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Who Would Jesus Stone?

Nonviolence as psychological warfare in a hate-filled world

stained glass at St John's Ashfield in Sydney, Australia
Source: stained glass at St John's Ashfield in Sydney, Australia

The way the group Harlem Against Violence, Homophobia, and Transphobia sees things, "Hate" should not be one of the more than 50 languages spoken in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. But it is. Smack dab in the middle of all that lovely diversity sits the Atlah Church and Media Center.

On its website, the church’s tag line is “All Jesus, All the Time.” But beginning in 2014 the church's billboard started flaunting hate speech. One display urged people to throw homosexuals off of buildings. Another read, "Jesus would stone h*mos," and yet another read, "All churches and members that support h*mos cursed be thou with cancer, HIV, syphilis, stroke, and madness.”

And it isn’t only homosexuals whom the church’s Reverend James David Manning abhors. "Jesus released cancer on Obama,” the display once read, not being entirely clear about whether that sentence expressed an anti-Obama or anti-Jesus sentiment. The message did make clear, though, that God may have have done something hateful. Apparently that was enough to make the Reverend Manning want to shout about it.

Harlem is not taking all of this hate speech lying down. In September of this year residents organized a candlelight vigil. Parents who wanted to be relieved of the daily vitriol stood with their children outside the church. With everyone holding candles they called out “Stop the hate now.”

Looking at a video of the event and of Manning’s reaction, it seems to me that it was the chanting more than the candles that ultimately drew Manning out of the church to call the protestors (including the young children) “fagg*ts, . . . lesb*s, [and] . . . dung eaters.” He also called them “losers,” and it’s just possible that, of those four epithets, “losers” was the one he considered most insulting. For the church’s website foretells a day when the Atlah Church will be the seat of the world’s banking and business centers. In other words, Atlah will do the work of winners for winners. My guess is that, as a general rule, losers will not be welcome.

The video of the confrontation between Manning and the protestors went viral.

The church’s website describes the video as a recording of the time Manning “defeated the Sodomites.” But the Facebook community responded to the video with plenty of derision. Which is to say that, from a public relations perspective, that protest was embarrassing for the church. It is also to say that, from an activist perspective, the parents and children on 123rd Street and Lenox did exactly the right thing. They provoked, but they provoked without inflicting harm.

Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia all relied on nonviolent measures like those practiced that evening in Harlem. The leaders figured out how to enrage their oppressors. They knew that getting their oppressors uncontrollably angry might work in their favor—as long as media were around to record the oppressors’s over-reaction.

Classic nonviolence like this is far from passive. It is, in a sense, passive aggressive—only smartly so. To really get under their oppressors’ skin, civil rights and social reform leaders have to be psychologically astute. (“What will get their goats them this time?”). And, apparently, thinking that way works. A growing body of research suggests that nonviolence is more effective than violence in producing social change, and that may be because people are less reluctant to join nonviolent movements than violent ones.

Harlem Against Hate, Homophobia, and Transphobia event poster
Source: Harlem Against Hate, Homophobia, and Transphobia event poster

For anyone interested in seeing nonviolence in action, on Monday, November 23, the Atlah Church in Harlem will be the site of another protest. This time, a crowd bearing signs with hearts on them will stand in the street and beam love directly toward the Atlah Church. The church is on the corner of 123rd Street and Lenox Avenue in New York City. All that love will be flying through the air between 6:30 pm and 7:30 pm. If you come and participate, be prepared to be called “a loser” and worse.

Or perhaps that’s what you should hope for. Because if Manning loses his cool like he’s done before, and if media have been notified (they have), this could go very badly for him.