Today, we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I appreciate this holiday for many reasons, but especially because it gives us a chance to consider the power of nonviolent action to bring justice to our society. There are times when it seems like oppressive powers are taking over, when greed and hate are overwhelming. It helps my soul to recall those courageous people who came before us, who, even facing insurmountable oppression, were able to harness the power of love to make change. Dr. King is one of the greatest witnesses in our country to such fearless and powerful love.
Nonviolence has often been misunderstood, stereotyped as passive, or weak, or a tool for those who were afraid of violence. But this could not be further from reality. Dr. King described the fundamental principles of nonviolence in an article in Christian Century magazine, in 1957. He challenged that stereotype, and asserted that nonviolence is not for cowards, but requires strong courage. It is an active resistance to injustice, and the nonviolent resister is just as firmly opposed to injustice as one who might use violence. The method is passive physically, but active mentally and emotionally and spiritually.
A defining characteristic of nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his or her friendship and understanding. King wrote, “The aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. …The end is redemption.” Nonviolent action is directed against evil, not against the persons who are caught in the forces of evil. He said, “..the basic tension is not between races. …The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice.”
Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe itself is on the side of justice. For Dr. King, this faith was rooted in his religious conviction that all people are the children of one God, and loved by God. But he also pointed out that this trust in the power of justice did not require a belief in a personal God. It might also arise out of a heartfelt awareness of the unity of all people, or the interconnected web of all existence. Faith that the universe is on our side gives strength to the nonviolent resister to accept suffering without retaliation, and continue in the struggle through the dark times before the victory is assured.
Nonviolence avoids not only external violence, but also internal violence of spirit. It is based on the principle of love. “To retaliate with hate and bitterness would do nothing but intensify the hate in the world,” King wrote. “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethics of love to the center of our lives.” He goes on to explain that he is not talking about romantic or affectionate love, but agape love—a redeeming spirit of good will toward all.
Perhaps the most challenging part of nonviolence is this requirement that we love our opponent, that we love our enemy. Someone once said to me, “We shouldn’t even use that word, enemy. We are all one family.” And we are all one family. When we know that each person is part of us, we don’t want to think of anyone as an enemy.
The dictionary defines enemy as “a person who feels hatred for, or fosters harmful designs against another.” By that definition, my enemy is someone who hates me, or who seeks to harm me. We live in a world where, however much we love, others still will hate us or seek to do us harm. So for me, it feels more honest to acknowledge that internal tension—that tension between love and harm—when we say that nonviolence demands that we love our enemy.
Quotes from “Nonviolence and Racial Justice” and “The Power of Nonviolence,” reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.