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ARTICLES > PEACE, NON-VIOLENCE & CONFLICT RESOLUTION > Martin Luther King's Non-violent Struggle and its relevance to Asia
Martin Luther King's Non-violent Struggle and its Relevance to Asia
By Chris Walker
Because this conference proposes to bring together a wide variety of stories and perspectives on nonviolent struggles in the 20th century and lessons for the 21st, I felt it only appropriate to discuss a struggle from my home region and my own religious background. I am from the South of the United States and grew up as a Southern Baptist Christian. Secondly, because I have worked in Thailand with Ajan Sulak for well over a year, and I have been involved in this area for many years I propose to draw out the areas of Martin Luther King's nonviolent struggle which I feel are relevant to the Asian region. In essence this paper is as much for my own benefit as any other. It is a chance for me to pull together the threads of my spiritual and intellectual journey, which has taken me all over the world. A process of learning and growing in the knowledge and conviction that nonviolent struggle is the only way to build a lasting culture of peace.
In a sense Martin Luther King grew up in a religious environment which in some ways would be more characteristically Asian in its overall nature. He lived in an environment steeped in religion, the Christian religion to be sure. But in the West where religious life and secular life are most usually divided, with religion often being relegated to Sundays and forgotten the rest of the week, the integration of religion into everyday life is an extraordinary thing. However I have found in Asia that this is more usually the norm. Regardless of a person's particular devotion to their religion, the signs, symbols and ceremonies of religion govern the patterns of everyday life. In some cases this familiarity may breed contempt, but when faced with a crisis, those who have been initiated into the belief that the spiritual domain is indeed to be found both in heaven and earth, automatically turn to the spiritual for guidance, wisdom or intercession. This would be an everlasting hallmark of Martin Luther King's nonviolent struggle. He found strength in his faith. When he needed answers to tough questions, he prayed. Thus was bound inextricably together the inner and outer elements of nonviolent struggle. The outer elements are the politics if you will: The external causes and conditions of suffering and injustice, and the ordinary steps to remedy these problems, like mass organization, public education, inter and inter-organizational conflict resolution. The inner element of nonviolent struggle is the right view, the philosophy of ahimsa and the strength and faith to implement it in the face of ridicule, of loss of freedom, even physical harm to ones self and ones cadres. To struggle to change the phenomenal world without in some way calling upon the power of the sacred is futile. It is this futility which drives to violence those, whose arrogance or ignorance toward the role of the sacred in the pursuit of peace and happiness leads them to believe that they can do it all alone.
Another aspect of Martin Luther King's life which is more uniquely Asian than American is his early and intimate contact with suffering. Life in the house of a minister (his father) is punctuated by late night phone calls announcing the sickness or death of a parishioner, a marriage torn apart, a job lost. In Asia all but royalty or the blind see everyday the effects of poverty and injustice. They see in the street sickness and death, homelessness, families living under bridges, combing through the garbage. This is not to say that every Asian takes what they see to heart. It is possible to see and yet not to see. Yet the difference is that America is a sanitized society. The sick and mentally ill are rushed off to be tucked away in special places, out of sight. Death is treated as an anomaly, rarely spoken of in the open and dealt with speedily and quietly. The homeless are driven out of common areas and live on the fringes of society. Thus it takes a special environment or initiative to come face to face with the immediacy and predominance of suffering in the world for one who lives in the mainstream of American society. Martin Luther King had one more reason why he was forced to come to grips with suffering and injustice in society. He was black; a descendant of the African slaves who had been ripped from their homeland hundreds of years earlier and on whose backs a large part of American prosperity was built. When he was a young child he played with the white children who lived down the street but when the time came to attend school he went to one school and they another. This raised in his mind the question of inequality and the knowledge that society's laws and God's law as he had learned from the Bible, were different.
