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Six Principles of Non-Violence From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Reconciliation has become a major theme in our political discourse, and rightfully so. For those who love our country and its foundations, bringing down the temperature of the nation and quelling partisan divisiveness is of paramount concern. But while much has been said about the need for peace, less has been done to achieve it.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “”True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” And in order for this country to truly find its way back to the “domestic tranquility” promised in the US Constitution, there is much to be done by the citizens, not just the politicians.

People like Henry David Thoreau, who ascribed to the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, also influenced King’s thinking. But it wasn’t until he embarked on his year-long journey of the Montgomery bus boycott that he began to assimilate all of these influences into his principles of non-violence. He laid these principles out in his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, and what follows is a short summary of each.

Practicing non-violence takes strength and resolve. It is not a pathway for those who seek to avoid conflict, as there is nothing passive about it. Rather this is an active stance, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Those who practice are always looking for ways to persuade their opponents and looking for methods to effect change. They are in community, building bridges of influence to those in power, and seeking to build support for their cause.

Is it not true that those who commit evil are also victims of its power? King knew that the true battle for justice lies between good and evil, darkness and light. He saw those who would oppress him as also being victims of systemic injustice. Seeing one’s enemies in this light helps us to view them sympathetically and focus on the root cause of the problem. King again echoed the Bible when he said that our struggle is ultimately not against particular people but systems – “the principalities and powers.”

A wise man knows that you do not change a person by mocking or humiliating them. On this topic, King wrote, “Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent but to win friendship and understanding…The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. … The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”

Perhaps the most important principle under the theory of non-violence is the power of undeserved suffering. The nonviolent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary, but not to inflict it, knowing that the suffering they endure has great power to change hearts and minds.

King paraphrased Gandhi when he wrote: “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children; send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities and drag us out on some wayside road, beating us and leaving us half dead, and we will still love you. But we will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”

The nonviolent resister refuses to physically harm his opponent, but they also refuse to hate them. At the base of a nonviolent philosophy is the principle of love. For King, love (specifically the “agape” kind of love discussed by Plato) is proof of the power of God working within us, enabling us to care for those who would seek to harm us. Nonviolent love is in a way a weapon, it disarms your opponent and shields you from becoming them.

King was an eternal optimist. And to do this work consistently, optimism is an essential outlook. “The believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future,” King wrote. “He knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. There is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.”

To assist his followers in plotting the pathway of non-violence, King also described six steps for best practices in non-violent change.

  1. Gather information: learn as much as you can about the problems around you and talk to those directly impacted.
  2. Educate others: it is your duty to help those around you better understand the problems in society.
  3. Remain committed: knowing you will face obstacles and blowback, work to inspire others.
  4. Peacefully negotiate: talk to both sides, use humor, grace, and intelligence to foster solutions between the oppressed and the oppressors.
  5. Take action peacefully: rely on peaceful demonstrations, letter-writing, and civil disobedience.
  6. Reconcile: keep all actions peaceful and constructive.

As we move forward as Americans, we face great challenges. Our fellow countrymen are hurting, our systems are broken, and there is despair all around us. We are in need of spiritual leaders and a regrowth of relationships.  Americans are not classified by parties, colors, or sexes.  God’s children are connected through love of one another and American’s are connected by the internal optimism of what the United States of America is – the light that shines in the darkness and the water that raises all the other ships.  May we rise up to follow in King’s footsteps and continue the work needed to lift this World out of it’s current negativity.

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