Wednesday, January 12, 2005

MLK on Nonviolence: Six Principles

In preparation for the King Holiday on January 17, I am writing a series of diaries dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr., his philosophies and his stances on various issues. As one of the main - if not THE main - proponents of nonviolence in this country, I feel that any series on Dr. King should cover how he viewed nonviolence. In this diary I will attempt to explain the Six Principles of Kingian Nonviolence; in subsequent diaries I hope to delve into the Six Steps of Kingian Nonviolence, and write an overview of Dr. King's philosophical work, My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.

It is prudent for me at this point to give my own disclaimer: I am not a purist when it comes to the application of nonviolence. This is where I differ from many proponents of nonviolence, including Dr. King. I tend to feel that there are situations where nonviolence may not be a viable alternative, because the use of violence has become so overwhelming that it is too late to resolve a conflict nonviolently. This, however, is my personal opinion, and is not - to my recollection - the way Dr. King viewed nonviolence.

In my discussion of Kingian nonviolence, I will not only attempt to portray to the best of my efforts Dr. King's own views on the viability of the use of nonviolence to resolve conflicts; I also hope to show to those who may be skeptical on the idea of using nonviolence that it is a very practical and pragmatic way to peacefully end conflicts, both on a personal, and on a national and international, level.


The Six Principles

The Six Principles are a good place to start when discussing Kingian nonviolence, as they are universal themes that are used to instruct people on how to get their nonviolence on. Dr. King himself said of the practice of nonviolence:

"Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life."


Dexter King, in his book "Growing Up King", recalls his father observing his sons and their friends playing with toy guns:

"The indoctrination of children who are being exposed to violent instruments of war - he didn't want to see it happen to his sons, his nephews, or anybody, but it was hard if not impossible to stop it, even within the borders of his own home in the society in which we came up. He knew this; it weighed on him."


Mr. King goes onto describe how his father came outside to talk with him and his brother and their friends about their toy guns, and why he felt it was wrong for them to be playing with them:

"You don't want another human being's death on your conscience," my father said. "You want to have life. I'd rather you play a musical instrument, debate, or even fight...but not with these..."


Dr. King's commitment to nonviolence transcended the political. He felt everyone could practice nonviolence as long as they were committed to it, and the Six Principles are the beginning of understanding how to adopt a nonviolence attitude.

The Six Principles are taken from Dr. King's first book, "Stride Toward Freedom", and are as follows:

  1. Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage

  2. Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary

  3. Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer

  4. A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it

  5. A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence

  6. Faith that justice will prevail


Let's break down each of these components and examine them:

Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage

Nonviolence doesn't require one to be a doormat, and it doesn't mean you just passively let people walk all over you. Nonviolence demands that you stand up for your rights and the rights of those who are being oppressed. It is not passive, but an active resistance to evil actions.

Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary

There is a component to using violence that requires one to dehumanize their adversary, to a greater or lesser degree, in order to justify the acts of violence one plans to commit against them. In our own history, this can be seen in calling the Vietnamese "gooks", looking at African Americans as subhuman in order to justify enslaving them, or...labeling countries as members of the "Axis of Evil" or simply referring to Al Qaeda and the members of the Iraqi insurgency as "the evildoers". Such dehumanization is not necessary in the application of nonviolence: indeed, one of the main benefits of using nonviolence for conflict resolution is that your are seeking to win your adversary over to your point of view, so that when the dust settles you can live together with your adversary in peace.

Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer

Nonviolence holds that all people are truly created equal. We are children of God, and as such we need to love and respect each other through our shared humanity. As Dr. King explained in his essay, "Nonviolence and Racial Justice":

"When we speak of loving those who oppose us we refer to neither eros nor philia; we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. When we love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed he does."


Therefore, nonviolence is not concerned about "defeating evil-doers"; it is concerned with ending the evil actions of our fellow human beings and children of God. Again, it does not seek to dehumanize the opponent but rather constantly reaches out to him with compassion while still resisting the evil that he does.

A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it

Dr. King embraced the concept of redemptive suffering in his sermon, "Eulogy for the Four Martyred Children", given after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which resulted in the murder of four little girls:

"God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. (Oh yes) And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force (Yeah) that will bring new light to this dark city. (Yeah) The holy Scripture says, "A little child shall lead them." (Oh yeah) The death of these little children may lead our whole Southland (Yeah) from the low road of man's inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. (Yeah, Yes) These tragic deaths may lead our nation to substitute an aristocracy of character for an aristocracy of color. The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham (Yeah) to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience. (Yeah)"


By accepting all of your adversary's hatred and violence with love and compassion combined with an obstinate refusal to back down, you are constantly pricking your opponent's conscience. Using violence provides your opponent with a justification to retaliate with violence. Using nonviolence deprives your opponent of this justification, and reveals both to him and to the rest of the world the brutality - and wrongness - of your opponent's actions and position.

A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence

Nonviolence requires an absolute refusal to hate your adversary or dehumanize him in any way. It requires an unrelenting commitment to never use violence, even when violence is inflicted upon you or your loved ones. Imagine nonviolence as playing a game of one-sided chicken, with your adversary constantly egging you on to commit acts of violence in retaliation to the violence he has used against you. In refusing to give into his demand that you use violence, you are winning the fight to stop his evil actions and save him from himself.

Faith that justice will prevail

"There have been moments when roaring waters of disappointment poured upon us in staggering torrents. We can remember days when unfavorable court decisions came upon us like tidal waves, leaving us treading in the deep and confused waters of despair. But amid all of this we have kept going with the faith that as we struggle, God struggles with us, and that the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice. We have lived under the agony and darkness of Good Friday with the conviction that one day the heightening glow of Easter would emerge on the horizon. We have seen truth crucified and goodness buried, but we have kept going with the conviction that truth crushed to earth will rise again". - Martin Luther King, Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott


Nonviolence requires optimism that good will triumph over evil. This optimism is not exclusive to one religion, or indeed to any religion. "We shall overcome" is not simply a catch-phrase in nonviolence; it is a statement of belief that in spite of all of the difficulties and suffering, in the end there will be a just resolution to the conflict, resulting in a lasting peace.

In this week before the King Holiday, in the midst of the United States engaging in a multi-front "war on terror", it is timely to reflect on Dr. King's messages of nonviolence and peace, and especially on his insistence that nonviolence is not passive idealism, but a practical and pragmatic way that humans can resolve their differences.

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