Why Does a Yemeni Woman Have Pictures of Gandhi, King, and Mandela?

Tawakkol Karman in Saana, Yemen.

“Tawakkol Karman sat in front of her laptop, her Facebook page open, planning the next youth demonstration. Nearby were framed photos of her idols: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These days, though, Karman is most inspired by her peers. ‘Look at Egypt,’ she said with pride. ‘We will win.'”

When I read this in Sudarsan Raghavan‘s Washington Post article yesterday on Yemen’s women activists, I was reminded that America’s very best export is the civil rights movement.

There is an intellectual and spiritual lineage from the 20th century that is being played out on the streets of Cairo, Sanaa, Riyad, and elsewhere today.

In the 1850s, Russian aristocrat Leo Tolstoy became disgusted with violence after doing tours of duty in Chechnya and after seeing a public execution in Paris. His conversion toward nonviolence and Christianity led him to write The Kingdom of God Is Within You (published in 1894).

In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to the Hindoo laying out a plan for a massive nonviolent civil resistance campaign to free India from British imperialism. The letter fell into the hands of Mohandas Gandhi who was working as a lawyer in South Africa at the time and in the beginnings of becoming an activist. This prompted an exchange of letter between the two that was foundational for Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy. Gandhi listed Tolstoy’s seminal work The Kingdom of God is Within You as one of the top three influences on his life. He called Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced.”

Less than 10 years after Gandhi was assassinated, a young American conscientious objector named James Lawson went as a Methodist missionary to Nagpur, India, where he studied satyagraha, the principles of nonviolence resistance that Mohandas Gandhi and his followers had developed.

In 1955, Lawson returned to the United States and was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr., who had also studied Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent resistance. King told Lawson to come South, telling him “Come now. We don’t have anyone like you down there.” Lawson began implementing large-scale strategic nonviolent civil resistance training that was deeply rooted in Christian faith and spiritual principles. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States became one the most massive civil resistance movements in U.S. history.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, South African freedom leader Nelson Mandela was entering his fourth year of his life-sentence for “sabotage.” It took awhile for the news of King’s murder to reach Mandela in prison. Over the course of his 27 years in prison, Mandela studied deeply the work of Gandhi and King. Mandela was uncertain that the tactics of either would work in the South African context.

But the church leaders leading South African freedom movement outside of prison – particularly Archbishop Desmond Tutu – were highly motivated by both Gandhi and King. South Africa’s freedom struggle became known for taking the power of song to the streets. It became an image iconic of the freedom movement to hear South African children singing “We Shall Overcome” – an anthem of the American civil rights movement – and dancing the Toyi-toyi.

Thirty-one years after being imprisoned, Mandela was elected president of a free South Africa. Coretta Scott King was in the audience for Mandela’s acceptance speech as the new president.  He looked at her and said: “This is one of the most important moments in the history of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy–pride in the ordinary humble people of this country. You have shown such a calm patient determination to reclaim this country as your own, and now with joy we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops–Free at last! Free at last!” Mandela quoted the famous lines from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech.

Somewhere in Yemen today, Tawakkol Karman is sitting in front of her laptop. She’s received death threats. She fears for the life of her three children. And she is determined to shatter perceptions of women in Yemen’s conservative society (and around the world), while emboldening a new generation of Yemenis to demand an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 30-year grip on his country.

Inspired by civil resistance in Tunisia and Egypt, Karman said upon her release from detention, “We will continue this struggle and the Jasmine Revolution until the removal of this corrupt system that looted the wealth of the Yemenis” Karman spoke these words to hundreds of protesters who were demanding the release of other detainees.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with her are Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. They’ve all been where she is now. They are cheering her on. And so are we.

For more information:
Tolstoy and Gandhi: Light as Darkness Approached by Rene Wadlow

An excerpt of the exchange of letters between Tolstoy and Gandhi

Haiti: What Happens When A Fault Line Runs Between the Rich and the Poor?

LES MARCHANDES by Mari Hall
LES MARCHANDES by Mari Hall

Earlier I excerpted a section of Simon Barrow’s nice commentary over at Ekklesia in the U.K., titled Why Poverty and Wealth Remain the Issue.

