Madonna, Equanimity, and the Power of Non-Violent Resistance

Madonna has been a role model for passionate, non-violent resistance since 1983.

Posted Dec 10, 2015

Courtesy of Interscope Records
Source: Courtesy of Interscope Records

Madonna exclaimed, "We will not bend down to fear!" during her sold out “Rebel Heart” concert in Paris last night. Earlier, while performing at the Bercy arena, she'd wrapped herself in the French flag to sing their national anthem, "La Marseillaise."

Moments after the arena appearance, Madonna sent a Twitter message: "Im singing some songs in place de la republique. Meet me there now #Paris #rightnow #aftershow #rebelheartour."

Instead of heading straight for a bullet-proof limousine, Madonna hit the streets and played an impromptu three song acoustic set with her son, David Banda, and guitarist, Monte Pittman.

They were standing on the sidewalk at Place de la République in memoriam to victims of last month's terrorist attacks in Paris. The site has become a shrine for the 130 people who lost their lives during a series of shootings and suicide bombings in the French capital on Nov. 13, 2015. 

Madonna's acoustic busking songs included, “Like a Prayer,” “Ghosttown,” and a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” She told onlookers, “Everybody knows why we’re here … we just want to sing a few songs about peace, just to spread love and joy, and to pay our honor and respect to the people who died almost four weeks ago. And to spread light … we all need it.”

At a concert in Stockholm, Sweden, immediately after the Paris attacks, Madonna asked for a minute of silence for the victims after a moving and heartfelt memoriam. At that concert, Madonna gave one of the most emotional and poignant speeches about the importance of non-violent resistance that I heard after the attacks. Please take a few moments to watch this clip.

At her November 2015 concert in Sweden, Madonna said, “It’s been really hard, actually, to get through the show, because in many ways, I feel torn. Like, why am I up here dancing and having fun when people are crying over the loss of their loved ones? However, that is exactly what these people want us to do. They want to shut us up. They want to silence us. And we won’t let them.”

As a society, we can’t hide under the covers, analyzing our fear and our pain regarding terrorists and mass shooters. Last night, a lifelong friend, who is a native New Yorker, and has lived on Central Park West for her entire life, told me that she’s too afraid to go see Broadway shows, or visit Times Square anymore. I said to her, “No! You have to keep going. You cannot live in fear!”

I was thrilled to be able to send her the links of Madonna's empowering actions yesterday in Paris. The fact that one of the most famous people in the world, has the balls to sing acapella publicly on a street corner in Paris after performing a concert at the Bercy Arena, should be inspiration to all of us to keep doing what we love to do. 

Equanimity: Non-Violent Resistance Is the Only Way 

Equanimity is defined as, “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” I believe that equanimity and non-violent resistance go hand in hand. In 2013, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post about equanimity, “The Guts Enough Not to Fight Back," which was inspired by baseball legend Jackie Robinson.

Before signing Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers in 1945, the general manager, Branch Rickey, made it very clear that: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Rickey was looking for someone who was both a phenomenal athlete and a ‘gentleman.’ He needed someone with the inner-strength and self-restraint to withstand intense hostility and aggression without becoming reactive, violent, or hateful.

Through equanimity, Robinson was able to show that 'not fighting back' was the ultimate testament of his courage. Non-violent resistance is not about being a doormat or a coward. Jackie Robinson opitimized what I call “ferocious equanimity.” Interestingly, the paradox of a "Rebel Heart" mirrors this concept as a metaphor. 

Lately, Madonna’s words echo the wisdom of many equanimous “freedom fighters” before her, who have used non-violent resistance to conquer hateful and destructive forces. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Jackie Robinson, among others, all used non-violent resistance effectively.

Since the beginning of her career, Madonna has been an outspoken advocate against the powers that be. She has taken on the establishment. She's always defended the underdog, whether it had to to with misogyny, homophobia, religious persecution, or racism. Madonna has always fought against the animus of discrimination that keeps certain marginalized groups suppressed, and treated like second-class citizens. For this, I am eternally grateful

The goal of non-violent resistance is to defeat the 'enemy' through cooperation and community, not through war and violence. The equanimous non-violent rebel endures suffering without physical retaliation, and ends snowballing violence by not creating violence in return.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate." In my opinion, Madonna is breaking this cycle with her "Rebel Heart" tour and #RevolutionOfLove project. 

