A Desperate Nonviolence

Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated in Memphis, TN on April 4, 1968.

His message has endured:

“When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim, when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television–

Then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

Which is why…

The doctrine we preached was a nonviolent doctrine. It was not a doctrine that made our followers yearn for revenge but one that called upon them to champion change. It was not a doctrine that asked an eye for an eye but one that summoned men to seek to open the eyes of blind justice. The Negro turned his back on force not only because he knew he could not win his freedom through physical force but also because he believed that through physical force he could lose his soul.

This showed that we dared to break with the old, ingrained concepts of our society. The eye-for-eye philosophy, the impulse to defend oneself when attacked, has always been held as the highest measure of American manhood. We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; it is not simple to admit that refraining from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.

Yet there is something in the American ethos that responds to the strength of moral force.

In measuring the full implications of the civil rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace. The concept of nonviolence has spread on a mass scale in the United States as an instrument of change. More and more people have begun to conceive of this powerful ethic as a necessary way of life.

Man was born into barbarism when killing his fellow man was a normal condition of existence. And he has now reached the day when violence toward another human being must become as abhorrent as eating another’s flesh.

Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.”

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride.
–U2

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About Tim Owens

I'm a husband, father, and Christ follower. I also live in Albany, NY, where I work as a pastor.
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4 Responses to A Desperate Nonviolence

  1. Daniel Vance says:

    I don’t mean this in a sarcastic way, Tim, but did you approve of Dr. King’s methods? Or do you think that they were sub-Christian forms of cultural violence, as you seemed to argue in another comment thread?
    P.S. I love Martin Luther King, and U2.

    • Tim Owens says:

      What the what?? King’s nonviolence tactics were the opposite of what I’ve called cultural violence. Instead of boycotting the restaurants and buses that didn’t cater to them, they ate at the counters and sat in the front–the opposite of a boycott.

      “our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice.” We still wrestle with this reality. Again, we’re not resorting to PHYSICAL violence, but the key is we’re still finding ways to RETALIATE. “you won’t say Merry Christmas?? Then I won’t shop at your store.” King said, “You won’t serve me? Then I’ll sit here and let you pour milkshakes on me, hose me with firehoses, sick your K-9’s on me, beat me and put me in jail… and I’ll still come back and eat in your restaurant and ride your bus.” I believe our boycotts, petitions, and bully pulpit blogs/pulpits/etc serve as a form of retaliation, while Kind found a way to champion change by making his voice heard without retaliating.

      PS i love Chris Davis

  2. Daniel Vance says:

    Ha, Chris Davis is definitely helping me forget Mark Reynolds here in Baltimore. Who do you root for up there, the Rochester Red Wings? As to not boycotting, etc., I’m willing to be wrong on this, but I was under the impression that King’s most famous “organizational non-violence” was the Montgomery County Bus Boycott. I’m also pretty sure that the Birmingham Campaign included boycotting, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Now I don’t mean to conflate today’s culture wars with those of civil rights–we get our noises bent out of joint far too easily–but I am interested in how you consider the tactics themselves to be different…to me a boycott is a boycott, and if such activity is indeed sub-Christian and/or culturally violent then the ends, however righteous in King’s case, don’t justify the means. Conversely, if boycotting or whatever do constitute acceptable courses of action, then I would say that just because you don’t find the phrase “Happy Holidays” to be an actionable offense (and I’d agree with you on that, by the way) it doesn’t mean that others who do find it offensive can’t proceed with their putatively non-violent response(s).

    • Tim Owens says:

      Ha! Chalk this one to me being an idiot. 🙂 Yes, you’re right about the montgomery bus boycott–and, yes, I wasn’t thinking about the bus boycott when i wrote the above comment.

      Your comment gave me a lot to think about–because you’re right, somehow I do see the bus boycott in a drastically different light than our typical department store boycott. I’m entering pretty subjective territory here, but here are some key differences:

      1. The social position of those doing the boycott.
      Even though I talk a lot about how the Evangelical position is the minority position in today’s US culture, Evangelicals still hold a great deal of cultural/social clout. This is a drastic difference from the cultural/social clout held by MKLjr and company. It’s hard to accuse the weaker party of assuming the role of the bully.

      2. The difference between human rights and religious rights.
      The purpose of the civil rights boycotts were to ‘force’ an acceptance of universal human rights or standards. The purpose of our current religious boycotts is to ‘force’ an acceptance of our religious rights, or religious standards. The human rights/standards apply to all people, whereas our religious rights don’t necessarily apply to all people. Meaning: all people should be allowed to sit in an empty seat on a bus (assuming they pay the fare!), but not all people should have to say ‘Merry Christmas.’

      This means I have to reconsider my statements about a boycott itself–I’ve just been cornered into admitting that the context of the boycott can determine whether it should be perceived as bullying, or as ‘social violence.’

      I think this is what I’m coming down to. I’m a wannabe pacifist. I wish I was a pacifist (in terms of actual war), but the reality of evil keeps me from it. Meaning, I can look at many wars in history and say, “That should have been avoided,” (Iraq War, “Shock & Awe campaign) but WWII is a clear example that it could not have been (Hitler in Poland, Pearl Harbor). So I classify myself as an ‘almost-pacifist.’ I think I apply that same title/mentality to social violence. So I see social violence as unnecessary/avoidable when it comes to holiday greetings, but when it comes to basic human rights… argh, perhaps the ends do justify the means.

      So I gotta keep thinking this one through. Thanks!

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