Anyone who knows me well will recognize the impact that studying the civil rights movement has had on my life and faith over the last few years. The struggle for civil rights was/is not a political struggle but a religious struggle. The recognizing of honor and dignity and the inherent worth and value of every human being is an essential characteristic of the Kingdom of God. And as Christians, we should always be on the side of the oppressed, the mistreated, the vulnerable; those that have been stripped of their rights and their voice by whomever is in power.
I was not alive during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement, but I have grown to love and respect those countless men and women who were willing to place themselves in danger in order to obtain rights and dignity for others. I especially appreciate Dr. King and his insistence on nonviolence as a means for change. Countless reasons could be given both biblically and practically for why nonviolent resistance is an effective philosophy for change. (King’s own reasoning can be read in his essay An Experiment In Love which he wrote in 1958.) But what may be most inspiring to me is that King believed in nonviolence not only as a philosophy for change but as an outworking of his Christian faith. And he refused to abandon it even if it appeared on the outside that it was failing. As the Civil Rights Movement continued more individuals were calling for armed resistance to the powers but King kept arguing violence is not destroyed by more violence. Honor and respect is not achieved by force, but through the quality of ones life. And nonviolent resistance actually exposed the powers of evil for what they really were, allowing them to be toppled.
In an essay that was published shortly after his assassination, King reiterated his commitment to nonviolence. He wrote,
“I’m committed to nonviolence absolutely. I’m just not going to kill anybody, whether it’s in Vietnam or here. I’m not going to burn down any building. If nonviolent protest fails this summer, I will continue to preach and teach it, and we at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will still do this. I plan to stand by nonviolence because I have found it to be a philosophy of life that regulates not only my dealings in the struggle for racial justice but also my dealings with people, with my own self. I will still be faithful to nonviolence.”
It’s King’s last statement that may be the most important. Nonviolence is not just a method for change and struggle in the Civil Rights Movement. It is not just a strategy to be implemented as long as it works, but when it fails to cast it aside for a more effective method. Nonviolence is a way of life. It impacts every moment of our days. It dictates not only how I will stand up to evil publicly, but also how I will respond to my neighbor, coworker, or any person I happen to interact with. Nonviolence is not just refusing to not fight someone but is choosing words that are gracious and not hate filled. It entails that my words, my actions, even my facial expressions are directed toward reconciliation just as much as refusing to pick up a gun or punch someone in the face.
I personally believe in nonviolence and strive to practice it as much as possible. Not because of Dr. King but because of Jesus. My understanding of scripture and the way of Christ and the Kingdom leads me to believe that nonviolence is an important aspect of Kingdom living. The way of Jesus, the ethic that he taught and lived, is counter-cultural. When I choose to practice nonviolence, when I refuse to pick up a gun to defend my rights or respond to evil, when I choose to respond with kind words and forgiveness, when I stand up for justice and demand justice but refuse to use unjust means to obtain it, I am witnessing to the Kingdom of God. And because I believe that nonviolence is the way of the Kingdom, that even Jesus defeated evil not by raising an army but by dying on the cross, then I can not abandon the method when it fails to yield the results I desire. I must continue to witness to the Kingdom knowing and trusting that God’s way will triumph over evil in the end.
A special thank you to Dr. King and countless others for your tireless pursuit for justice and the example you have left for the rest of us to emulate.