This year, the anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination falls on Easter Sunday. The irony of his death is that a man who lived and led by the principles of nonviolence died a violent death like Jesus. Both Jesus and Martin challenged the status quo, upsetting the seats of power, not responding with violence. “Shining the light of truth exposes the falsehood and evil shrouded in the shadows of darkness.” (John 3:19) Light is also a sign of hope: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” (Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16) Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged his fellow clergy for considering his method of nonviolence as an extremist: “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day, I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail 1963) This message still rings true 58 years later.
During the social uprisings and demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd, Christians diverged on issues of racism and social injustice. Still claiming to be spiritual, young adults have been moving away from institutional Church. The trend should be a concern and an opportunity. Young adults are socially conscious and active to bring about equity and fairness. This is in line with the Social Teaching of the Church. Therefore, the trend is an opportunity for the Church to intervene and influence the young adults. The Church should highlight the intersection of sacramental, active and contemplative life. We should embrace nonviolent activism, the Christian norm for positive change.
Nonviolence, fundamentally, is a messianic vision and Christian principle. Therefore, it is neither the invention of Gandhi nor the imitation by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The influence and mentorship of Reinhold Niebuhr and Howard Thurman’s pacifism and social gospel on Rev. Dr. King cannot be minimized either. In his letter, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. clarified, “In any nonviolent campaign, there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” In a country where violence is the norm as a daily diet, preaching and practicing nonviolence was a clear sign of contradiction and counterculture, which proved dangerous. It is like holding a mirror in front of a society to look at its blemishes. The society reacts by smashing the mirror or getting rid of the mirror holder instead of removing the blemishes, “self-purification.” We are stuck in the state of denial, refusing “self-purification.”
Largely, American society considers nonviolence foolishness and a tool of the naïve. Firearms are the “golden calf” of our time. The Second Amendment is sacrosanct. The right to bear arms tramples basic human rights: food, shelter and healthcare. Owning firearms is an American obsession. In spite of the loss of innocent lives, to gun violence, such as accidental death, suicides, and school mass shootings, policy makers refuse to pass “common sense gun laws;” saying, “guns don’t kill, people do.” Consequently, the principles of nonviolence are an affront to the notion of Americanism. This contradicts the Christian calling for nonviolence.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made it clear on various occasions that nonviolence is the only moral choice for the Civil Rights Movement’s operation. When he said, “the only option,” Rev. Dr. King, Jr. never entertained “violence” as a contingency plan. Jesus is unambiguous that he called for a nonviolent lifestyle. The Sermon on the Mount, in contemporary interpretation of the Torah, Jesus says, “You have heard … but I say to you …” (Matthew 5: 17-48) Even verbal abuse Jesus considered as a form of violence. Today, we call it psychological abuse, scarring our mind and soul. Hate speech falls under this category. In some traditional African societies, hate speech is called, “Bone crushing words,” holding people accountable for their hurting words. Any expression that infringes the rights of others is unChristian, a form of violence, violating the “command of love.” (1 John 2: 7-11)
In human terms, even self-defense that seems logical and justifiable, is against Jesus’ teaching. The just war theory introduced by St. Augustine and refined by St. Thomas Aquinas contradicts Jesus’ vision and world order. Jesus condemns any kind of retaliatory action. (Matthew 5: 38-48) For example, when Simon Peter used his sword, Jesus told him, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26: 52). Jesus’ form of greeting was like any Jew or speakers of Semitic languages, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:21) This phrase present in the Christian Scriptures has become part of our liturgical ritual throughout the centuries. For example, in Eucharistic Liturgy, “peace be with you” is present in all Christian traditions, repeated multiple times during Mass and some other liturgical rites. The phrase is interchangeable with the “Lord be with you.” Jesus affirms such interchangeability in his Sermon on the Mount saying, “blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
Jesus departs from the old concept of peace, which is an absence of war or vanquishing ones enemy. In its essence, “shalom” means wholesomeness and harmony within and without. Nonviolence was the identity of early Christians. The messianic vision of the Hebrew prophets was a peaceful coexistence with each other and the natural world. Zion is elevated as a city on the hill, a shining light and model for the rest of the nations to imitate. The Lord will take his dwelling in Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” where his word is proclaimed. Isaiah affirms the vision of peace and harmony, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah. 2:4-5) In this context, the nonviolence stand of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is imperative for every Christian to abide by as the only alternative.