PEACE, NON-VIOLENCE & CONFLICT RESOLUTION > MARTIN LUTHER KING'S VIEWS ON NON-VIOLENCE > The Meaning of Non-violence
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The Meaning Of Non-violence
By Martin Luther King
There can be no gainsaying the fact that we face a crisis in race relations in our nation. This crisis has been precipitate by the collision between the forces of liberation and the forces of domination. One of the greatest expressions of this crisis is the resistance to the supreme court's decision outlawing segregation in the public schools; at times this résistance has risen to ominous proportions. But the old ideal of racial segregation, of paternalistic relationships, has exhausted itself, and the American society is seeking to reorient itself the idea of integration, the idea of person to person relations. This is the crisis of our age.
Now when the crisis develops in a society there is always an attempt to solve the problem developed as a result of the crisis and to get rid of the precipitating forces. Certainly those who have been oppressed or who have been the victims of the forces of domination, are always seeking to deal with the crisis. And there are three ways that oppressed people can get grapple with their oppression.
One method is that of acquiescence there are those individuals who feel that the only way to deal with their oppression is to resign themselves to the fate of oppression. There are those who surrender and find themselves becoming conditioned to things as they are. They feel that it is better to live with these things than to go through the ordeals of changing the old order to the new order. There was a man who lived in one of the Negro communities in Atlanta some years ago; he used to play his guitar and sing various songs, and one day he was heard singing a song that went something like this: "been down so long that down don't bother me." I guess he had achieved a level of freedom-a freedom of exhaustion. He had given up the struggle.
So this is the method of acquiescence- but it is not the way. It may be the easy way at times, but it is not moral way and it is not the courageous way; it is a cowardly way for the individual who adjusts to an evil system, and he must take some of the responsibility for the perpetuation of the unjust system.
There is a second way that oppressed people can deal with their oppression and that is to rise up with the violence and corroding hatred.
Now of course we know about this method. We know about violence and I am not here to say that violence has never worked. One who studies history soon discovers that nations have often received their independence through violence. Violence has often brought about momentary victories, it can never bring about permanent peace and it ends up creating many more social problems. Violence in the long run in the struggle for racial justice in both impractical and immoral. it is impractical for many reasons, and I think one of the best reasons is that so many of our opponents would love us to start a violent revolution; they would use this an excuse to kill many innocent people under the pretense that they are inciting a riot.
I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, that "Bull" Connor (Commissioner of Public Safety) was always happy when somebody on the sideline from the Negro Community threw rocks but he was always unhappy when we remained nonviolent. He knows how to deal with violence, but he does not know how to handle nonviolence.
And violence is impractical because the old eye for an eye philosophy ends up leaving everybody blind. This method is wrong. This method is immoral. It is immoral because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for everybody. It is wrong because it seeks to annihilate the opponent rather than convert him. It is wrong because it leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.
So I am still convinced, in spite of the tragedies that we faced in our Birmingham and most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom and justice. If we succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle. Unborn generations will be the recipients of long and mighty bitterness.
There is another method, a third method of nonviolence resistance. I feel that this is the method which must guide us through this tense period of transition. We are moving from the old order to the new order. We have the inevitable birth pains, the inevitable tensions that accompany the birth of the new age.
But I believe that nonviolence is the method that can achieve the ideals and goals and principles of the new age.
Now let us look for a moment at this philosophy and its basic meaning. Because we talk a great deal and we wear a great deal about nonviolence we often fail to realize that this method has an under-girding philosophy. First I would like to say that the philosophy of nonviolence contends that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. Means and ends must cohere. Means and ends are inseparable. The means represent the ideal in the making; in the long run of history destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends. Immoral means cannot bring about moral end and so nonviolence contends that means and ends must cohere. Nonviolence is the relentless pursuit of truthful ends through moral means.
The second point I would like to bring about nonviolence is this: It contends that one's aim must never be to inflict injury upon the opponent. In Indian philosophy they call the idea Ahimsa - non injury.
This stands at the center of the nonviolent discipline and the nonviolent philosophy and it has two aspects:
First of course you avoid external physical violence. One thing we say to everybody getting ready to participate in the nonviolent demonstration is that you must not retaliate the physical violence . If you are hit you must not hit back ; you must rise to the heights of being able to accept blows without retaliating. And so non-injury means that you refuse to engage in external physical violence. But it also means that you are constantly moving to the point where you refuse to hate your enemy. You are constantly moving to the point where you love your enemy.
Now a lot of people are confused at this point. They ask me from time to time: "What in the world do you mean when you talk about love or opponent?" Somebody said to me after lecture the other day: "I can go along with tactical nonviolence and I think you are right this is the best tactical nonviolence and I think you are right that it is the best tactic and the best technique. But when you start talking about this "love" stuff you lose me."
Well this "love stuff" stands at the center of nonviolence. The highest expression of non injury is love and I think many people misunderstand love at this point. They think that when you talk about "love" you are talking about sentimental, affectionate emotion and I would be the first to say that this is absurd; it is nonsense to urge oppressed people to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense. This is very difficult and almost impossible.
So when I try to explain what I mean by this "love stuff" I turn to a Greek language. It has a word agape.
Now agape is more than aesthetical or romantic love. Agape is more than a friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good-will for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing to return. Theologians would say that it is love of God operating in the human heart. When an individual rises to love on this level, he loves everyman not because his way appeals to him, but he loves every man because God loves him. He rises to the point of loving the person who does the evil deed that person does.
