Many of us can vividly recall the photo or video of the small man with a satchel standing in front of the line of tanks when the Chinese army crushed the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square during the 1989 uprising. I was so moved by that act of defiant, calm, nonviolent courage that I contacted one of the photographers to purchase the photo for use on the cover of my book Christian Peacemaking (available for free download–click here). To this day the photo hangs over my desk as an inspiration for my peacemaking work. (Click here for more about the photos of the incident.)
Terril Jones, a photographer who was there at the time, was reviewing his photos of the events many weeks later when he realized he had captured the moment just before the man encountered the tanks. Meanwhile the iconic images had dominated the narratives about what happened in Tiananmen Square. While the other photographers and videographers were shooting from windows in a hotel (there were actually four different photos or videos of the event), he was at street level. He photographed the tanks coming down the street. People were running away or riding their bicycles to escape the tanks. In the upper left corner, almost unnoticeable at that moment, is the “tank man,” facing the opposite direction of everyone else. Whereas the others in the photo are fleeing he is facing the on-coming tanks. On the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square Jones contacted the New York Times, and his photo was published for the first time along with his account of those moments. (Click here to read about Jones experience related to this photograph.)
What is it that causes someone to go in the opposite direction of everyone else? What is it that drives someone to turn toward the trouble rather than away from it? What does it take to stand one’s ground in the face of overwhelming odds?
The U.S. Marines have a recruiting ad exalting the Marines who run toward the danger. It does take a certain kind of courage to do that. Marines, however, are heavily armed. Sometimes they lose their lives or are maimed. But what does it take to run toward the danger without a weapon, unarmed except with the courage of one’s own conviction, faith, perhaps anger, perhaps hope?
Jesus spoke in his Beatitudes about people who move toward the tanks. “Blessed are the peacemakers”–these are people who don’t avoid trouble but who move into it to construct peace where there was intense conflict. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness”–these are the people who see the injustices around them and are driven by the birth pangs of hope to get engaged and try to build a more hopeful future. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”–the people who pay a price for jumping into the fray to make a difference. Jesus blesses those who move toward the tanks.
The photo of the “tank man” has been called the most important and influential photo of the 20th Century. But I like the street level one even more because it challenges me to not be among those who run away but to face the challenges, whatever may be coming down the street. In an era when bigotry and hate are resurgent in the U.S., in an era when wars and economic calamities are causing hundreds of thousands to flee to places giving reluctant refuge, if that, in an era when nuclear war is once again becoming conceivable, we need many, many brave souls to follow in the footsteps of the tank man. We need people who will move toward the tanks, toward the hate, toward the conflicts with nonviolent commitments and strong, hope-filled hearts. We will be blessed in doing so, and we will bless many by our actions, though the cost may be high. What will you move toward?