There is a growing movement of parents worldwide who are concerned about injustice in the present patch work of Family Law. While the media has carried some stories of families and children destroyed by the “system” – perhaps the best temperature gauge of the movement can be found on the World Wide Web. The Internet allows even a low income parent to publicize their feelings.
What a story of woe is told across these thousands of sites. Almost everyone describes the shock of a parent suddenly separated from their children and the disastrous effects it had on all. Unfortunately, but yet understandably, the large majority of these sites veritably drip with venom toward ex spouses, lawyers, judges, psychologists, and others who are blamed for this event.
What is perhaps most disturbing is that each of these parents normally sees a complete “change in custody” as the immediate fix. Each of these parents who have experienced first hand the misery of long term separation from their children – now want to inflict those same experiences of pain and loss upon the other parent: And well deservedly so – good riddance and a plague upon them!
The vast majority fall slowly into some combination of acceptance and despair. The “system” is so big and entrenched – what can anyone do? Life goes on. Professional counselors advise these poor parents to work through the different stages of grief – the final step being acceptance. The politically correct and reasonable thing to do – or is it?
A new movement is maturing and more people are beginning to see the problem as one of basic Civil Rights – the right of a parent to associate with their children free of government interference. Parent’s who were formerly intimated by professionals in the “system” who felt free to decide the “best interest of their child”, now can respond, “I may not be the best parent, or even a better parent than my spouse, but I am not a threat to my children. I have a right to see them as an equal parent, be involved in their growth, and share my life with them – however humble or flawed. You have no right to interfere and set a higher standard of conduct for me, than would be expected of any other parent in the community.”
The Foundations of NonViolent Action
To clear ourselves for what NonViolent Action is – let’s first explore what it is not. It is not Civil Disobedience as practiced by Thoreau (who refused to pay tax to a government whose policies he could not support). There are a number of groups who appear to feel a solution lies in “not paying child support” or of “going underground” to conceal income from child support collection. While these might be consistent with his methods of non cooperation – they are not NonViolent Action.
It is also not just a protest movement or passive resistance of a form where we carry signs, perhaps with an aggressive message which attacks our “oppressors”, as we portray ourselves as victims of social injustice and the cruelty of others. We do not let ourselves be pummeled by the “system.”
It is certainly not about just accepting things the way they are as an unfortunate turn of events (which sometimes appeals to people of faith). I once met a professional counselor who had become a “weekend visitor” in the lives of his children – he accepted it quite well. He told me there was a strong chance his former spouse would move out of state with the children and he might have even less contact. He said, “Well, that sometimes happen, just have to learn to live with it.” Imagine that! As he talked his eyes were staring into the distance almost in a hypnotic trance – it might have been a mantra, “just have to learn to live with it.”
Strangely enough, NonViolent Action is just what the words say, Non-Violent-Action. We are “non violent” – our goal is not to hurt anyone in the physical or emotional sense. And we take “action” – what we do is just as powerful as swinging a bat at someone and certainly gets as much attention. It is based strongly on Faith (not just in the Christian sense, Gandhi was a Hindu spiritual leader as well). Initially some folks may consider it impractical, but really it is most pragmatic. Its methods spring from the foundation of all reality – the presence of a deeply loving God.
Exactly what is the “action”? Just listen to the following words from the Sermon on the Mount, they are words you have probably heard before:
“But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other; and if anyone would take your coat, give him your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:39)
What is Jesus talking about as our response to injustice? So many people see these words as just a call to “quiet acceptance”, but that is not there at all. The focus is not even on forgiveness, but on action. We are to act in a physical sense, and to act immediately on the person who has confronted. Commanded to magnify their action voluntarily and bringing it on ourselves – what a revolutionary concept! Are we gluttons for punishment? No.
As we embrace this idea, let us add one more circumstance to the preceding passage:
“….. and if someone should take your child; then ….” What?
How do we magnify that great a wrong and bring it upon ourselves. Maybe the answer would have been, “then offer them your freedom as well.” In some actions I have “forced” the system to place me in custody (http://www.kids-right.org/protest_dm.htm) — with surprising results! Perhaps our “signature action” will become carrying a small picture of your child and walking peacefully into a public building. Why?
Because it will help our “oppressor” see the error of what they have done. How? They will be forced to ask and answer the question, “why has this person done this?” Perhaps not even at that moment, but they will be forced to examine their actions and our response. Does it work immediately, not always – but we have done our duty as strongly as possible by treating our “oppressor” with love and concern to the point of bringing more misery on ourselves.
“Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the just and on the unjust, and sends rain on the just and unjust.” (Matthew 5:44)
And, just in case, we were the ones really in the wrong – and perhaps deserved a slap on the cheek – we just offered them the chance to give us another, no harm done to anyone but us! A very important concept to remember as we look at some of the people behind this approach.
Henry David Thoreau
Born in 1816 in Concord, Massachusetts, from an average family. He was a graduate of Harvard college and then became a teacher in the local school — he lasted about two weeks after disagreeing with local officials. He then spent some time as a tutor and handyman, and then started to write. He found himself scandalized by the nation’s acceptance of slavery and the Mexican/American war.
On July 4th, 1845 he moved his meager belongings to a cabin he had built in the woods near Walden Pond. There he was to declare his independence from the government for the next two years. He is “an example of the practicability of virtue, the deep-rooted individual who has the power to awaken his neighbors from their torpid lives of expediency to lives of principle.”
In the middle of his life at Walden Pond he was arrested for not paying the local poll tax. He refused to pay as a way of demonstrating he did not recognize a government, “which buys and sells, men, women, and children, like cattle…” He spent a couple of days in jail until the tax was paid by an anonymous benefactor. His essay Civil Disobedience was an outgrowth of some of these experiences, some memorable quotes:
Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. . . Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man in also a prison.
When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question . . . the long and the short of the matter is . . . they dread the consequences of disobedience to their property and families . . . If I deny the authority of the State when it presents it tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard . . .
Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength.
Born in India, 1869. From a well-to-do family. While attending law school in England he began to read the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu text similar in importance to the Moslem Koran or Christian Bible. Orthodox Hindu’s saw the Gita as the historic account of a battle in which one leader tried to avoid bloodshed, but when reminded by God of his duty, agreed to commit violent acts. Gandhi, a proponent of nonviolence saw the book as an allegory, and saw the “combat” as the duel which continually goes on within a person’s heart; however, he did agree with the Gita’s clear condemnation of inaction, and he used it t guide him in also avoiding the evil associated with action.
He who is brooding over result often loses nerve in the performance of duty. He becomes impatient and then gives vent to anger . . . he jumps from action to action, never remaining faithful to any. He who broods over results . . . is every distracted, he says good-bye to all scruples, everything is right in his estimation and he therefore resorts to means fair & foul to attain his end. Not focusing on “results” gives one the inner peace to achieve final goals, this is renunciation.
The first books of the Christian Old Testament bored him, but the New Testament “went straight to my heart.” The ideas of “turning the other cheek, and love for enemies” struck a chord within him.
At the age of 24, a new lawyer, he went to South Africa. A society which was sharply divided by color, religion, and profession — with strong jealousy between all groups. He bought a first-class ticket for a train, but was told by a conductor that all Indians rode in third — Gandhi refused to leave. A policeman was called and he was thrown off the train along with his luggage. He chose to remain off the train, it was night, he was cold and afraid — all night he brooded. Should he return to India? He decided to fight. Other Indians told him about similar experiences, that is how it is here, “you cannot strike your head against a stone wall.”
A law was being proposed to deny Indians the right to vote for members of the legislature. Gandhi felt it should be opposed, he remained in South Africa the next twenty years. Appealing to the common sense and morality of his adversary was key.
It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow human beings.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Born in 1929 in a “middle-class” section of black Atlanta, Georgia. e learned about how it was in the South when at the age of five, his friendship with a young white boy was interrupted when they had to attend separate schools. His mother told him, “You must never feel that you are less then anybody else. You must always feel that you are somebody.”
In high school he and a teacher were returning home from a special trip on a bus, as the bus grew more crowded with whites the driver told them they must stand and move to the back. King initially refused, but then moved to the back, later he remembered it, “That night will never leave my mind. It was the angriest I have ever been in my life.”
He attended a seminar on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, and how he had used truth & love into a powerful source for social change. Gandhi had gone through dramatic personal change in his life, early in his life and in a fit of rage, he had tried to drive his wife from their home. Gandhi showed him that it was possible to redirect anger and turn it into a positive force.Nonviolence meant no cooperation with evil. Gandhi’s history gave King a blueprint to how strikes and protests could be conducted without hating your oppressor, but also treating them with love and avoiding bitterness — all with a faith in divine justice. The term Satyagraha captured this combination of love and force. This was not no resistance to evil, but affirmative non-violent action in resistance to evil.
