Guitarist Aaron Nathans and cellist Michael G. Ronstadt play musically adventurous folk with vivid storytelling. They just released their second album, Hang On for the Ride, and below Nathans shares the story behind his timely song "The Strength to Not Fight Back," about effecting social change through nonviolence.

The story

What is strength? Is it brute force, angry words spoken at a loud volume? Is it winning the affirmation of a crowd?
Or can strength be something more subtle? While passion can certainly be a delivery agent of positive change, it can just as often be used as a weapon. Strength can also be expressed in the act of restraint: When others act to provoke, and draw you into their conflict, overcoming the urge to engage can be difficult. And yet fighting fire with fire can make things worse. Many a life has been lost over the need to show the wrong kind of strength. I have long been moved by the example of Jackie Robinson. He was given the opportunity be the one to integrate Major League Baseball, but Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey told him he'd need to show great restraint in the face of the inevitable abuse. The story has been told many times of the ordeal Robinson faced, about all scorn heaped upon him as he went about his business, and how he managed to integrate the game by keeping his cool. The title of this song, "The Strength to Not Fight Back," paraphrases something Rickey said to Robinson during their initial meeting. In the song I extend the metaphor to others in history who have made change not with their fists but with their feet, not with fighting words but defiant action. And then I apply it to the everyday situations we face in our own lives. If someone comes at you in anger, tempting as it may be to engage, you don't need to do that. It's hard. I have certainly not mastered this, and this song is my prayer to find that strength within myself. At a time when our politics is all about stoking conflict, we can learn from Robinson's example. We can take principled stands on the issues that matter without making it personal. We don't have to take the bait. We don't need to let those that would antagonize us define the terms of the conversation. We often use the word "fight" to mean standing up, but in this song I draw a distinction between taking a stand and releasing your venom. There is a way to advocate for justice without losing your cool. It is not easy, but it is probably more effective. My rabbi, Yair Robinson, said in the wake of the recent Las Vegas shooting that it's easy to explode in anger, but the hard thing is to love. To love, he said, is an act of radical humility. Jackie chose the hard path, and it ate him up inside. But look at what he accomplished. I pray that more us follow his example in these troubled times. —Aaron Nathans

The lyrics

Do you know why we brought you here He bellowed with a gleam You’re here to play in Brooklyn If you can make the team I know that you can hit the ball But there’s more to discuss What I need to know from you Is if you have the guts When they bring the scorn upon you You’ve got to turn the other cheek You've got to stand your ground in silence Up against the highest heat If you lose your head, they’ve got you So this will be our pact I need to know that you have got The strength to not fight back So he stood into the batters box And took what they could throw A fastball to the head Or reminders of Jim Crow They spiked him on the base paths They cursed him from the stands Even his own manager Said he was half a man But his hitting was electric He ran in no time flat He heard all of the taunting And he answered with his bat It’s a hard road to travel But he didn’t draw the map He stood in a long line of those with The strength to not fight back From a man who held a bullhorn On the streets of the Castro To Mahatma’s march in India And Kent State, Ohio To a jail cell in South Africa Where a man learned to forgive To a lunch counter in Greensboro And the Edmund Pettus bridge To a mighty march on Washington Astride a sea of men To lessons of humility From a man from Bethlehem Who said to love your neighbors Forgive those who attack And as he died, he showed had The strength to not fight back The strength to not fight back Against a vicious fist The strength to not fight back And the power to resist When they laughed at them, or froze them out Or when they brushed them back Somehow inside, they could find The strength to not fight back And so we’re at the crossroads We stand there every day Can we check our pride Or must we escalate With a neighbor, a coworker A policeman or a clerk Or when somebody cuts us off When we’re driving home from work Jackie how’d you do it How’d you turn the other cheek? When you felt the rage swell up You never said a peep By power of example You more than kept your pact You showed us all how to find The strength to not fight back Oh, the strength to not fight back To stand the higher ground The strength to not fight back To speak without a sound When they laugh at us or freeze us out Or when they brush us back Somehow inside, we can find the strength to not fight back Somehow inside, we can find the strength to not fight back


Behind the song The Complete Singer-Songwriter