Transformation into an Activist
How did Martin Luther King begin to synthesize those facets of his early education in life and develop an aspiration to change the status quo and furthermore to adopt nonviolent struggle as the modus operandi? Firstly he made a careful and thorough study of the commonly studied texts in the so-called 'classical' or perhaps more accurately, mainstream western education. He studied the classical philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbs, Lock, Rousseau. He also studied Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. His conclusion was that these works represent only a partial truth. He abhorred the separation of the means from the end inherent in all of these systems as well as the separation of humanity from ideology. He says about his impressions of these philosophies. 'Constructive ends can never give absolute moral justification to destructive means, because in the final analysis the end is preexisting in the mean'. In regard to both Capitalism and Marxism he felt that if human beings are the children of God, the purpose of the state is their welfare, not vice versa. This is entirely relevant in light of the damage being done to today's world by rampant consumerism where the transnational corporations, which have largely supplanted the state as the dominant force in human interaction, assume that consumers and client states exist for their benefit. In fact many of today's nonviolent struggles are fought on the frontier of this new colonialism which goes by the pseudonym, globalization. Martin Luther King had examined the undercurrents in the prevailing world-view and rejected them. He had his faith in God as an ultimate view, so where is the synthesis. On what fulcrum does his ultimate world view (Christianity) and his relative view (action in the world-artha kriya) pivot? This point is crucial because for Martin Luther King as well as any of us involved in nonviolent struggle it is the active principle. We may believe in God, morality, communism or whatever, but at the basic level these are only ideas. Good or bad ideas can sponsor good or bad action. There is no certainty and no true guiding principle without a bridge between the sacred and the mundane. At this very moment Buddhist monks who have, by donning robes asserted a commitment to nonviolence, are participating in violent acts in Sri Lanka, Christians in Serbia are killing Muslims, Hindus whose faith teaches non-harm and non-killing are killing Christians. So it is safe to say that this point is entirely crucial in the understanding of nonviolent struggle. Many profess a faith of peace but the actions they take don't always correspond. It is in fact the bridge between the ultimate and the relative, which provides the active principle, connects a person to their source of power and inspiration. How about Martin Luther King’s action principle: He had studied the classics, he had his Christian training, but what finally brought him to the conclusion that action was necessary and that nonviolent struggle was the way? It was in Philadelphia, Pa., during a Sunday church meeting that Martin Luther King heard a sermon by Dr. Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, the president of Howard University. Dr. Johnson delivered his sermon on the life and thinking of Mahatma Gandhi. I feel it was at this moment that Martin Luther King's ideas and studies became crystallized into a plan of action. After this first indirect encounter with Gandhi through the words of a man who himself had actually met the Mahatma, King went out and bought as many books as he could find about Gandhi's life and works. It was in the writings of Gandhi that King began to see certain aspects of his own religion in a new light.
In Christianity the relationship of God to man is often characterized as Agape. Agape is love, with a capital 'L'. It is not only an idea, a feeling, emotion etc. but it is quite literally a force. Like the force of gravity, which permeates every corner of the universe and has an effect on everything in it, Love is the central principal around which Christianity revolves. God sent his son in human form to suffer and atone for humanity's shortcomings. Because of love, the imperfect human can be unified with the perfection of God. And yet, until he heard the proactive, socially relevant way in which Gandhi applied this force in the mundane/profane world, Martin Luther King wasn't sure that love had implications beyond the soteriological realm, that is the realm of salvation. Now he came to see that love was a force imminently applicable to social issues, indeed perhaps the only one that could quell the deep-seated roots of violence, prejudice and greed in human nature as it most usually has shown itself throughout history.
The Roots of the Tree of Nonviolent Struggles
In so many ways all of the nonviolent struggles around the world are against injustice especially institutionalized injustice. In a village or a tribe, very often the tools exist to resolve conflicts, councils of elders, town meetings etc. With the rise of the nation state the application and end of violence has become far more complex and interpenetrated with all of the other aspects of culture.