There was a Southern Student at the seminary who was virulently anti-Black. He confronted King at his dorm room with a loaded pistol. King calmly spoke with the man and disarmed the situation. There was “outrage” on campus over the incident, but King refused to press charges against the man. Eventually the man apologized and he and King became friends. This was an important event in learning how to convert a foe into a friend:
In our protest there will be no cross burnings. No white person will be taken from their home by a hooded Negro mob and brutally murdered. There will be no threats and intimidation. We will be guided by the highest principles of law and order . . . our actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal. . . .
Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that use you. If we fail to do this our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame. . . (when the history books are written) . . . There lived a race of people, of black people, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.
Why it’s a “good fit” for Family Law Reform
So many folks think the practitioners in the present “system” are bad people who mean to “slap” them. The fix involves getting these “bad people” out of the system – or making some stronger guidelines they have to follow before making a decision. Parents who have experienced such a traumatic loss can not believe that a “good person” would have put them through such pain.
Internal Conversion – Allows Focus on the Real Problem
We must accept the real truth that these are “good people” just trying to do a job for which they feel underpaid, overworked, and under appreciated. Yes, there are a few bad apples, but they are rare. Yes, they just gave us a huge “slap” – but they thought they were doing the right thing.
Once we accept these people as our brothers & sisters, we realize some “cosmetic” changes aren’t going to make any difference at all. We have failed to recognize the Civil Rights of Families – this structural defect must be corrected.
Strangely enough, treating our “oppressors” with courtesy gives us more confidence in ourselves. Once we quit worrying about “results”, the ability to take action becomes easier. We are no longer being “acted upon” by others.
Harmony with the other Parent
This is the greatest tragedy in the present “system”. It positively rewards anyone who is willing to make the most allegations. In present child custody, there is a winner and a loser – and woe and thrice woe upon the loser! Opponents to Family Law Reform seize upon this and also wish to see it as a conflict of man versus women, mother versus father.
By treating the other parent with courtesy and love, by coming together in groups of mothers and fathers, most of these issues are defused.
Allows and Encourages Stronger Political Support
Family Law Reform is dangerous territory for our politicians. When all a parent says is, “I love my child. I want my right respected to be an equal participant in my child’s life,” that is pretty hard to oppose. Any politician would feel comfortable standing on the same podium.
But what if the parent is saying this, “The judge’s are crooks. I was cheated in this whole process, my lawyer was no good. My spouse is a jerk, I won’t rest until there is a complete custody reversal. This support burden I am paying is just ridiculous! ….” You have heard these people before – is it just a coincidence you don’t usually here them talk about “love” or their “child”? Would you like standing next to them?
Also – when election season approaches – what type of “protest” crowd will have the most public effect?. Can you imagine a politician, right before an election, being forced to call for the arrest of Mothers and Fathers who are just peacefully carrying a picture of their child into an office building where they are located.
The message is Civil Rights for Families. The recent American experience over the destiny of Elian Gonzalez can certainly shows us how far we still have to go. Very few mention the concept of Civil Rights. Many seemed to accept the idea that government was free to interfere in a family relationship if it was for a “good cause.”
Again, we may have to relearn the lessons of history. Prior to the American Civil War, many religious leaders (and of course slave holders) defended slavery as humanitarian and doing what was best for people who really couldn’t survive on their own. In many cases they would be proven right, some freed slaves suffered and died during the transition. One can imagine modern social workers transported to that time saying, “well, okay, release one parent to freedom – but keep the other and the children in slavery till we see how it goes… We’ll wait for a psychologists recommendation prior to releasing them. We just have the best interest of the people at heart…”
This would sound absurd now. You don’t keep people in slavery for any reason. Their most basic human right would be violated. Our rights as families are being violated today. NonViolent action will become one important tool in the effort for change.
Fischer, Louis. 1950. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York, NY: Harper and Rowe.
Kazantzakis, Nikos. 1962. Saint Francis. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Oates, Steven B. 1982. Let the Trumpet Sound – The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. New York, NY: Mentor Books.
Thoureau, Henry D. 1983. Walden; and, Civil Disobedience. Middlesex, England: Penguin Book Ltd.