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  • Living stories of nonviolence: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Fr. Donald J. Rooney, pastor of St. Bernadette Church in Springfield and director of the diocesan office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs traveled to Taipei in November, where he presented papers about Martin Luther King Jr. and nonviolent responses. A portion of the paper is reprinted here to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King's assassination on April 4th. 

    As an African American Baptist minister in the geographic south of the United States in the 1950s and 60s, Martin Luther King confronted a society still carrying the profound effects of a nation which built its foundation economically, politically and socially on the evil of slavery for several hundred years. Only 100 years following the Civil War, memories are still fresh, scars are obvious on the fabric of our country in the form of modern-day racism, and wounds still have not healed.

    In fact, the United States of America is a melting pot of immigrant populations who came in waves, each nationality escaping violence in their homelands, each clashing with each other in the new world, committing the same acts of violence against the native American populations whom they encountered.  I propose to you that this deep memory has created a culture of racial fear and violent response which today has its expression in American society as racial profiling, brutality against predominantly black populations, white supremacist groups on the rise, and even the need of something such as a Black Lives Matter movement.

    What seems to be the natural response of violence for violence, revenge or retaliation, our human nature (human soul as intellect, memory and free will) must be governed not by fearful memories, but a free will that is informed by the Christian theological virtues of faith, hope and love.  And the greatest of these is love.

    Dr. King came to his insistence on nonviolent response through his faith in Jesus Christ and the example of other leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi, who gave witness to the truth of human dignity.  During the 13 years of his leadership of the American Civil Rights Movement, more progress was achieved toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years.

    He did not believe in freedom by any means necessary, but proposed to use the power of words and actions of nonviolent resistance – protests, non-cooperation, grassroots organizing, civil disobedience – as a way to break the centuries old cycle of violence begetting violence.

    He became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, at 35 years old.  His address at this ceremony is often quoted: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.  That is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

    As a result of Dr. King’s work, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 eliminating legalized racial segregation in the United States.  In 1965 Congress passed the Voting Rights Act eliminating barriers to voting for African Americans after his Selma to Montgomery March for Voting Rights.

    According to Dr. King, there are three forms of violence that establish cycles of violence: poverty, racism and militarism.  These are barriers to what he calls the “Beloved Community.”  Interrelated, they are all affected if we work to remedy one of them.  In order to do so, you must develop a nonviolent frame of mind described by the “Six Principles of Nonviolence,” and follow the “Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change.”

    I here list the Six Principles of Nonviolence and the Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change from The King Center.

    Six Principles of Nonviolence, found in Dr. King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom:

    1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.  It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.  It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.
    2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.  Its goal is redemption and reconciliation, and its purpose is the creation of the Beloved Community.
    3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people.  Evildoers are also victims, and not evil people.  The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil, not people.
    4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.  The acceptance of suffering without retaliation is redemptive (Christian value) and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
    5. Nonviolence chooses love, not hate.  It resists violence of the spirit as well as of the body: spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative.
    6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.  One must have deep faith that justice will eventually win and believe that God is a God of justice.

    Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change, the steps (or phases of a campaign) for social and interpersonal change, based on Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in his book, Why We Can’t Wait:

    1. Information gathering.  To understand you must do research and be an expert on your opponent’s position.
    2. Education.  It is essential to inform others, including your opposition, about your issue.
    3. Personal commitment.  Affirm your commitment to nonviolence daily.  Eliminate hidden motives and prepare to accept suffering, if necessary.
    4. Discussion/negotiation.  List, address and resolve injustices with grace, humor and intelligence. Find the positive in every action and statement the opposition makes, call forth the good from them.
    5. Direct action.  Take action when the opponent is unwilling to enter into or remain in discussion/negotiation, creating a “creative tension” to drive resolution.
    6. Reconciliation.  Nonviolence always seeks friendship and understanding, not victory and defeat.

    The goal of nonviolent response in ending the three-fold violence of poverty, racism and militarism is building the “Beloved Community,” for Dr. King a realistic, achievable goal of integration where society would be free of any form of the evils of violence. It is a global vision with international standards of human decency and an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood whose core value is agape love, unconditional love for the sake of the other. The expression of agape love is justice for all people. Love will triumph over fear and hatred, conflicts will be resolved peacefully, adversaries would be reconciled through a mutual commitment to nonviolence. “Nonviolence”, Dr. King believed, “has the power to break the cycle of retributive violence.”

    Martin Luther King was a light that suddenly appeared in the darkness of centuries of human trafficking, persecution, slavery and civil war, but his light was different  He chose to follow from the Gospels of Jesus Christ the challenge to see Christ in every person who is in need, even the enemy who needs to be freed from evil. Peacemaking is more than simply the process of arbitration; its goal is friendship. Agape, or nearing communion with one another through unconditional love, is not simply tolerance maintaining segregation. It is more than an association or organization.  It is real relationship, sisterhood and brotherhood.

    Empowered with this knowledge, a path is illuminated. The evil itself is acknowledged among us and objectified as what it is.  The evil, not the person, is rejected.  

    The only way to break the chain of hate is by inserting love, a redemptive goodwill toward all people.  Dr. King exhorted all to the highest possible, unconditional, universal, all-encompassing love possible.

    This path to social change still holds true today. In this strategy, the ends are already contained in the means: the seeds of the outcome can already be found in the peaceful nature of the means employed. Above all it is a method that seeks to redeem: not to end, but to transform, to save what is worth saving (all persons) and to leave behind anything that is not ordered according to their dignity and wellbeing.

    © Arlington Catholic Herald 2021