For both Martin Luther King and Gandhi learning from their experience, was a strong component of their programs and of their unique wisdom. So many leaders have fixed positions or dogmas that they are actually incapable of learning from their experience. One has to have an open mind and a humble nature to really learn from experience. You may enter a situation with a certain way in mind to handle it, this is natural, but true wisdom unites the right view with the skillful means. In this case skillful means implies the ability to examine the causes, conditions and outcomes in a situation, and to change in such a way as to be most effective in furthering the cause of nonviolent struggle.
Gandhi possessed penetrating psychological insights into the dynamics of conflicts and ways in which they might be managed. I use the term manage, as opposed to stop or eliminate, because conflict is a part of the natural order of the Universe. It is also important to note that conflict can be a creative process. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King realized that the creative energy of conflict and conflict resolution could be used for beneficial purposes as opposed to trying or stamp out all conflict. Conflict is also a natural by-product of struggle, and both Gandhi and King believed that passivity and acquiescence to injustice was not tantamount to peace. In line with his psychological insight, Gandhi saw that the process of struggle emboldened, encouraged and in so many cases transformed people in beneficial ways.
What exactly is the vocabulary of constructive conflict? If the violence in the world order is so well mixed up in and disguised by social structures and violence, then a new vocabulary is needed as a counterpoint. Arguing for nonviolence in terms of violence-semantics is ineffective and in fact may reinforce or justify violent behaviour. In every righteous struggle there must first be an over-reaching philosophy. I think in the ultimate sense Gandhi and Martin Luther King had a similar basis or philosophy, which underpinned their actions. In a word, it seems that Love, with a capital L, or in the Greek agape, was the bedrock from which they drew strength. For Gandhi, love was part of a trinity of God, Truth and Love. One of the unifying factors of all of these elements of Gandhi's underlying philosophy is that they are all creative forces. This is why one who holds these principals to be the "true north" the reference point for social action that can never fall into or promote violence. Violence is not a creative force. Even when a goal is attained, if it be through violence―then it is vulnerable to attack and repudiation by violence. Violence also leaves a bitter aftertaste in the mouth of the defeated, it plants the seeds of future dissent and dissatisfaction. As Dr. King commented on his view of Gandhi's work, "it is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflictor of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe." The goal of nonviolent struggle is not to make the oppressed the oppressors but to forge a cooperative society in which all may live peacefully and strive toward human progress together. For Martin Luther King love was at the fulcrum of a trinity as well as, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. God is the creator; he created the world by, for and with the power of love. God is truth, intelligence and wisdom. But he gave humanity freewill and the result was that humanity fell away from the link between heaven and earth which was love and became blinded by the philosophy which is seemingly proposed by the phenomenal world. Like the maya of Hindu thought, the knowledge sought by man at the primordial beginning of the Christian creation story was pedantic. It was induced by a poverty mentality, to know about the world to garner benefits accruable and attributable to ones self only as opposed to the recognition of interconnectedness and the proper credit for all creation, all knowledge, all sustenance etc., to God and the force of love in the world. "In the beginning God was the world and the world was God." Jesus Christ was God's love incarnate. A human form to teach and demonstrate the original principles of love, which had been diminished by humanity's continuous and increasing self-love, or solidifying the ego. The separation of God and man was not through God's action but mans repudiation of the original principals of love, which leads to the misunderstanding of interconnectedness. The Holy Spirit is the action principal, it is the pervasive and infinite energy, which is available, to all whom can let down the ego created barrier to feeling at the deepest level the connection between God and man. (Integrative power)
All of the vocabulary used by Gandhi is undoubtedly well known to the peace studies community thus to reprise the most common terms is perhaps not informative at this juncture. However, it is highly relevant in the context of this paper to address some of the vocabulary of Martin Luther King in relation to the main pillars of Gandhian thought: ahimsa, satyagraha, swaraj, hartal etc. Both of their dialectical styles and content are profound and deep. For Gandhi, he reached into the deepest well of the Indian psyche by making an organic holism out of the triumvirate of truth, god and love. Gandhi was practical and not too philosophical in his dialectic, i.e. he meant to find a way to motivate people to utilize the power of social change that he knew they had, though they as yet did not. Even so his trinity, like the Christian one, harks back to cosmology. In the beginning, the world was balanced by a virtual triangle of cosmic forces. Then in the vastness of the primordial past, they began to fall out of synchronicity with each other. Once they were fully dis-synchronous the only way back to proper balance was creation, the exercise of suffering in and hopefully transcending the maya of the phenomenal world is the only way that the cycle of rebirth is exhausted. Gandhi's vocabulary may be action oriented but has a cosmological and spiritual significance as well as soteriological significance. King's vocabulary is more directly connected to spiritual matters, as it could be no other way. The African American Christians, growing up under slavery and later discrimination had developed a unique tradition of homiletics. Spiritual songs about freedom and the Promised Land, redemption etc., all contain a subtext of aspiration toward justice on earth as well as faith in God and the afterlife. These very spiritual songs were used to communicate news of slave escapes and rendezvous with the Underground Railroad.
