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The transformative nature of faith

The Rev. C.T. Vivian can rightly be called a living legend. He has been at the forefront of many social movements in the United States in the last 50 years.CT-Vivian

Vivian was a leader in the nonviolent civil disobedience Civil Rights movement in Nashville and throughout the South in the early 1960s. He was on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s executive staff with the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and a rider on the first Freedom Bus that drove to Jackson, Mississippi.

Vivian’s dedication to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act gave him a passion for ensuring access and participation in the society by all people. What started as the Anti-Klan Network, an organization dedicated to monitoring the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups in the 1970s, morphed into the Center for Democratic Renewal in the 1980s. Vivian’s commitment to social change is both long and deep.

C.T. Vivian presented the Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, on January 18, 2010. Metro Lutheran’s editor Bob Hulteen interviewed him there.

Metro Lutheran: You have guided many groups confronting violence. What are the costs for people when responding to oppression?

C.T. Vivian: Racism itself is an oppression that destroys psychologically — both the person it is directed at and the person who is a racist. And the racist doesn’t understand that. In fact, the racist usually thinks that, by putting the other person down, he is more than he really is. The truth is that the difference between what you think you are and what you are denotes your levels of self-destruction.

The nonviolent movement is about giving people alternative choices. If you live in a violent culture, as we all do, the only reaction we know to violence is violence. If we don’t react with violence, people assume we are afraid. We are damaged by the mere fact that we must hurt somebody to properly respond.

If a person responds to violence violently, it is physically damaging. But if we simply have no response, then it is psychologically damaging.

You can never come to the kind of world you want by thinking that way. The movement gave people an alternative, not just on race, but on any evil that is destroying life. Nonviolence offers a third choice.

There is a great book, Christ and Culture by Richard Niebuhr. It’s a book that never grows old. It argues that we are always fighting culture. Will you stop being passive in responding to the parts of culture that are destructive?

On the issue of race, I tell people in workshops, the hardest thing for a white fellow to say to another one is “You are a racist.” They need to take statements as a joke, or find another explanation.

But, I think that participants in a nonviolent, direct action movement must be willing to take the risk to name an oppression.

ML: What do you mean by a nonviolent and direct action movement?

Vivian: Well, first, I never separate the two. People too often think of passivity when they hear someone talk about nonviolence. Nonviolence is not passive; it is the most active response there is. It is creative and energetic and impassioned.

A nonviolent, direct action movement is one always looking for opportunities to transform what already exists into something more significant.

ML: In Christ and Culture, Niebuhr talks about transforming culture. How was the Civil Rights movement a transformative movement?

Vivian: There were two movements going on at the time. One movement said, “By any means necessary.” Its practitioners said, “If you hit me, I’ll hit you; if you shoot me; I’ll shoot you.” But those are old, negative ways of the world.

That’s what Christ came to change. It is important to see it in terms of our faith.

The other movement was the one that Martin Luther King was involved with. And the overarching philosophy of that movement was that the violence had to stop with me. That’s all I could control. But the realm in which I would be nonviolent would be public. That’s why we organized sit-ins at lunch counters — that we might have public opportunities to transform hate into love.

ML: The Civil Rights movement had profound impact on this society. As the movement changed, you became entrepreneurial, starting institutions to meet immediate needs. What types of organizations were you involved with?

Vivian: The Center for Democratic Renewal was begun to ensure that the forces that worked to oppress would not continue to oppress as people were able to exercise their new rights.

Again, as Christians, we don’t want to be passive in our commitment to the liberty of our sisters and brothers. We must be engaged. It is a matter of our faith. Nothing less is at stake.