Monday, January 15, 2024

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Importance of Non-Violence

As the USA honors the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we would do well to remember that “non-violence” is as necessary today as ever. In the face of much opposition, tension, and misunderstanding, Dr. King and the African-Americans of the southern United States generated an effective non-violent social movement for racial equality and justice that had a real historical impact, not only in the USA (where much yet remains to be done), but throughout the world. Political practices of nonviolent direct action—boycotts, marches, protests, sit-ins, and suchlike—have become almost “commonplace” in the world of recent history. Perhaps most memorably, the tenaciousness and perseverance of the Polish labor movement Solidarity—inspired in part by Dr. King’s nonviolent witness—began the process that led to the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

Various types of popular-protest-driven “peaceful revolutions” have toppled or modified corrupt dictatorial regimes all over the world. Some have been unsuccessful or have been co-opted by extremist groups. Others (e.g. Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement in 2014) have had success, but have been followed by military invasion by powers that claimed to be threatened by them. From the Philippines to South Africa to Central America to China and Hong Kong, movements of nonviolent inspiration have caught the attention of the world. External “results” might appear to be small, imperiled, or overwhelmed by new crises (or—as in the cases of Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 and Hong Kong’s 2014-2019 “Umbrella Revolution”—plowed under entirely by the institutionalized violence of a relentless bureaucratic PartyState). 

Nevertheless, under God’s loving providence that works on all levels of human history, every genuinely upright action aimed at the recognition of the dignity of the human person is destined to bear fruit for the good. The human aspiration that “hunger[s] and thirst[s] after justice” (Matthew 5:6) is a promise written on the human heart that begs for fulfillment, and that is filled to overflowing by God Himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus. But the victory of Christ is present already in this world, and His mercy is glorified when we permit it to give shape to our individual and social lives as we journey toward our final destiny. 

The term “non-violence” itself is hard to define precisely, and I remain convinced that it is compatible with the necessary use of “physical force” in self-defense (which bares no hatred for the aggressor but aims to protect human dignity and human persons who have been entrusted to our care). Using physical (military) force to stop an aggressor involves grave risks, but communities and nations may have no other reasonable course of action in circumstances in which they are subjected to ruthless invasion. Nevertheless, here especially a nonviolent mentality is crucial not only for limiting to a minimum the dangers and destructiveness of military escalation, but also for governing the interior disposition that remains at the heart of the distinction between “force” and “violence” as such. A nonviolent mentality also counters the tendency of war to result in mutual resentments and multigenerational “cycles of violence” that frustrate efforts of constructive dialogue and reconciliation.

Non-violence is a difficult but noble standard which encompasses “loving our enemies even while resisting the evils they perpetrate” and “the ‘power’ that comes from accepting the suffering our enemies inflict upon us without seeking revenge.

The redemptive love of Christ is the power that changes the human heart, that brings about my conversion-of-heart and your conversion-of-heart, the conversion-of-hearts in our communities, and the conversion of our adversaries’ hearts. Conversion is the ever-deepening foundation in human society of the real efficacy of non-violence, the measure of the emergence of that “power”—in society, among peoples, and nations—of nonviolent loving-of-enemies and suffering-affliction-without-hatred; a spiritual power that also extends in significant ways through solidarity with those who suffer unjustly. In such vicarious solidarity we find the fundamentally interrelated value of everyone’s effort—offered with love—to assist those involved in non-violent struggles, and in the efforts to build pathways of understanding and endeavor that can shape a new civil society of peace and gratitude, a new culture of life and encounter, a new civilization of love. 

In the ensuing days when many in the United States will march, pray, fast, and recommit themselves to the need for our society to recognize, protect, and foster the dignity of pre-born human persons and their mothers, it is important to reflect on the tremendously delicate yet crucial and pervasive role of non-violence in meeting the great challenges such recognition entails. It calls for the protection of both human persons, the devotion of respect, affirmation, and care for both human persons, the unconditional love that meets the needs of both human persons, and the sustenance of the wider familial and local communion-of-persons that provides primary support for mothers and children after birth as well as before. There is much needed here in the way of prayer, mercy, solidarity, and active love, but there is no place whatsoever for violence, hatred, or any spirit of vengeance

Non-violence, as understood and practiced by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and those who came after them, doesn’t fit into the framework of ideological individualism, with its factions, its pretenses, it’s resistance to the integral human vocation. It is based on the recognition that human persons created in the image of God are created to love and to be loved, that persons are fulfilled only in communion. This challenges our self-assertiveness and self-indulgence, but if we are followers of Jesus we know that it’s true. We know that He calls us on this path, that His grace will give us the power to follow Him, and that all our struggles against one another and all the sufferings we impose upon one another are not as strong as the power of His saving love and mercy. Those who do not know Christ explicitly as Savior still draw on this power through the implicit bond with Him that exists through their service and recognition of His afflicted brothers and sisters.

And His redemptive love is necessary if we are to even begin to understand how non-violence is possible to our human weakness, or why we should continually return to it and take it up afresh in every circumstance of conflict, no matter how often we fall short. We must persevere in humble love and service. We must pray always and never lose heart.