I consider Martin Luther King, Jr. the great, holy prophet to the nation. He was a prophet of nonviolence sent by the God of peace and justice to call our country to repent of the sin of violence and war and to call us to the new life of nonviolence and peace. As we recall the life of Dr. King, I hope we can remember his central, crucial, critical message.
On April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated (by our government), Dr. King told thousands of people at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee: “For years now, we have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can we just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”
“Nonviolence or nonexistence.” That is the choice. These are the last words of Dr. King, the gauntlet he threw down before us and the whole world. Nobody talks about it, but this is the heart of Martin Luther King, Jr. It remains the critical choice before us all.
Dr. King was an apostle of nonviolence. He wants each one of us, individually, personally, to become people of nonviolence. But more than that, like Jesus of Nazareth and Mahatma Gandhi, he wants us as a nation and a planet to become nonviolent. He insists that nonviolence is the highest calling of humanity.
So the question is: How do we become people of nonviolence? What did he mean by nonviolence? How do we define nonviolence? I hope we will reflect on this challenging word, that we will discuss it with family and friends, define it and practice it for the rest of our lives.
Dr. King taught that active nonviolence begins with the vision of a reconciled humanity, the reign of God in our midst, what he called “the beloved community,” the truth that all life is sacred, that we are all equal sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already reconciled, all one, all already united. Once we accept this vision of the heart, we could never hurt or kill any other human being, much less remain silent while our country wages war, maintains nuclear weapons, executes people or allows millions to starve to death.
For King, active nonviolence is much more than a tactic or a strategy; it is a way of life. We renounce violence and vow never to hurt anyone ever again. Nonviolence is not passive. It is active love and truth that seeks justice and peace for the whole human race, and resists systemic evil, and persistently reconciles with everyone, and insists that there is no cause however noble for which we support the killing of a single human being. Instead of killing others, we are willing to be killed in the struggle for justice and peace. Instead of inflicting violence on others, we accept and undergo suffering without even the desire to retaliate with further violence as we pursue justice and peace for all people on the planet.
Nonviolence is active, creative, provocative, and challenging! It’s a life force, Gandhi said, that when harnessed becomes contagious and can disarm nations and change the world; a force more powerful than all the weapons of the world. Nonviolence works! We’re just beginning to tap into it. Dr. King insisted that it is the only way to live.
The world says there are only two options in the face of violence: you can fight back or run away. Nonviolence gives us a third option: creative, active, peaceful resistance to injustice. We stand up and resist war publicly with creative love, trusting in the God of peace. So nonviolence begins in our hearts, where we renounce the violence inside ourselves, and then moves out with active, contagious nonviolence toward our families, communities, churches, cities, nation and the world. We practice it personally in the face of violence, but also join the international grassroots movement of nonviolence for justice and peace. When we organize nonviolence on the national and international level, we can transform the world, as Gandhi demonstrated in India’s revolution, as Dr. King and the civil rights movement showed, as the People Power movement showed in the Philippines, and as Archbishop Tutu and South Africa showed against apartheid.
I’ve come to the conclusion that all the major religions of the world are rooted in nonviolence. Islam means peace. Judaism upholds the magnificent vision of shalom, where people beat swords into plowshares and study war no more. Gandhi exemplified Hinduism as active nonviolence. Buddhism is all about compassion toward all living things. Even Christianity is about nonviolence! Mahatma Gandhi once said that Jesus was the most active practitioner of nonviolence in the history of the world, and the only people who don’t know Jesus was nonviolent are Christians. Dr. King called Christians back to the heart of the Gospel. He wants people of faith and conscience to dig deep into the spiritual roots of nonviolence and join God’s nonviolent transformation of the world.
Dr. King said he had a dream, but his dream was a vision of nonviolence. The night before he was killed, Dr. King said he saw the promised land, but what he saw was a new land of nonviolence. Dr. King calls us to pursue the most noble, the most radical, the most revolutionary vision of all, a new world of nonviolence, a world without racism, poverty, hunger, the death penalty, war or nuclear weapons. As we celebrate his 75th birthday, let’s pursue his daring vision of nonviolence by renouncing violence once and for all, and become like him, practitioners, heroes, saints of active nonviolence.
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation,” Dr. King said one year to the day before his death. “Let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter–but beautiful–struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons and daughters of God.”