Nonviolent resistance was not a method but a way of life for Martin Luther King Jr.
It was rooted in his Christian faith and his belief that racism and other forms of injustice were collective or institutional sins that were destroying society and preventing the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Outlining his pilgrimage to nonviolence in an April 1960 article published in The Christian Century, King provided an eloquent exposition of his development as an activist theologian who would bring nonviolent methods to bear on the political turmoil of 1960s America.
In it, he stated that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
When writing of the events that unfolded in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, he described nonviolence as “the logical force in the greatest-mass action crusade for freedom that has ever occurred in American history.”
King’s commitment to nonviolence was based upon the teachings and ethical principles of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) through which we are firmly reminded that God is devoted to our material as well as spiritual well-being.
Christians have a responsibility to ensure the realization of the kingdom of God, or at least an approximation of it, by challenging the sin of injustice.
To that end, King focused his efforts on the three factors preventing human flourishing: racial injustice, economic injustice and militarism. He sought to solve them by embodying Ghandian methods of nonviolence and helping others to do likewise.
This teaching consisted of the Christian teachings of human dignity and agape combined with Ghandian methods of nonviolent resistance. This blend created a realistic means of developing the “justice, good will and brotherhood” required to create a just and peaceful society, as King explained in a 1957 article, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.”
King’s teachings on love provide a clear insight into the appeal of nonviolence.
Agape is God’s gift of a love that works to ensure that each human flourishes. God expects nothing in return for this. By emulating this love, we come to recognize the dignity not only of ourselves but also of others.
It was the power of such a love that fortified King’s commitment to nonviolence. “When we love on the agape level, we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them here, we rise of the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does,” he wrote in Nonviolence and Racial Justice.
Furthermore, as he explained in his book, Why We Can’t Wait, this realization that God loves all of his children equally “challenged the myth of inferiority” within the Black community and allowed its members to see that their personhood was based upon their creation in the image and likeness of God, not the color of their skin. This dignity meant that they were deserving of equality and justice.
King’s engagement with Ghandi’s writings on methods of nonviolent resistance was a watershed moment in his thinking, moving the concept from idea to reality.
Here was a method through which agape and human dignity could be realized, and that had the power to force society to face the ills that were preventing the Sermon on the Mount from becoming a reality.
It was understood that this was the first step on the road to justice and reconciliation – a means to lower the moral defenses of those in power and persuade them to negotiate by throwing them off balance.
In Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, King outlines the four benefits of the Ghandian method:
- This is not a method for cowards; it does resist. But it resists through persuasion rather than force.
- Nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.
- The nonviolent attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces.
- It avoids not only external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.
The methods employed were contextualized for each situation, but the underlying principles remained the same. Such methods and attitudes required both physical and spiritual discipline.
“We made it clear that we would not send anyone out to demonstrate who had not convinced himself and us that he could accept and endure violence without retaliating,” King explained in Why We Can’t Wait about preparing protesters in Birmingham.
This preparation was an intensive program of prayer, training in nonviolent methods of self-defense and sociodramatic role play. But it was not until the training was put into practice that the five qualities of the nonviolent resister – love, faith, courage, truth and humility – would come to the fore, as Rufus Burrows Jr. notes in his 2014 book, Extremist for Love.
King’s commitment to nonviolence was not without danger. Indeed, the ultimate outworking of the adoption of nonviolence is a preparedness to give one’s life for the cause.
King and those who protested with him were frequently jailed, attacked by dogs, ferociously beaten and bombarded by water cannons. And yet, they maintained their resolve not to retaliate but to meet their aggressors in a spirit of love, respect and forgiveness.
This was because they were motivated and unified by a single aim: to overcome injustice (be it racial or economic, or the devastation wrought by militarism) – a conviction based on the truth of the teachings of Christ.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021 (Jan. 18). The previous articles in the series are:
King, Heschel: Fast Friends and Activists | Jack Moline
Another King Holiday: We’re Still Not Listening | Starlette Thomas
The Other Dream of Martin Luther King Jr. | Rob Sellers
We Need Constellating Light to Follow King’s Path | Ken Sehested