I never knew Martin Luther King, Jr., but I grew up politically in his America. My personal awakening to nonviolence came one day in Greenwich Village when I happened to listen in to a radio broadcast covering a Civil Rights rally going on somewhere down south. A justifiably angry African American man said to the rally organizer, “They beat us, they hit us: why don’t we use violence back?” The leader, whoever it was, calmly said, “Because that is not who we are.” From that moment on I lived with the vague feeling in the back of my mind that not only is nonviolence a key to what I want to be, it’s what we are as human beings, nonviolence is the destiny toward which we have to strive – if the human experiment is to go on on planet Earth.
It is common knowledge, I think, that King had an unusually deep grasp of nonviolence. What this means may not be so commonly acknowledged, namely that it lead him into a profound understanding of and optimism about the nature of reality itself. When he says that “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that,” he is pointing out a simple, polar difference between the two forces that determine the quality and direction of our life. St. Augustine long before him had said repeatedly in his monumental City of God, “there are two loves’ (or basic drives), that lead respectively to two world orders.” There are times when we fail to see things because they’re too simple. It takes a kind of courage to peer into that stark, underlying simplicity, to grasp that those two forces, with their opposite character and opposite results, really make up the texture of the moral choices facing us every time we address the major issues of our lives, personal or political. It is the failure to see these two forces as the underlying criterion of our choices, almost without exception, that makes our decisions such a disastrous incompetence. Why does raining bombs on, say, Afghanistan, not make it a peaceful, democratic country? Why doesn’t it just eliminate “bad guys” and let “good guys” take over? How come, as one commander said about our war in Iraq a few years ago, “we are making terrorists faster than we can kill them”?
The simple answer is, you cannot use darkness to drive out darkness, violence to drive out violence. And the name of the positive and negative drives which makes the most sense for us today, that most helps us to see their nature and what we’re really dealing with, is nonviolence and violence.
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Furthermore, King understood, with Gandhi, that of these two forces – let’s call them anger and compassion for the moment – one was more real. Anger is really a distortion, or perversion, if you will, of compassion, which alone is real. To say otherwise is actually a heresy called Manichaeism that Christians are supposed to reject though the vast majority of self-identified Christians today still unconsciously hold it, because our modern culture cannot advance to such a bright view of reality or human nature, Christian or not. But it was a practical reality for King. He said, when someone challenged him that the movement roused a lot of anger, no, we did not cause outbursts of anger, “we expressed anger under discipline for maximum effect.” That mature understanding of the dynamics of anger and the nonviolent effect of its containment or re-direction is rare even among activists today.
The roots of violence/nonviolence are harbored in social conditions favoring one or the other long before the former erupts in open conflict. King was well aware of this. He clearly saw that life is organized along a principle of unity-in-diversity that again seems to elude most of us (I learned it slowly from my spiritual teacher in whom it was second nature even when he was not using the term itself):
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.
This is a revolutionary statement that would overturn the most basic, unspoken value of modern culture: competition. We so closely hold competition as the valid organizing principle of life) that we have made it the sacred cow of business, economics, foreign policy, sports – even education. It is probably an underlying reason for our tremendous fear of communism, which in its primitive form downgrades competition, especially competition for wealth, though its modern forms show little trace of that awareness (was it Galbraith who said that in capitalism it’s man against man, while in communism it’s exactly the other way around?).
Because I was not at home in King’s Christian vocabulary, and because I was dazzled by the courage of his achievements, it took me a while to discover that Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose official birthday, like my real one, is today, January 20), was one of the wisest humans that lived among us in the modern world. Perhaps if he had been allowed to live we would be following his advice to “rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented civilization to a person-oriented civilization.” And perhaps the best way to honor his legacy would be to begin it now.