I do not have the wisdom or experience to say whether or not the belief that non-violence is the best way to bring about change in the face of injustice is right. What I do know is that, when faced with injustice, the best answer for me personally aligns with that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi. When we follow what appears to be the natural order of things, violence begets violence, accompanied by a continued escalation until there is hurt on all sides and an effort to reconcile seems nearly impossible. When we instead choose to respond to injustice with love, we effectively prevent ourselves from the escalation of the very brokenness and injustice which was perpetuated against us. This does not mean the injustice continues unaddressed.
As Martin Luther King said in his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech, “…nonviolence is not sterile passivity but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation.” (King) It is a response to injustice, not a submission to it. It asks for us to be reconciled rather than perpetuate our broken principles through which we operate. In the same speech he said, “If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love…” (King) The effectivity of this approach becomes apparent in the story of Stoney, a white boy who grew up in Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
His family reflected his community. “And this is Alabama in the late fifties, the heart of Dixie, you know, where the Confederacy and all of the glory of the Confederacy was still a part of the way you were brought up.” (Berman 132) He heard Martin Luther King, Jr. labeled a Communist and enemy of the United Sates. He participated in the celebration of Bull Connor (a fantastic example of injustice and the use of violence) as the epitome of the Southern man. He reflected that when he was young, his beliefs were the beliefs of those around him because you believe in them. Then he went to Birmingham and as they turned the corner, he saw the police letting the dogs bite people who were peacefully singing and marching. He had a different reaction from his compatriots: “and I remember sayin’ to them then, “I don’t care if you are a nigger, you deserve better than to be chewed up by a dog.” I don’t think the other two boys that were with me really saw it that way. I think they saw it as an extension of the rightness of Bull Connor…” (Berman 134)
A few years later he experienced real breakthrough when he went to see Martin Luther King, Jr. at the march in Selma. “Then they get to a point, maybe fifty to a hundred yards away from the state troopers, and they knelt down and started to pray…And when I saw them kneel down to pray, I turned to the guy that was with me and said, “Those people aren’t Communists. Communists don’t believe in God! They wouldn’t kneel down and pray if they were Communists.” (Berman 135) It was the peaceful response of the march that lead him to recognize the incongruity between what he believed and what he witnessed. This response to appeal to God in a moment that promised unjust violence did not reflect a Godless people intent on destroying America. When his grandmother told him later that it was a trick, his belief system began to crack and was eventually replaced by something else. I wonder how differently the story might have gone if, rather than marching and praying, they had responded to police brutality with violence. Would the boys heart have been awakened to the injustice he witnessed? Would he continue to operate in the belief system he’d been given? Would he have gotten involved in the violence?
Martin Luther King also said in his speech that receiving the award, “…is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time, the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.” (King) Nonviolence is not an easy answer, or a quick one. Someday we may learn that it isn’t the best one. But as far as my experience goes, it is the one that holds the most promise for reconciliation in our present and our future.
Berman, Philip. The Search for Meaning. New York: Bellantine Books, 1990. .pdf..
King, Jr., Martin Luther. Noble Prize Acceptance Speech. Oslo: Noble.org, 1964. video.