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

More

Behind the song

The Complete Singer-Songwriter