This is always a goal and it is beautiful to have a method of struggle where it is a possible to do this, for we are coming to see now that hate is dangerous. It is injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. It is a wonderful thing to have a method of struggle where it is possible to rise to the level of love and yet stand up with determination against the unjust and evil system. You come to the point of hating segregation and standing up against it, with all your might and yet maintaining an understanding love for the person who is misguided.
There is another point in nonviolence and it is this. It says that suffering may be a powerful social force, and interestingly enough that is on of the points that violence may bring out. The forces of war and violence will agree with nonviolence says that suffering on another but nonviolence says that suffering a powerful social force when you allow suffering and pain and violence to be inflicted on yourself. It goes on with a conviction that unmerited suffering is always redemptive.
And so the practitioner of nonviolence will say to his opponent, "We will meet your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, throw us in jail and as difficult as it is, we will go to jail and still love you. We will still love you, but be assured that we will wear you down by your capacity to suffer and one day we will win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory."
This is the meaning of nonviolence in its deepest dimensions and that is something that frustrates the opponent. It exposes his moral defense, it weakens his morale and at the same time it works on his conscience. He does not know how to handle it.
If he does not beat you, wonderful. If he does not put you in jail, wonderful. But if he does put you in jail, you transform the cell from a dungeon of shame to a heaven of freedom and human dignity. Even if he tries to kill you, you develop the inner conviction that there are something so precious, something so dear, something so eternally true that they are worth dying for. And if a man has not discovered something that he will die for. And if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he is not fit to live. If an individual at thirty years has not found some great principle, some great ideal that he will die for, he is already dead. If he is challenged to take a stand but he refuses because he is afraid-afraid that his home will be bombed, afraid that he may be shot, afraid that he may lose his job-he may live until it is eighty, but he is just as dead as thirty as he is at eighty and the cessation of breathing in the life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. And so nonviolence sees this, and it sees that suffering can be a powerful social force.
There is another thing that I would like to bring out here and that is an element of optimism concerning human nature in a nonviolent philosophy.
Nonviolence says that within human nature there are amazing potentialities of goodness. now I will hope I will not be misunderstood at this point because I think all too many devotees of nonviolence and pacifism have been able to see the evil tendencies in human nature and all too sentimental. They have been able to see the evil tendencies in human nature. I think we all must realize that there is within human nature a sort of dualism, something within all of us which justified Plato in saying that the human personality is like a charioteer with two strong horses each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within all of us which causes us to cry out with St. Augustine as he said in his Confessions. There is this tension and this struggle within human nature between the high and the low.
But after seeking this and after expressing this realistically, we must recognize that just as there is a capacity for evil, there is a capacity for goodness. Just as a Hitler can lead man to the darkest and lowest depths a Gandhi can lead, men to the highest heights of nonviolence and goodness. We must always see these possibilities within human nature; the nonviolent discipline goes on with this belief that even the most difficult person, even the person who is committed to the old order with all his might, can be transformed.
Now nonviolence says another thing. It says that one must never allow himself to reach the point that he is willing to co-operate with evil. This brings out one of the most difficult aspects of the nonviolent, direct action movement. This is the whole question of civil disobedience.
This is what civil disobedience means in the final analysis: That non-co-operation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is co-operation with good. This was what Henry David Thoreau said in eloquent terms in his essay on civil disobedience.
Now I know that we are criticized in our movement a great deal on this point and I can understand the criticism at times because we have been telling people to obey the law-and yet we disobey the law at points. We are saying to the people all over the country that everybody should obey the supreme court's decision of 1954 and yet down in Birmingham Alabama, we disobeyed the local laws and then the state court issued an injunction. How do you justify all of this?
These are legitimate questions and I think they must be answered. The persons who raise these questions must realize that there are two types of laws: just laws and unjust laws. I would be the first to say that men must obey just laws, that we have not only a civil duty but a moral obligation to obey just laws.
And I would go on to say that when a law is unjust we have a moral and an ethical responsibility to take a stand against that.
Now someone would say: "What is the difference?" Well I would say , first that an unjust law is a law that is out of harmony with the moral laws of the universe. A law that is out of harmony with the laws of God. Any law that degrades human personality is automatically an unjust law and a law that uplifts humanity is a just law. Segregation is unjust and the laws supporting segregation are unjust because segregation itself is immoral.
Segregation is wrong to use the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, because it is based on human laws and out of harmony with natural laws the eternal law, the moral laws of the universe.
Segregation is an evil system and therefore any law upholding segregation is at that moment an unjust and an evil law.
Now when someone says to me :" This is meaningless to me, I don't believe in these abstract things called moral laws in the state of Mississippi. An unjust law is a code which a majority inflicts on a minority that the minority had no part in enacting or creating because that minority was denied the right to vote. So who can argue that any law in the state of Mississippi is a just law?
In the first place the officials who made that law were not democratically elected. in Mississippi only 20000 Negroes are registered to vote. It means that the very legislative body are automatically unjust laws.
Now in saying this I am not advocating anarchy. I am not advocating defying the law or evading the law. This is what many of our segregationist brothers do. We do not advocate that; this will not lead to anything.
We contend that the law that is broken must be broken openly, cheerfully, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that any individual who disobeys a law that conscience tells him is unjust and is willing to pay the penalty by staying in jail, if necessary in order to arouse the conscience of the community concerning the injustice of that law, is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for the law.
So I am still convinced that there is great power in nonviolence and we must be willing to follow this way, this method, this philosophy until we have been able to bring an end to the tragedy of segregation and move on towards a desegregated and finally an integrated society.