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James Lawson: Non-violence has role in democracy


The Holman United Methodist Church Nonviolence Workshop will present “Why Gandhi and King Matter Today,” from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26 at Holman United Methodist Church, 3320 West Adams Blvd., in Los Angeles.

Panelists will include Dr. Mary Elizabeth King, a professor at the UN-Affiliaed University for Peace Dr. Joseph Prabhu, a Gandhi scholar; Tahil Sharma, from Faith Outreach, Brave New Films; and Rev. James Lawson, pastor emeritus at Holman and civil rights icon.

Lawson holds workshops every fourth Saturday of the month to discuss the legacy of non-violence and the social movements of the 21st century.

Recent evening newscasts have featured the violent protests going on in Hong Kong. The frustrations have reached a boiling point and they are spilling into the streets with protestors exchanging blows with the police and recently, police using live ammunition on demonstrators.

The images of water cannons being used on protesters harkens back to the 1960s, when police used fire hoses, dogs and batons on Black marchers down south.

Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with Lawson, many of those marchers were trained not to fight back.

Lawson doesn’t refer to those turbulent years of sit-ins and marches as the civil rights movement, but the “Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. movement.”

“It had a very specific work, the dismantling of a segregated system rooted in hatred and rooted in the idea that certain people in this life were inferior human beings and should not be allowed to work, play, live or educate themselves,” Lawson said during his September workshop.

“That movement is the movement that has begun to turn the nation around,” Lawson said. “It’s not over yet, by any means.”

Lawson studied Gandhian principals in India before working in the movement. He served 13 months of a three-year prison sentence for refusing the draft during the Korean War and was expelled from Vanderbilt in 1960 because of his work helping to desegregate lunch counters in downtown Nashville.

“There’s a common spirituality in our country namely that the primary force by which you bring about change is violence,” Lawson said. “That the gun is critical for protection, the gun is critical for law enforcement to do its work; and the gun is critical for the white house, state department and the Congress to do its work in protecting us.”

Lawson questioned the audience on whether the U.S. administration’s spending of nearly a trillion and a half dollars every two years in the military war budget is warranted.

“We have this business of 800 military bases in more than 100 countries and that’s not being debated,” Lawson added. “We have now 6,000 troops in Africa.”

The reverend also referred to the recent mass shootings, where perpetrators believe that their violence is glorified.

“Our students are weaned in a violent culture,” he added. “We have all been weaned on that milk, that philosophy.”

Lawson mentioned that the agenda for most of the human race, according to Mohandas Gandhi, is that we have compassion and care for one another as we build our families. But that’s not the agenda of the governments in charge.

“The major agenda of most of the human race is not the agenda of the council of foreign relations,” Lawson said. “How do we reduce the spirituality of violence, how do we reduce our commitment to violence as the major form of force for change in human life?”

Many Americans are frustrated with the current administration, its policies and tweets, but Lawson suggests opponents of President Donald Trump move forward slowly.

“Our democracy is more fragile that we know,” Lawson said. “The next Trump will not be like the present Trump.”

Lawson stated that if this president does not respect a subpoena, or the Congress, some feel that it comes down to almost a brute force of violence is needed for him to step down.

“Then you realize that as a country, as a people, as a world, we have to live nonviolently so as not to force people to do the right thing,” Lawson said. “Nonviolence needs to be part of this conversation.”

He referenced Dr. King, who told his followers that they were going to win the struggle, but it wouldn’t be done by going downtown and burning crosses. They were not going to drag people out of their houses and beat them up. They could not transform evil and wrong by imitating it.

Lawson suggests that dissenters of the powers-that-be stop looking for leaders, but instead better understand their issues, share their thoughts with a small group and together decide how the group can spread their ideas to others do to make positive things happen. Activism and community organizing at its core.

“I’m quoting Margaret Mede: ‘It only takes a handful of people to make it happen,” Lawson said, later remembering another activist moment in the 1940s and the first relocation of a football team here.

“The Cleveland Rams moved to LA, and a determined group of people in the city said ‘you can’t move to LA if you’re going to remain an all White team.’ No one remembers that…1946,” Lawson said. “So the Cleveland Rams moved to LA, but they recruited Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, the first two [African-Americans] , in their football team.”

Lawson believes that community organizers here in Los Angeles can make things happen nationwide.

“If we do it well,” he said. “It will catapult itself.”