Kester Brewin wrote a juicy little book a couple years ago entitled Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us. You can watch him explain the premise pretty well in the TedX talk embedded to the right.
Mutiny is a wonderful read. I commend it highly to you. It has a novel premise, but isn’t gimmicky. The theology is tightly interwoven with history, social and economic criticism, which is intense and exciting. Brewin has a deft hand with narrative and metaphor that actually made me cheer out loud at one point. Yes, I am the kind of person who fistpumps when reading a clever metaphor.
I read Mutiny with the most recent Gaza offensive as a backdrop and finished just as things unraveled in Ferguson, Missouri. This juxtaposition served to draw my focus to an issue which I think advocates for nonviolence, like me, absolutely must attend to: the way power dynamics distort our perception of violence. Brewin points out that while pirates were certainly violent, people of the time (or today for that matter) were surprisingly unable to see the violence committed against the desperate men and women who went “on the account” which drove them to it in the first place. Pirates were seeking to escape brutally inhumane treatment as sailors, and turning against the wildly profitable and utterly immoral colonial machinery. But the violence of the Royal Navy against her seamen, for example, was completely invisible, while the violence of fearsome pirates like Edward Teach was infamous. So infamous, that it justified unlimited violence from the government in response. Every pirate knew that the only possible end for them was death in battle or death in a noose.
Humans are irrationally loss averse. When we benefit from the status quo in comfort and privilege that tendency only increases. The result is a powerful bias toward seeing any resistance or agitation from the margins as hyper-violent. Pirates are violent, but the Royal Navy is just keeping the peace. Savage Indians are bloodthirsty, but the cavalry is just protecting the settlers. We recoil when ISIS beheads a hostage, but we don’t even flinch at the 200,000 Iraqis who died as a result of our invasion. We count every single rocket Hamas fires, but we never tire of reminding ourselves how much restraint Israel shows. The b-roll behind the news anchor won’t stop showing you scenes of looting, while assuring you that the police officers who kill young black men are acting in self defense.
My point is not merely that there is violence on all sides, but that the violence of the status quo, the violence of the powerful against the weak precedes and is far greater than violence going the other direction. Even if the US never fired another missile it would take centuries at the current rate for the violence of those we call terrorists to equal the devastation our military has wrought in the Middle East. Nor can we reasonably deny that our meddling and imperialism in that region came before any terrorist attacks against us.
Two wrongs don’t make a right as they say. I am not trying to offer justification for any particular act of violence. What I am trying to say is that when advocates for nonviolence direct their energy to restraining the violence of the vulnerable against the powerful we are aiding and abetting the violence of the status quo which is worse. When clergy spend more energy trying to prevent the crowd in Ferguson from rioting than they spend trying to dismantle a corrupt police force they are helping to mask the deeper and more destructive form of violence. When our churches start preparing to mark the 13th anniversary of 9/11, but are silent about the drones we are using to terrorize people across the Middle East right now they are oiling the engine that drives the imperial machinery.
Christian pacifists normally read the cross as a condemnation of violence, which it undoubtedly is, but of a particular kind of violence. The cross is a judgment against imperial violence; violence used to maintain control over a rebellious minority. Do not forget that Jesus was crucified alongside two brigands, freedom fighters, with whom he explicitly identified. Christian nonviolence, from the perspective of the powerful might look like palling around with terrorists. We might need to overcome our ingrained biases about what violence looks like and take the side of the pirates.
Perhaps in the process of joining the mutiny we can advise our fellow mutineers to put down their swords as Jesus commanded Peter, but let’s not forget that while Peter got admonished, Rome was offered no quarter at all. The powers and principalities are the real purveyors of violence, and thus the real focus of our resistance.