Grappling with Mizzou Student Hunger Strike

In Support of Jonathan Butler and Concerned Student 1950

For five days now, Mizzou grad student and activist Jonathan Butler has engaged in a hunger strike. He has said that he will eat and drink nothing but water until either University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed, or until Butler himself dies.

This strategy is dramatic and extreme, and I will admit that it makes me deeply uncomfortable. I am worried for Jonathan’s health. I do not want him to die, and a part of me questions the necessity of such extreme action in relationship to the desired outcome. I am fairly certain that I would not be willing to die in order to ensure the removal of a University President.

But I also know that in our country, black lives are already at great risk and under extreme threat, and have been for centuries. Most recently, we have learned from the epidemic of police shootings of unarmed people of color that black lives may be taken in an instant for no reason other than a white person’s fear or ignorance, and that those who have taken that life will rarely be held accountable.

It is not difficult to imagine that as a black man in the United States, Jonathan already carries a deep experience of the risk of death in a way that is difficult for me to conceive of as a white woman. In light of this, perhaps his hunger strike is not so wildly extreme after all.

For many white onlookers, Jonathan’s tactics are creating a moral crisis where we had not previously perceived one. Yet, if we are listening to students and citizens of color – if we are taking them at their word, as we must – we learn that the crisis was already there. Our University was already a deeply inhospitable place to the flourishing of black lives. Our town and our society were already deeply threatening to the thriving of our African American friends and neighbors.

I must conclude from this that my feelings of deep discomfort are correct, but misplaced. I must be disturbed not by Jonathan’s tactics, but by the moral crisis from which they arise.

Jonathan’s hunger strike, if I will let it, will bring me into a deep and uncomfortable awareness of the threat that black lives face on the University of Missouri campus and beyond. This threat is already dramatic and extreme and Jonathan’s actions point us directly to that reality – a moral crisis that implicates and involves all of us.

I met Jonathan briefly last month at a protest regarding the University of Missouri’s decisions to break ties and agreements with Planned Parenthood (and so doing involve themselves in politically motivated attacks on women’s access to comprehensive healthcare).

At that protest, Jonathan struck me as extremely passionate, engaged, and rational. He brought to our gathering a necessary and sophisticated intersectional analysis of the twining forces of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ablism and more that have created this moral crisis on the University of Missouri campus, in Columbia, and in our society more broadly.

There are those who argue that the demands of the Concerned Student 1950 group are extreme and unreasonable. They argue that the group has been unwilling to engage in dialogue and negotiation with the University.

I will admit entertaining these thoughts myself. But even as I do, I am reminded of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”: “You may well ask, ‘Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

These words convict my heart. In the days when Dr. King wrote these words, direct actions in the South presented almost as clear and pressing a danger of death as Jonathan Butler’s decision to go without nutrition. Those radical acts, now made less extraordinary by the normalizing force of history and the proliferation of movies and books accustoming us to their imagery, probably seemed just as extreme, dangerous, and even unreasonable to moderate whites of the day as Jonathan’s hunger strike may seem to us now. Yet those radical actions – those actual sacrifices by protestors and activists – paved the way for profound, though not sufficient, social changes that we must now continue.

Calls for the Concerned Student 1950 group to be more reasonable in their demands sound strikingly close to calls from white moderates during the Civil Rights movement to “just wait” to “be patient” and to “trust the process” of white-run government. To these calls, Dr. King replied: “Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was ‘well timed’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘wait.’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.'”

There are those who are deeply involved in negotiations and strategizing work with the University of Missouri around issues of race, racism, and justice. These negotiators are playing an important role in working on policy and strategy that we hope will make a difference.

We must also recognize that those who dramatize and make visible our current moral crisis, who refuse to be comforted, who refuse to wait, who refuse to negotiate or “be reasonable” are also playing an extremely important role in the pursuit of justice.

As a person of faith constantly discerning how I may stand on the side of a radical and inclusive divine love, I find myself called to support the negotiators and the protesters alike (knowing that many, or even most, students and citizens are both all at once). We are called do what we can to ensure that system level policy work is created and enforced and to magnify and affirm the moral dramatization, the divine protest, and the holy impatience of Jonathan Butler, Concerned Student 1950, and other activists.

We must not say “wait,” but must join in the struggle.

I am praying for Jonathan and his strength of body and spirit. I am praying for his courage and well-being and that of other student activists who have been working alongside Jonathan in standing and working and speaking for justice, also at great personal cost. I am praying for wisdom and conversion on the part of our University leaders, that they might allow their own deep discomfort to open their hearts to new learning about our current moral crisis and new imagining about a better Mizzou and a better Columbia. And I am praying for all of us, that we might, each in our way, find our hearts moved by this time of moral crisis into the work of solidarity, justice, and love.

In Faith,

Rev. Molly Housh Gordon