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The Way of Nonviolence – Reflections on the Power and Practice of Nonviolence The Way of Nonviolence Skip to content Home Understanding Nonviolence Biblical Nonviolence Peacemakers Quotations Martin Luther King Jr. A. J. Muste Book Reviews About About Resources Contact Login Register Search for: The Way of Nonviolence Reflections on the Power and Practice of Nonviolence Posted on April 6, 2017 by Jeff Meyers Martin Luther King Jr.’s Six Principles of Nonviolence Over the course of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. became one of the most articulate advocates of nonviolence. Once someone who needed to be taught about nonviolence, he emerged as one of its more ardent apologists. In Stride Toward Freedom, King lists six principles of nonviolence that can guide us in better understanding it as a method and as a way of life. 1. Nonviolence is not passivity, but is active nonviolent resistance to evil. If there is anything that the Civil Rights Movement proved, it is that nonviolence is not passive acquiescence to evil. It is an alternative method, one often more powerful than more traditional violent methods. When compared with violent methods like armed revolution and war, nonviolence requires more strength. Those who rely on violence show their weakness in that they need weapons to multiply their power and money or conscription to compel people to fight for them. Those who use nonviolence rely solely on the power of people who are voluntarily committed to the cause. Nonviolence harnesses the power of the people for active resistance to violence, oppression, and injustice. 2. Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win their friendship and understanding. Redemption and reconciliation are the goal. King’s vision of nonviolence was shaped by his aim: the creation of a “beloved community” that includes all people in mutual relationship. He maintained that the ideal outcome includes the transformation of the oppressors. Nonviolence leaves open this possibility in a way that violence does not. At the same time, it does not na?vely rely on oppressors to repent and change their ways. It is a powerful method of forcing them to make concrete changes, whether or not they experience a deeper personal transformation that causes them to willingly renounce their oppressive ways. While the transformation of the oppressor into a friend and ally is the ultimate goal, and is a more complete solution when it occurs, nonviolence does not require the repentance of the oppressor for it to accomplish real change. By contrast, demonizing the enemy polarizes the situation, causing the opponent to become more steadfast in their opposition. Similarly, the desire for retaliation and revenge fuels cycles of violence and oppression. In the end, peace requires at least some level of reconciliation. 3. Nonviolence is directed against the evil, not against persons. King declared that all human beings are of infinite worth and should be treated accordingly. He calls us to realize that our enemies “are not totally bad” and “are not beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love” (Strength to Love, 51). Nonviolence directs its attacks at structures and systems, not against the individuals who perpetuate them. It avoids tactics that demonize the opponent. It acknowledges that oppressors are damaged by their complicity in oppression and seeks to free them from the structures and systems that entangle them in webs of wrongdoing. While difficult, the discipline of refusing to target individuals has a practical advantage. A campaign focused on a particular politician or CEO can be greatly weakened by the removal of that individual, even if the person is replaced by someone just as bad or worse. By focusing on the institution instead of the individual, campaigns can weather superficial changes in leadership. 4. The nonviolent resister is willing to suffer without retaliation. Many of the most enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement involve nonviolent activists steadfastly enduring vicious attacks. These images alone should silence anyone who claims that nonviolence is the way of the weak. It requires discipline and significant preparation. The images of children being mowed down by fire hoses and police beating protestors proved enormously effective in harnessing national support for the Movement. Yet this principle is rightly one of the most controversial of King’s urgings. It is never right to tell the oppressed to suffer. But when people voluntarily take suffering upon themselves rather than resort to violence, that act has power. We have to be careful in using voluntary suffering as a weapon of nonviolence, but it can nevertheless be one of the most powerful methods of the nonviolent arsenal. When used strategically, it can be a significant means of gaining wider support for a movement. 5. Nonviolence avoids both physical and spiritual violence, for love stands at its center. According to King, “the nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him” (Stride Toward Freedom, 92). Nonviolence is the way of love. In many ways, King’s fifth principle sums up the previous three. For King, nonviolence takes to heart Jesus’ call to love the enemy. It is based on the belief that love is more powerful than violence and hate. It is hard to imagine applying this principle without incredible spiritual fortitude. The enemies King faced did not make it easy to love. Enemies rarely do. Nonviolence requires great strength to be open to the possibility of embracing the enemy and incorporating them into whatever new reality results from the overturning of the old systems and structures. Yet it is precisely this openness to the enemy that allows nonviolence to lead to the development of a more peaceful and just society. 6. Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. King’s faith in God gave him a strong faith that justice will ultimately triumph, no matter how things might appear in the thick of the struggle. This hope helped sustain him. He maintained that one could hold this faith that the universe is on the side of justice regardless of belief in God, but for him it was ultimately a religious hope. This hope was different from a faith in inevitable progress. King was deeply aware that change does not occur on its own. The powerful have too much vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Nevertheless, King preached a deep conviction that justice will ultimately prevail, for there is a creative force in the universe that is on the side of justice. One lesson for nonviolence may be that hope is ultimately more powerful than fear. Instead of trying to motivate people with fear of what the opponents may do, it is better to motivate them with positive visions of what the world might become. The Influence of Christian Theology King’s understanding of nonviolence was strongly influenced by Christian theolo...

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