Loving Nonviolent Action Is Always a Force for Human Dignity

When African American students sat down at the segregated lunch counters, they were asserting their own dignity by refusing to obey a law that treated them with contempt. They were holding onto the dignity of their harassers by refusing to engage in violence or harm. They were harnessing the power of love to make a change in an unjust system. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the many heroic civil rights activists, used loving nonviolent action to restore the dignity of an oppressed people, and also to restore the soul of the oppressor.  

Loving nonviolent action is always a force for human dignity. Whether the political outcome is successful or not, a change has already taken place. The night before Dr. King was killed, he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. It doesn’t matter what happens to me now. I’ve seen the Promised Land.” I used to think this meant that in some mysterious way he had seen the future, and he had faith that black people would eventually win their rights.

But I saw it differently after I was involved in the struggle for equal marriage for same-sex couples in Massachusetts. I believe the mountaintop is less about the future, and more about the present. When lesbian and gay people began to imagine that they might get married, they had an inner experience of equality. It didn’t happen all at once. Two members of my congregation on Cape Cod were part of the  lawsuit for equal marriage. They told me how terrifying it was, in the days leading up to the lawsuit, to ask the town clerk for a marriage license when they knew the answer would be no. It was also terrifying for many others to carry a sign in public, or to have a conversation with their legislator or their neighbor.

Wedding of Linda & Gloria Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

Wedding of Linda & Gloria
Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

But each new act in honor of love lessened their fear and strengthened their dignity. Same sex couples became aware of the burden they had been carrying, the hidden assumption that they were somehow less than the others. Once they felt a glimpse of equality, they couldn’t go back. They had put down the burden, and they were free. So even if there were opponents holding signs that said, “Homosexuals are demons,” it didn’t matter. A young lesbian woman carried another poster that said, “Your signs are mean but we love you anyway.” No matter what happens next, such love releases an inner power that is indestructible.

I think that is part of what Dr. King was talking about. It was visceral and immediate. By tapping the power of love through non-violent action, he felt first hand a new way of being in the world. He fully experienced his own dignity and the dignity of his people. After that, what else could matter? He had been to the mountaintop. As he said, “whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere.” He knew there was no turning back.

King quotes from “I See the Promised Land”, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Power of Nonviolence

Martin Luther King Jr.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.

Imaginal Buds

Change is already happening. There are millions of people and groups who are in some way involved in a new vision of community, and we can be a part of it. David Korten calls our attention to the familiar story of the caterpillar and butterfly. We all know the story. The caterpillar spends its days gorging itself on nature’s bounty. But then it attaches to a twig and forms a chrysalis around itself in order to become a butterfly. What we might not know is what’s happening inside the chrysalis to shape the butterfly.

Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis Photo by Armon, Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis
Photo by Armon, Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

Korten, drawing on the work of evolution biologists writes:

The structures of its cellular tissue begin to dissolve into an organic soup. Yet, guided by some deep inner wisdom, a number of organizer cells begin to rush around gathering others cells to form imaginal buds, initially independent multicellular structures that begin to give form to the organs of a new creature. Correctly perceiving a threat to the old order, but misdiagnosing the source, the caterpillar’s still intact immune system attributes the threat to the imaginal buds and attacks them as alien intruders.

The imaginal buds prevail by linking up with one another in a cooperative effort that brings forth a new being of great beauty, wondrous possibilities, and little identifiable resemblance to its progenitor.

Korten sees our cultural transformation in a similar vein. Individuals wake up from the prevailing social systems, and begin to align their lives with the values of partnership and earth community. At first they experience a sense of isolation, but eventually they find others who share those values, and form what Parker Palmer calls “communities of congruence.” Those small beginnings attract others—they are like the imaginal buds of the new culture.

The old culture perceives them as a threat and often attacks their work. But as they network with others who share in the new cultural values, change begins to happen. Korten says that the cultural transformation we need is already in process—we can see the evidence of its beginnings in the great social change movements of the last half of the twentieth century—for civil rights, women’s equality, peace, environmental balance, and economic justice.

I saw a cartoon the other day. Four people were sitting in a boat that had tilted precariously and was filling with water at one end. The two people at that end were bailing furiously. The two people at the other end were sitting high and dry—and one said to the other, “It’s good that our end of the boat isn’t leaking.”

We are all in the same boat—this planet earth. The only real security we can create is a common security. When we finally realize that we are one family, one interconnected whole, essentially united with each other and with the earth, we will be able to find a way forward together. I believe we are already on the path. May we find the courage to take the next steps before us.

David Korten quotes from The Great Turning, p. 74-75, & 84-85.

Dreaming In Circles

Red Moon

Photo by Margy Dowzer

It is said that if a group of people sleep arranged in a circle—heads at the center and feet out like spokes—they create a dream circle. Two or more people in the group may have the same dream at the same time. I tried this once with a group of friends, but I must confess, it didn’t really work for me. Mostly I just had a rather poor night’s sleep.

But I like the metaphor. The word dream is used to describe both our strange nighttime adventures and also our waking hopes and visions for our lives. For me, dreaming in circles is about sharing those waking dreams, entering into the magic that can happen when we join our visions together. We talk and we listen. We plan and we act. We are energized by each other, and we grow strong and bold. When we dream in circles, anything is possible. Margaret Mead has said,

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And here’s the important thing. When we dream in circles, the circle itself becomes the greatest magic of all. We wake up to the reality of our profound interconnection with all people and all beings. The circle is a symbol of this interconnection between people. In a circle, every person is linked to every other. Every person is equally valued and appreciated. Human beings cannot thrive as random individual strangers in a crowd; we are connected to one another at the deepest level, and we can only find wholeness through loving and mutual relationships. By sharing our dreams, we can come home to a community of love.