Questions about Responding to White Supremacy

The comments below were catalyzed by an ongoing exchange of ideas on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website. I encourage you to explore the dialogue there. Mine is just one voice.



Please forgive the rambling nature of these comments. I welcome further questions and discussion. Meanwhile, I begin by simply saying “I don’t know.” I don’t know what overall strategies are called for in response to white supremacist and Nazi organizing. I do not personally know people who openly identify as Antifa, though I would like to be in dialogue with anyone who identifies that way. I don’t presume to know the best route toward transformation of our fractured society into what Martin Luther King Jr. call “the beloved society.” That is my dream, however formless.

Within “not knowing,” I remain curious. By history and understanding I am convinced that collective and fundamentally nonviolent approaches are called for, approaches that recognize the humanity of every being, however reprehensible their views and actions might be. I support approaches that reject hatred without rejecting people. I recognize that this is a difficult perspective, one that—at times—may be neither realistic or possible.

At the outset, for those of you who prefer to read no further, I understand the need for a diversity of tactics. In circumstances like Charlottesville, it seems clear that Antifa actively protected the bodily wellbeing of clergy and others who were standing against rabid and violent white supremacists. I am much more dubious about confrontations in Berkeley last weekend. I am not, on principle, absolutely committed to nonviolence. Nonviolence is a highly-evolved strategy, not an abstract idea. I may not be capable of nonviolence in all circumstances. 13th century Zen Master Dogen wrote: “You see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach.” This means to me that training is essential. I will return to this below. But I do believe, as the Buddha said in the Dhammapada:

  1. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.
  2. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.


It seems relevant to spell out some of my personal history. I grew up in the civil rights movement in the Northeast. I encountered virulent and sometimes violent racism in and around New York City, Long Island, and other areas of the Northeast and Midwest in the mid to late 1960s. As an antiwar activist, I took part and was arrested in the occupation of Columbia University in the spring of 1968. In those nonviolent actions 700 students were arrested, with nearly 150 hospitalized from police beatings. Subsequently I was active in an anti-imperialist organization that advocated armed struggle. I separated from such views in the late 1970s, seeing them as a dead end, that literally led to the killing of innocent people and the death and imprisonment of somew I knew. In the 1990s and early 2000s I served as executive director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. BPF was formed as a religious fellowship under the wing of Fellowship of Reconciliation, which for a hundred years has adhered to a philosophy of active and radical nonviolence in the U.S. and around the world.


 I learned long ago to take the press with a measure of skepticism. Fifty years ago, when I was at Columbia, I read reports in the New York Times that had little to do with what I was seeing unfold—interpretively and factually. Last weekend, my son Alex came back from a day in the Berkeley streets. He was appalled by what we were seeing on the nightly news, reporting that in no way accorded with his experience. But, with a tip of the Hatlo hat (for those of you who can remember that), “They’ll do it every time.” The mainstream press will be drawn to violence like ants to sugar. Black-clad warriors—whatever their side and motivation—will get the camera’s attention.

I am reluctant to say that the press systematically lies. But I would say that reporters and news organizations often see things through the lens of their own self-interest, which is rarely the interest of the most oppressed. Their interest is in sensation and spectacle. It Is often a kind of “value-neutral” theater for the press, whose goal is to sell newspapers and draw attention to themselves.

A concern I have about masked figures in black is that the mask itself is dehumanizing. In a sense it dehumanizes both sides of an encounter and turns conflict into theater. I understand that dress has a practical and symbolic function, but from my perspective we must struggle, sometimes at great cost, to preserve our humanity and—I hardly dare to say it—the possibility of love. I have not seen how that comes with retaliation and masks.


The valuable exchanges on “Buddhists and the Bloc” seem to me to underscore the need for intensive training—both the opening of our “eye of practice” and the deep practice of active nonviolence. Certainly we live in a different time, fifty and sixty years after the Civil Rights movement. But there are lessons from that era and from other successful nonviolent movements that are powerful examples for us.

“In Nashville, throughout the autumn of 1959, (Rev. James) Lawson led weekly Monday-evening meetings in which he and interested students analyzed the theories and techniques that he had encountered in India. His workshops scrutinized the Bible, and writings of Gandhi, King and Thoreau. They practiced test-cases, including small sit-ins. Lawson’s workshops lasted for several months before news broke on February 1, 1960, of the Greensboro sit-ins. Hearing of the Greensboro actions, seventy-five Nashville students followed suit, creating the largest, most disciplined and influential of the 1960 sit-in campaigns. In working with Lawson—who was always calm and self-effacing—the Nashville students were not only being trained by one of King’s own instructors, but they were benefitting from direct acquaintance with Gandhi’s experiments.”

Here is a grittier description of Lawson’s process.

“…they began practicing a variety of nonviolent tactics and how to respond when confronted with violence. They could be intense, C.T. Vivian recalled, involving “how to in fact take the blows—cigarettes being put out on you, the fact that you were being spit on—and still respond with some sense of dignity and with a loving concept of what you were about, to be hit and knocked down, and to understand that in terms of struggle…”

In younger days and from time to time over the years I have participated in such training and been tested once or twice in such actual confrontations. That level of love and non-retaliation is still my aspiration. I know that BPF has sponsored nonviolence trainings for particular events. It may be that now we need a more intense and intensive process as the racism and violence that has always been with us expresses its poisonous self even more readily.


 As a last point, I return to “not knowing.” A question I’ve been wondering about is built into the compounded word “nonviolence.” Does nonviolence, in essence, bear with it a shadow side—violence? Practically, my question is whether there exists a threat or fear of violence behind every act of nonviolence. If nonviolence is ineffective, is the specter of violence implicit as an alternative or next step. Does this question make sense?

Maybe it all depends on the power and presence of love. That is a very high bar to reach. Even if I can set aside hate, am I capable of unconditional love in the darkest confrontation. Honestly, I don’t know. That is the principled foundation of Tolstoian/Gandhian/Kingian nonviolence. How many of us can reach that journey’s end? Can I? And even if at this moment I fall short, can I begin again? In Zen practice, that is our way: endlessly beginning, again and again.

—Hozan Alan Senauke                                                                                                         Berkeley, California —1 September 2017




About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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