering the scorn of a totalitarian tyranny, Communism, throughout four decades. Due to this inhumane treatment whereby the decorum of a people is violated, many Cubans are indignant and have risen up to pray and fast, beseeching the God of the Bible,…we must expedite the achievement of these basic rights through civil disobedience and by putting into practice all methods to obtain our humanitarian aim. Here, in this dark jail where they force me to live, I will be resisting until the freedom of my people is obtained."
There are those who view this kind of approach as noble but ineffective preferring violence. They are profoundly mistaken. Oscar Elias Biscet in a letter to his wife in July of 2009 reflected on those who ridiculed his adherence to Gandhian principles of non-violence:
"I remember when I started preaching about Gandhi and Thoreau some said I would walk through the streets of Havana with a loin cloth like Gandhi. When I learned of these words spoken about me in a derogatory manner I just smiled because I knew I would be in these conditions but not in the streets of Havana. Rather in the infinite captivity that I would have through suffering. They had not been mistaken those who had made the joke to humiliate me. Because from the humiliation of a man in loincloth highlights the reflection of human dignity over barbarism."
Martin Luther King Jr. while imprisoned in a Birmingham jail wrote an open letter on April 16, 1963 to moderate clergy men who had criticized his non-violent approach. Rev. King outlined the context in which this struggle was carried out which has numerous parallels to Cuba in 2011:
"I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible 'devil.' I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the "do nothingism" of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest."
Reverend King's insight that both doing nothing to resist the evil of segregation and embracing the hatred and despair of the black nationalist would not achieve the end of the system. In the United States the disciples of Martin Luther King Jr. ended up in Congress; leading non-governmental organizations; and created the terrain in which an African American could be elected president. On the other hand many of the black nationalists embraced political violence and killed people. Some of them are still fugitives from justice today and share a measure of responsibility in the culture of violence that gripped segments of the African American Community and which is still a problem today. On the other side those who criticized the sit-ins and actually profited from institutionalized racism would argue that passivity and polite negotiations was the way to gradually end the system of segregation. Those voices are also heard in 2011 in the debate over how to deal with the Cuban regime. Reverend King's response in 1963 reverberates today in the Cuban context:
" 'Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word 'tension.' I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth."
If you are up against a regime that refuses to negotiate because it believes that it has no reason to engage in dialogue then non-violent direct action creates the "constructive, nonviolent tension" that Rev. King refers to above and forces dialogue. This was done in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s ushering in a Civil Rights era. In Cuba, since 1976 with the founding of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, a nonviolent movement for human rights and democratic change has emerged and grown. In 2010 the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the marches of the Ladies in White and the hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas combined with international scrutiny to create a non-violent moment that exposed the injustice of the Cuban regime.

These moments put the oppressor on the defensive and as in the case of the racial segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s and the communist dictatorship in the 1990s and 2000s forced them to resort to moments of restraint and nonviolent tactics and propaganda to discredit their adversaries. Reverend King described the practice in in 1963:
"Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."

In the Cuban context today it is seen in the cynical practice of coercing prisoners of conscience imprisoned since 2003 ( or before) with the choice of immediate exile or continue to rot in prisons where torture and mistreatment are commonplace and describing this process as "freeing political prisoners." Doctor Oscar Elias Biscet speaking on the phone from prison in December of 2010 after having spent over a decade in prison, in which he has lost many of his teeth, declared:
“I've always refused to leave the country permanently, because I believe that I must cooperate in the welfare of my people and that welfare can only be achieved when we live in freedom, because only freedom leads to peace … This is a government plan to try to crush it the opposition and that no voice be raised by the vanguard, but they made a mistake, because there are at least 12 of us that are willing to stay here in prison, that want to stay here in Cuba, to live in Cuba, together with our relatives here in Cuba and with our friends and brothers.”
Doctor Biscet has referred to Martin Luther King Jr. on numerous occasions as a great teacher of nonviolence and in June 2003 described what motivated him and kept his morale high while in prison:
"My inspiration is alive: God and the great teachers of nonviolence, present today now more than ever. As Martin Luther King said: "If a people can find among their ranks a 5% of men willing to voluntarily go to prison for a cause they consider just then there is no obstacle that can stop them."
Although you reading this most likely are not in Cuba there is still much that you can do to support this continuing call to nonviolent action in defense of human rights and dignity. On January 15, 2010 the world will observe the 82nd birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. and on Sunday, January 16, 2010 at Our Lady of Charity [La Ermita de la Caridad] located at 3609 South Miami Avenue Miami, FL at 2:00pm EST Winnie Biscet, the daughter of Oscar Elias Biscet is organizing a vigil for the freedom of her father and other Cuban prisoners of conscience followed by a special Mass at 3:00pm. She is asking that those in attendance wear black and carry a white flower.

You have heard that it was said, 'Love (agape) your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love (agape) your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?
Matthew 5:42-44

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