Alex Blaze

Nonviolence: It's more than not hitting people

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 22, 2010 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Glenn Beck, Martin Luther King Jr., nonviolence, stride toward freedom

I posted Monday and Tuesday on Martin Luther King's Stride Toward Freedom, one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read. Have you gotten a copy? Even if you think my posts on the subject have been garbage, King's book is still, over 50 years later, a must-read.

non-violence.jpgWe've all learned he held fast to the principles of nonviolence. To borrow Ward Churchill's words, "nonviolence" didn't mean "no risk." King was prepared to die for the cause and even expected it to happen several times as he received specific death threats and his house was bombed and the houses of several of the other organizers were bombed. At one point his father in Atlanta got a group of people together to talk him out of going back to Montgomery, but he went anyway. Even if he was arrested (which he was when the city tried to shut down the carpool, even though his goal wasn't just to get arrested and gain publicity for the cause but because he knew the carpool needed to continue), he still wanted to keep working because he knew that there was redemptive power in suffering.

When he had received serious death threats (side note: he describes his hate mail as "misspelled and crudely written." Some things never change) and was scared about not just his safety, but the safety of his daughter and wife, he said in church: "If one day you find me sprawled out dead, I do not want you to retaliate with a single act of violence. I urge you to continue protesting with the same dignity and discipline you have shown so far."

Not a single act of violence should he die, and his death was not an academic topic.

Then his house actually was bombed when his wife and daughter were home, and while spending the night at someone else's house, here's how he reacted:

I tried to put myself in the place of the three commissioners. I said to myself these men are not bad men. They are misguided. They have fine reputations in the community. In their dealings with white people they are respectable and gentlemanly. They probably think they are right in their methods of dealing with Negroes. The say things they say about us and treat us as they do because they have been taught these things. From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior. Their parents probably taught them that; the schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers, often taught them that; and above all the very concept of segregation teaches them that. The whole cultural tradition under which they have grown - a tradition blighted with more than 250 years of slavery and more than 90 years of segregation - teaches them that Negroes do not deserve certain things. So these men are merely the children of their culture. When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.

How did he get there? On a night where his daughter and wife could have been killed, why is he thinking about how the people indirectly responsible for the attempted murder feel? Yes, he was a moral giant, a giant that, if you read this book, makes the people who speak for him today seem like small people.

It reminded me of the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, where one tries to understand and ease the suffering of all people, including specific people one despises. It's what I used to do, back when I was a better person, when annoyed by someone but not so annoyed that I forgot to do it: think about exactly why they did what they did to annoy me. It actually brings peace more than staying annoyed and focused on oneself does. Of course, King was a Christian, not Buddhist, but this is one of those "spiritual maturity is owned by no religion" moments.

He gets into more depth on the topic of "spiritual nonviolence" in his incredibly interesting discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of nonviolence, as he understood it:

A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. the nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have the sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives. [...]

Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person - his need for belonging to the best in the human family. The Samaritan who helped the Jew on the Jericho Road was "good" because he responded to the human need that he was presented with. God's love is eternal and fails not because man needs his love. St. Paul assures us that the loving act of redemption was done "while we were yet sinners" - that is, at the point of our greatest need for love. Since the white man's personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears.

I don't have much to add to that. While I focused yesterday on what we couldn't take directly from King and the Civil Rights Movement, spiritual nonviolence is something we need more of. How far would that go? How would it apply to the queer movement, the progressive movement, and the government's operations?

I actually don't intend to live my life in accordance with Martin Luther King's principles; he was not a god and his word was not inerrant. But the people who do, do they intend to live according to nonviolence? This isn't a trifle - this is a more important value to King's activism than anything else. Does Glenn Beck take nonviolence seriously when he compares himself to King? Do the liberals who respond to Beck with insults take this nonviolence seriously?

These are important points as our country is at a crossroads again and historically nonviolence has brought about justice more than violence has. We have a media environment that profits from spiritual violence and a national discourse steeped in it. But since nothing else seems to be working to turn this country around, maybe we should give deeper reflection to our own values and actions.


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Thank you Alex, it's "nonviolence" in THOUGHT as well as deed.

And King actually does document the number of black people in Montgomery who did want to utilize physical violence AND people who certainly had spiritually violent thoughts (e.g. the woman who said that she "could have broken that little fellows neck all by myself"...)

The type of nonviolence that King was talking about IS verydifficult, and were he living I think that even he would say that he didn't think that way 100%

Great post! I needed to be reminded that spiritual violence begets bitterness, and bitterness destroys quality of life.

This is going to sound hokey, but when I think to do it, it works: I pray for those who I resent, and who resent me.

I pray for them everything that I would wish for myself-- peace of mind, happiness, prosperity, etc. Living in the middle of the Bible Belt with hostile religious conservatives at every turn, this simple action prevents bitterness from sapping my spiritual energy and allows me live my own life.

I'm not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. To who or what I pray is not as important as the action itself. And it really works-- for me at least.

Thanks for the spiritual reminder.

Regan DuCasse | September 22, 2010 8:00 PM

Trying to understand the rationale or mindset of those who violate gay and trans people, puts the onus of responsibility for their feelings on gay and trans people.

Of all things, anti gay sentiment IS taught. It IS a learned aspect, not a natural one.
Religious identity and beliefs are learned too.

Gay people already are considerably non violent and non threatening, all things considered.

But more and more, the opposition keeps maintaining that equality=threat to hetero people.
It's impossible to bear the weight of their fear. It's unfair as well.

These are people who feel entitled to their opinions and feelings, while at the same time refusing to own the legacy and results of them.
Something that is moral cowardice and intellectual disconnect.

This is a good point Regan...

But one thing that MLK stresses in this book in particular is that it's not so much that the practice of nonviolence changes the oppressor (though it certainly has that potential) but that it changes the oppressed (and in that context, King explicitly states that it changes self).

MLK is...was... very aware of the very dynamic that you point out...he points to nonviolence as a solution.

The other thing that really struck me about reading Stride Toward Freedom for the first time in...nearly 20 years I want to say is the very humility that allowed King and the boycotters to rise above the threats and the propaganda against them (e.g. that boycotts was a tactic used by White Citizens Councils).

I almost wish that Alex would draw up a 4th post delinating some of the similarities that he noticed; I realize what his purpose for this series was and he did a fine and (mostly) correct job with this but I read a lot of similarities between the two movements as well.