I also wanted to run this section on “class quakes” as it relates to the horror we are seeing unfold in Haiti. “The most vulnerable,” writes Barrow, “are always in danger of being asked to bear the heaviest burden proportionately – in the same way that those at the bottom of a ladder engulfed in water will always have the most to lose from ‘everyone needing to step down a rung’.”

Very nice analogy. Here’s another excerpt from Simon’ piece:

…The values of the dominant political party system remain deeply warped by non-recognition of the real distortions that massive gaps between the rich and the poor, those with much power and those with little power, make in the real, workaday world. There is an air of profound unreality about our prevailing ‘realisms’, as there was about the ones that got us into a massive economic and environmental hole in the first place.

The one thing that can be guaranteed is that the most vulnerable are always in danger of being asked to bear the heaviest burden proportionately – in the same way that those at the bottom of a ladder engulfed in water will always have the most to lose from ‘everyone needing to step down a rung’. The impact of an appeal for ‘the same sacrifice from everyone’ is not equivalent, fair or just when the starting points and levels of exposure are so at variance.

This is most starkly evident in the horrific scenes we are witnessing from the Haitian earthquake zone right now. For the unspeakable catastrophe unfolding in one of the poorest places on the planet is not, pace the headlines, “a natural disaster” alone, and certainly not “an act of God.” On the contrary, while many would die in a 7.3 scale ’quake anywhere in the world, it is in a city built for and by the poor that the most people are destined to suffer beyond all measure. So, long after the initial horror, people are languishing and dying needlessly in Port au Prince simply because there is no infrastructure (social or otherwise) to speak of, there are virtually no foundations (literally), there is no insurance, there are no ambulances, no emergency supplies and no reserve resources to fall back on. Just misery and dependence on outside charitable assistance, in the short term at least. It is scandalous as well as humanly (and spiritually) harrowing to behold.

Back in the 1970s, I recall, the radical charity War on Want got into hot water for describing the seismic impacts in the Ancash region (Peru), in North Pakistan and in other poor regions as “class quakes” compared to those in developed countries, because economic vulnerability made such a huge difference to the size and extent of the resultant human suffering and death. They were quite right, however.

This is why, in so many areas of life, the rich-poor divide matters deeply, unfashionable though it is to say this in a world where many politicians consider themselves ‘post ideological’ — and by that mean that they see such ‘divisive’ talk as ‘rabble rousing’. Which brings us, by a circumlocutory route, to the Bible.

The biblical texts of Christians and Jews have more to say about the iniquity of wealth and the oppression of poverty than they do on any other ethical issue. When liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez first spoke of God’s corrective ‘bias to the poor’ and the corresponding ‘option for the poor’ required of the church, it was not Marx they were referencing but the deep wells of scripture.

Yet today, when it comes to the Bible, many Christians choose to argue about a handful of texts allegedly concerning sexuality (a concept that was actually unknown in the ancient world from which they derive), rather than focusing on a multitude of verses describing and condemning the lesions of those who suffer injustice and deprivation – sometimes on a scale, as in Haiti, which modern secular vernacular still ironically refers to as being “of biblical proportions.”

The American evangelical social activist, Jim Wallis, sometimes still tells the tale of how, upon realising the scale of biblical concern for the gap between rich and poor, he decided, as a student, to try removing with scissors every single scriptural phrase about wealth and poverty. What he ended up with was a ‘hole-y Bible’, one shredded of both content and meaning.

Faced with deprivation, marginalisation, inequality, injustice and the shrinking of life circumstances wherever they may occur (‘poverty’ is a word that points to a host of these symptoms of exclusion, all with a root in economic life), Christians today should recognise a clarion call to action, to the building of alternatives, to the holding of power to account, and to the development of different viewpoints and practices from ‘the norm’.

For as Leo Tolstoy once put it (and here again, I paraphrase): “food purely for my own contentment is a material concern; but food for my hungry neighbour – that’s a spiritual issue.” The same aphorism may be applied in many different situations, wherever deprivation and disadvantage reigns: in absolute poverty, and in the relative kind too. In Africa and Asia, and in an American ghetto or a European sink estate as well. Dividing the poor from one another is wrong. What we need to do instead is to share the wealth around.

Read the whole commentary here.