It is remarkable that the United States has a holiday celebrating an
advocate of nonviolence such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. To critics, the
real American spirit is on display during our military holidays: Veterans Day,
Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. The alternative voice of nonviolence is
rarely heard in a culture that celebrates war. Thus, it is surprising that we
honor a pacifist such as King, who was inspired by Jesus, Tolstoy and Gandhi.
It may be that we only remember King as an advocate of racial equality.
But we would do well to remember that racial oppression and violence are two
sides of the same coin. King was as vocal an opponent of war as he was of
Some may think that pacifism means acquiescing to the status quo. But King
reminds us that peace is connected with justice. Nonviolence requires creative
and cooperative work. It also requires great spiritual strength to confront
violence and injustice with patience and love. Unlike those who advocate the
idea of a just war in which we kill in the name of justice, King thought that
the means for creating justice had to be nonviolent -- as he stated in his
1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: "Nonviolence is the answer to the
crucial political and moral question of our time -- the need for man to
overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression."
It is important to remember this message as the nation continues to fight
the war on terrorism. We tend to think that military power can solve the
world's problems. But pacifists remind us that there are alternatives. In
explaining his opposition to the war in Vietnam, King equated his struggles
against racial oppression with the struggle to end the war. Both struggles were
based upon the idea that all men are brothers. King said: "We are called to
speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those
it calls 'enemy,' for no document from human hands can make these humans any
less our brothers."
King's philosophy of nonviolence is linked to the faith that suffering
will be redeemed. King said that "unearned suffering is redemptive." From this
perspective, the fear that incites violence is dissipated. Advocates of
nonviolence are willing to suffer and even die in pursuit of a just cause, but
they are unwilling to inflict violence upon others. They also trust that
nonviolence will be rewarded in the long run. King grounded his philosophy of
nonviolence in the model of Jesus, who told Peter to put away his sword and who
allowed himself to be crucified. As the Russian pacifist Tolstoy claimed, the
essence of the Christian Gospel was not to return evil for evil.
For King, the guiding principle of nonviolence is Christian love. King
says that love means that all life is interrelated and all men are brothers.
"Because men are brothers, if you harm me, you harm yourself." This approach is
often seen as naive and utopian. It seems better simply to kill the bad guys in
pursuit of justice. This is the basic idea behind the death penalty. It is also
the guiding principle of the wars we fight. The worry is that if we do not
fight evil with real weapons, the bad guys will win. But for advocates of
nonviolence such as King, the point is not simply to win a fight. Victory
without love, reconciliation and justice is fruitless. There are goods to be
obtained that are infinitely higher than the good of victory.
When King's house was bombed, his supporters wanted violence and revenge.
But King advocated nonviolence. He told his friends, "He who lives by the sword
will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not
advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love your
enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with
Such ideas need to be remembered as we continue to fight and prepare for
war. Even if it is only one day out of the year when we think about the power
of nonviolence, this one day should remind us that there are alternatives to
war. It should give hope to those who despair of growing American militarism.
Americans do recognize the power of King's message, even though we do not take
it as seriously as we should.
Andrew Fiala is an associate professor of philosophy at California State University at Fresno.
© 2006 San Francisco Chronicle