Most of the inspirational and educational vocabulary of nonviolence that Martin Luther King used in his preaching and teaching about nonviolence was directly inspired by the Christian gospel. Even so it is clear that Martin Luther King was deeply and directly influenced by Gandhian thinking in his action-oriented interpretations of Christian concepts. All of the dialectics stem from his understanding and faith in God. Indeed faith is a key concept, the link or pact between God and mankind. In the Bible faith is addressed many times, "by faith alone shall ye enter the kingdom of God." Faith is a crucial aspect and especially emphasized in the African American experience of Christianity. Faith was the key to the African American's survival of centuries of slavery. How is faith applied to nonviolent conflict? Naturally first of all tenets of the Christian faith specify that a believer must "love thy brother as thyself" and "turn the other cheek." So the doctrinal background is clear. But how about socially engaged approaches, in what way does faith contribute to the character of the nonviolent struggle for civil rights? Put simply, faith keeps you going in the face of opposition and gives you the strength to persist in nonviolent methods. Martin Luther King spoke often to his followers about being steadfast in the application of nonviolence. Through the experience of Gandhi, he knew it could be very effective but he also knew that if the satyagrahi's discipline failed it would have disastrous results. This is a double kind of faith. Faith in the Truth of the method and the goal, and faith that God is always beside you, to give you strength in the actual application of the struggle. Martin Luther King's wife when asked how she kept calm amid all of the turmoil replied, "We believe we are right, and in believing we are right, we believe that God is with us."
Martin Luther King added. "We have a strange feeling down here in Montgomery that in our struggle for justice we have cosmic companionship. And so we can walk and never get weary because we believe and know that there is a great camp meeting in the Promised Land of freedom and justice. And this belief, this feeling that God is on the side of truth and justice and love and that they will eventually reign supreme in this universe. This comes down to us from the long tradition of the Christian faith. There is something that stands at the centre of our faith."
King also spoke often of justice: justice and faith go together. He says, "I think every person who believes in nonviolent resistance, believes somehow that the universe is on the side of justice and that there is something unfolding in the universe whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process or... some unmoved mover or as personal God, there is something in the universe that unfolds toward justice. Justice represents the higher order of God's law, under which all beings are equal, as they are all God's children. "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile... male nor female...communist nor capitalist. We are all one in Jesus Christ. And when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won't exploit people, we won't trample over people with the iron foot of oppression, we won't kill anybody."
The Fruit of the Tree of Nonviolence
I think that the history of Gandhi and Martin Luther King's successes are well known so I shall discuss the more esoteric benefits of nonviolent struggle as I perceive them as opposed to the matters of fact and historical record. Without a doubt the first benefit of adopting a nonviolent approach to conflict resolution is personal transformation. Although for each person the effect may differ, applying nonviolent philosophy to one's life and actions in this world makes a person progressively more peaceful on the inside. Regardless of religious views or the level of ones social activism, nonviolent means are imminently applicable to every situation in life. It is a positive cycle that feeds on itself. The process of nonviolent struggle itself creates and enhances one's transformation, the lessening of greed, anger and delusion in one's mind and body. Spiritual practice is needed to face the challenges of the very violent world in which we live be it theistic or nontheistic, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist or whatever. We need not be perfect, but without the sincere and strong aspiration to lessen violence in ourselves, we cannot be helpful to others.