Engaging the Powers

Courtesy of Random House
Source: Courtesy of Random House

Last year, my Aunt June published a book, “Just Jesus: My Struggle to Become Human” by her late-husband, Walter Wink. My Uncle Walter, was a theologian and civil disobedience activist. Many considered Wink to be one of the most influential Christian intellectuals of our time. He was a pastor, theologian, political activist, and writer.

Walter Wink became a practitioner of nonviolence during the Civil Rights Movement in Selma Alabama and at other times, including apartheid in South Africa. Wink's life and work demonstrated the essence of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you" through the lens of Jesus. 

Walter Wink was described in a 2010 Unitas Award from the Union Theological Seminary in New York City as, “Beloved professor, award-winning author, pastor, risk-taker and visionary." In December 2015, Union issued "A Statement on Anti-Muslim Rhetoric," which addresses the perils of Islamophobia. 

When describing how he chose the title of his well-known book, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of DominationWink said, “I could not name it “Confronting the Powers,” or “Combating the Powers," or “Overcoming the Powers,” because the Powers are not simply evil... They can be not only benign, but quite positive. Thus the title became "Engaging the Powers.” Let us then engage these Powers, not just to understand them, but to see them changed."

Walter Wink was one of the first people to write and self-publish a book about homosexuality and the church. In 1979, he was asked by the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church to do a biblical analysis of the whole issue of homosexuality. When he tried to get the 'pro-gay' essay published, there were no takers... So, my Aunt June and Uncle Walter self-published with money from their own pockets.


Keith Haring/Wikimedia Commons
Keith Haring illustration for ACT UP circa 1989. 
Source: Keith Haring/Wikimedia Commons

As a gay person, the recent execution of homosexuals in the Middle East by radicalized extremists, in the name of religion, is particularly upsetting to me. Especially, because I experienced institutionalized homophobia when I was coming out in the 1980s at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. At the time, the Reagan administration and conservative powers in the "Religious Right” vilified homosexuals and portrayed us as ‘deserving’ to get sick and die because we were sinners.

In 1988, I was a 22-year-old gay man living in the West Village of Manhattan. My friends were dying everywhere around me. In the name of active non-violent protest—that my uncle had advocated for decades—I joined the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and took to the streets with my comrades in active non-violent protest. Our motto was "Silence = Death" and we were fighting “the Powers” in government, and pharmaceutical companies, to acknowledge that AIDS was a pandemic that needed to be addressed.

At this time in the '80s, it wasn’t popular to talk about HIV/AIDS. Nonetheless, Madonna stuck her neck out and showed fierce compassion and advocacy. At the zenith of her career, she had the courage to include a pale blue “The Facts About AIDS” insert in every patchouli scented Like a Prayer album, CD, and cassette. The pamphlet states, "People with AIDS—regardless of their sexual orientation—deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry." 

The confluence of my Uncle Walter’s work, Madonna, ACT UP, and athletic competition came together for me in 1989, the same year Like a Prayer was released. For all of us in ACT UP, who would head over to the West Side Highway to Chip Duckett’s club MARS, the Shep Pettibone extended 12" remixes of "Express Yourself" and "Like a Prayer" defined the era. 

Conclusion: Rebel Hearts and the Revolution of Love 

In 1983, I first heard Madonna perform at a small gay club on Lansdowne St. in Boston. It changed my life. I knew from the moment she took the stage, that Madonna was a force of nature unlike I had ever witnessed. In my book, The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, I thank Madonna in the acknowledgments saying, “Thank you for laying the brain chips of excellence and fearlessness in my head when I was seventeen and for being rocket fuel during every workout ever since.”

I credit Madonna’s music for just about all of my athletic accomplishments. In many ways, I also credit her with my ongoing dedication to political activism. In recent weeks, I've been awestruck by Madonna for refusing to be terrorized by terrorists.

In Madonna’s song "Beautiful Scars" from the EP version of Rebel Heart, Madonna sends an important message about accepting ourselves and others for who we are. In this song Madonna sings,

"Just take me with all my stupid flaws. Patience please, I'll never be as perfect as you want me to be-lieve me I want it just as bad. Take me with all of my beautiful scars. I won't apologize for being myself. 

I love you the way that you are. I come to you with all my flaws. With all my beautiful scars. I love you the way that you are. With all my beautiful scars. Don't judge me, just gotta let me be. Accept me, although I'm incomplete. My im-per-fections make me unique that's my belief.”

This song has become an anthem for me in the past year. Ultimately, I think we all want to feel that our lives matter, regardless of whether the world puts us on a pedestal, or if we're rich and famous. Thank you Madonna for your loving-kindness, vulnerability, and all of your beautiful scars. We will not bend down to fear!

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

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