Ways of Seeing: Heeding the call of ‘Agapic Energy’

On April 2nd, civil rights leader Diane Nash spoke to a packed house on the Middlebury College Campus. Fittingly, she delivered her talk just two days before the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While not an entirely “unsung” hero of the civil rights movement, Nash, like James Lawson, Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark and Bayard Rustin (and the list could go on) is not universally known in the way that King has become. As Nash herself pointed out in her talk, King was the “spokesman” for the civil rights movement and so, of course, it is his name that we most associate with it.
In emphasizing King’s role as spokesman, Nash took pains to describe the difference between a spokesman and a leader. King was one of hundreds of leaders of the civil rights movement, she reminded us, and her eyes were on the students in the chapel as she made this point. We are all capable of social change leadership, she insisted, and went on to describe how students, workers and citizens of all ages, professions and religious identities took up social change leadership in the sixties and how we ought to go about it today.
Diane Nash made plain to her audience what I had first been taught decades ago in an unforgettable course on the life and thought of Gandhi, taught by my mentor, Professor Diana Eck: that non-violent campaigns are considerably more complex than simply refusing to do physical harm to another; rather, non-violence involves a persistent, unfailing commitment to waging peace instead of war.
Sometimes non-violent campaigns are conducted through a conscious escalation of conflict in order to make injustices visible to the wider world (the lunch counter sit-ins defying segregation would be such an example).
At other times, de-escalation is the goal — finding ways to reduce anger and fear so that people on seemingly opposite sides of a conflict can discover that they are actually on the “same side” when the problem is understood more deeply and from a wider perspective.
Having been coached well in workshops taught by Septima Clark, James Lawson and Bayard Rustin (the latter two having themselves been trained by Gandhians in India) and then by a “second-generation” of young leaders such as Nash, many civil rights activists became highly skilled at both forms of non-violent resistance: dramatizing oppression and fostering connection and alliances.
In terms of the latter, we can often hear this language of getting opposing forces on the “same side” of a larger problem when we read King’s speeches and sermons. Time and again, King characterizes racism and bigotry as unsurprising outgrowths of poverty and economic inequality, charting the psychological forces by which fear and suffering within poor white communities fanned the flames of racism — hence King’s launch of the wider, multi-racial Poor People’s Campaign in the months just before his assassination.
In her speech to the Middlebury College campus, Nash introduced the term that she has coined to represent more authentically the complexity and purpose of non-violent resistance: “agapic energy.” Grounded in the Greek — and often Christian — word agape, agapic energy describes a force of love that can, and should, be extended outward toward the whole human (and, I would argue, whole earthly) community. Nash’s phrase better reflects Gandhi’s call for satyagraha — a firm grasping on to Truth, sometimes translated as “soul force” — than does the term “non-violence,” although Gandhi himself used both.
To offer an example of agapic energy, Nash described how, in the midst of the lunch-counter sit-in campaigns in Nashville, she formed an alliance with the manager of a store with a segregated lunch-counter. She expressed concern and empathy for the manager’s fear that integration would cause dramatic customer attrition and financial harm. Aided by a team of well-established and well-to-do white “church ladies” willing to eat lunch day after day at newly integrated lunch counters, Nash and her colleagues demonstrated both genuine compassion and a strategic response to the manager’s economic fears.
In the second year of the campaign, their former opponent became an ally, visiting managers of other restaurants and lunch-counters, letting them know that desegregation had not hurt his business. In telling this story, Nash invited her audience to consider what would have happened if this initially resistant manager had been attacked and killed. “It was not the person that was the enemy,” she insisted, “It was his racism.”
“If you recognize that people are not the enemy,” she continued, “you can love and respect the person at the same time that you attack the attitude or action of that person.”
Toward the end of her talk, Nash told us frankly: “I am afraid for our country.” She implored us, and so I am compelled in this article to echo her call, to gather up our own agapic energy, harness it and deploy it against the injustices we see. In a December 1963 article addressing the social forces that led to the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr., King spoke out against “our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racism with the Vaseline of gradualism [and] our readiness for firearms to be purchased at will and fired at whim.”
While that gradualism persists, and can cause us to despair, I am also deeply moved and inspired by the agapic energy campaigns that I see in the streets of the nation’s capital and in our neighborhood streets in Vermont. The Poor People’s Campaign has also been given new vision and new life, gathering agapic energy week after week (look up poorpeoplescampaign.org, which includes a Vermont chapter, if you are interested). Agapic energy is transformative, available to all (and 100 percent renewable if you remember to pause as needed and make sure not to go it alone).
So what is the agapic energy that you possess? Where would you like it to go? And in terms of using it: if not now, when?
Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives in Monkton where she tends — and is tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.

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