Not all nonviolent struggles achieve tangible successes but many do. The process of struggle which changes people and softens their hearts creates conditions in which entire societies can be transformed. Even in the absence of political change, the process of nonviolent struggle is creating social change. The effects on society may be hard to measure but by training, and building up skills in conflict resolution, the seeds of peace are planted and fertilized. Just as Martin Luther King, who never met Gandhi, was influenced to see his religious background not only as a metaphysical and soteriological frame work but an action principle by Gandhi's example, the influence of those who work for peace nonviolently may have immense effect on society in the future. As Else Boulding says, peace is created out of the everyday skills of peaceful problem solving and conflict resolution in families, in neighbourhoods, and among different social, cultural, religious and ethnic groups within and between societies. Thus employing nonviolent means as a paradigm for problem solving has the potential to utterly revolutionize our planet. In the past nonviolent struggle is seen as extraordinary and unusual if noble. In the future we must strive to make it the norm in society from the lowest to the highest level. There are many pressing reasons to do so. The first is moral. Simply put, it is the right thing to do, it is in accordance with the Truth. The second is social. Because there are always those who will adopt violent means to struggle for their rights, proponents of nonviolence must beat them to the punch so to speak―as the violent struggles legitimizes, in the governments view, the use of violence to suppress righteous struggles. The environment itself is suffering from violence and without a stable culture of peace no effective and lasting solutions can be found. In addition the environmental damage is linked to social justice as so many people depend on natural resources for their very livelihoods. For all of these reasons and more it is obviously vital that we draw upon the wisdom of Gandhi and Martin Luther King to develop and implement a real plan of action designed to bring about peace, social justice and to foster the development of a culture of peace, a society that reflects the precepts on nonviolent problem solving at all levels.
On a more personal level I wish to point out some of the ideas gleaned from the life and thought of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. What are some of the lessons of these two giants of nonviolent struggle in the 20th century and how do these lessons bode for the future? A clear moral understanding must be in place. Archimedes said, give me a level and a firm place to stand and I will move the world. Without a strong rock on which to stand it is not possible to personally shoulder the suffering and the responsibility for helping all the beings in the world. For Martin Luther King and Gandhi they relied on faith in the sacred, Truth, God, Love and they perceived that these two words are not separate. This in a sense gives the engaged peace worker an infinite well of energy to rely on and a sense of companionship with something larger than themselves in the universe. A sense that God's law of the law of truth (dharma) is really at work in the world already and that we may harness its power for social change, for personal transformation and to help us through troubled times.
Another lesson exemplified in the nonviolent struggle of these two great men of the 20th century is the power of the journey, both symbolic and real. Many of their social action campaigns involved a journey, a march to the sea, to the country courthouse, a 'freedom ride' to the Deep South and many others. Not only is there something about the nature of a journey or odyssey which strikes a chord in everyone's heart thus creating power for change, but the journey itself is symbolic of the inner change which must take place for nonviolence to be effective. Our lives are a journey as well, and like Martin Luther King and Gandhi we are always growing and changing, sometimes subtly other times dramatically. I am reminded of a Buddhist phrase, journey is the goal. Not every social action campaign is successful on tangible terms. However it is the act of nonviolent struggle, in essence, the journey, which is of real importance. Thus the lesson is to honour and recognize that the process of struggle is itself of great value and significance, and never be discouraged from continuing by the lack of obvious success for the journey is indeed the goal as we journey into a new millennium.
[Source: International Workshop on Non-violent Struggles in the Twentieth Century and their lessons for the Twenty- First, October 5-12, 1999, New Delhi]