I was invited to deliver a service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, and it was remarkable to be asked not only because it’s an honor to receive such an invitation but also because for the last two weeks I’d been completely ensconced in King’s writing. Once upon a time I worked for Beacon Press, and I still do the odd freelance job for them. A few years ago Beacon became the exclusive publisher of King’s books and future collections of his work, and for a couple of these new collections, I’ve proofed and checked the manuscripts against previous versions to ensure accuracy. It’s pretty incredible to do this—sometimes I’m using the original transcriptions of his sermons, and once in a while I encounter King’s own handwriting in the margins.
For the last few weeks I’ve been working on Beacon’s latest King project—an anthology of King’s words for high school students. “I Have a Dream” is in there, and “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and a careful selection of other pieces that really show the breadth and depth of his vision. So here I am ensconced in his work, and reading bits out loud to Teo every night, and hearing King’s words resounding all around me, and I get invited to deliver a chapel service in honor of MLK Day and share some of this magic with others. I couldn’t say no to that.
Whenever I am blessed with the opportunity to read or listen to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I never fail to reflect on what a tiny sliver of his vision has been handed down through popular culture in this country—how little of him lives on through mass media, textbooks, and bank holidays. And what is resonating with me right now more than anything else is his vision and grounding and message of nonviolence, which was so central to everything he did and everything he preached. It was central because it was tied to his theology and his faith. King’s full vision of nonviolence as a spiritual way of life is one of the biggest things that is pretty much missing from the way we talk about him and learn about the civil rights movement and honor his legacy in this country.
If you’ve done any extensive reading of King or Gandhi or any of the other great proponents of nonviolence, this isn’t news to you, but it’s not something we learn unless we go looking for it. I certainly didn’t, anyway. As I grew up I learned to equate nonviolence with the idea that you don’t take violent action in protests. You find ways that are not violent to call attention to evil and resist systemic abuses of power. That’s nonviolence, right? Doing a die-in at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning GA in protest of what people trained at that military school were doing in Latin America, climbing the fence and refusing to leave, not resisting arrest, that was nonviolence. I had no idea how far I was from understanding this concept.
I was raised Unitarian Universalist. I was raised with a very strong sense of right and wrong, and injustice was wrong. Racism was wrong. Violent, U.S.-backed imperialism and colonialism in Latin America was wrong. And I was angry. I was so angry that there were people and systems perpetuating these wrongs. I came to believe that Unitarian Universalism in action was righting the wrongs, getting out there into the trenches and fighting the man! I went to the School of the Americas and I was part of the drum corps, all of us UU teenagers, with my plastic tub on a string around my neck, banging as loud as I could, pouring out my anger at the military personnel behind that fence, at the cops demarcating the edges of our protest zone, at the counter-protesters supporting the military base, at all the folks who didn’t seem to care that people were dying and being disappeared because of the actions of our country.
This is how I moved through the world, and this was how I was supported in making a difference in the world. Through anger. But I want to tell you something. It never sat quite right inside of me. There was something about the anger that was corrosive; toxic. First of all, I found myself devoid of hope. I found myself devoid of any sense that things could change for the better. My anger stemmed from a profound sense of helplessness, which ultimately led to hopelessness. Eventually this meant I felt unable to take action at all, and I hated myself for giving up. Second of all, I found myself locked down. The anger was sitting inside of me and was slowly working to close me off from the world. It felt awful.
But I didn’t know any other way. I thought in order to be a force for change in the world, I had to be this thing. If you’re not angry you’re not paying attention! And I felt despairing. I felt like I must just not be a strong enough, good enough person, because I couldn’t come from a place of anger and hate any more.
And then the universe started tossing me crumbs, leading me toward another path, helping me see that what I felt deep inside was so much more true. For one thing, I got to be part of the editing process for a Beacon book on Howard Thurman called Visions of a Better World, which is all about how Thurman was a central messenger bringing the practice of nonviolence to black America, how he met with Gandhi in India and ultimately changed the course of the civil rights movement, serving as an inspiration to King and others.
When I read about Howard Thurman’s conversation with Gandhi and about Howard Thurman’s message and practice of nonviolence, I felt my heart crack open. Let me tell you what Gandhi shared with Thurman back in 1935.
“Nonviolence” is an English term that tries, and fails, to translate a concept that has deep resonance in all of South Asia’s ancient karmic religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism—the concept of having a commitment to refrain from harming living things. The Sanskrit word that nonviolence is translated from is ahimsa. Gandhi lamented to Thurman that nonviolence as a term had been widely misunderstood. He had created it decades before because there wasn’t a good English equivalent for ahimsa, but he regretted the fact that it started with a negative participle—“non.”
Gandhi told Thurman that nonviolence is a force “more positive than electricity and subtler and more pervasive than the ether.” He said that ahimsa meant love, but that the English word love was too easily misunderstood as either a love of God or a carnal or affectionate love. Rather, ahimsa was a positive, physical force—the force—in the constitution of the universe. It was profoundly alive but not limited to a specific living thing. So when I or others say God is love, that is what I mean—I mean the undergirding force of the universe is ahimsa, is nonviolence.
Further, for Gandhi, nonviolence was a careful, personal spiritual discipline. He believed that one person’s commitment to ahimsa could change a continent because of the power of living by example. He told Thurman that the goal of nonviolence was to make oneself a living sermon. Start by refusing to make small compromises with evil, he said, and work your way up to larger ones.
When I read these words I found them resounding in my heart, knowing that if the goal is healing; if the goal is a world free from violence; the way to make change must be through channeling a positive force, not relying on negative forces like anger, bitterness, and self-righteousness. And I found myself opening up. I rediscovered hope.
Martin Luther King Jr. was obviously a student of this school of spirit, and I got to experience the full force of his vision the other day when I was reading one of the chapters in this new collection. It’s an excerpt called “An Experiment in Love” from his book Stride Toward Freedom and in it he explains six major characteristics of nonviolence. I want to summarize them for you, because almost all of them are things I just didn’t understand until I started peeling back the layers of what I thought nonviolence was, and they are so essential to the practice of nonviolence.
- Nonviolence is not passive. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. Gandhi used to say that if you use this method because of fear or because you lack the instruments of violence, you are not truly nonviolent.
- Nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate an opponent but rather to win friendship and understanding. “The aftermath of nonviolence is the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness,” said King.
- Nonviolence is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are doing evil. For King, people who are doing evil were also victims of evil.
- Nonviolence is characterized by a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation and experience violence without striking back.
- Nonviolence avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of the spirit. “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love,” said King, and he makes it clear here that by love he means what the Greeks call agape: “an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative”—not an affectionate love but “the love of God operating in the human heart” springing from each person’s need “for belonging to the best in the human family.” Love that comes from “a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated” and that if I harm someone else I am harming myself. The goal of nonviolence is to “project the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”
- Nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice and in the belief in “the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness.”
I don’t know about you, but I read these words and let them soak in, let them strum my heartstrings, and I hear the very essence of my Unitarian Universalist faith singing. This is what it’s all about for me. This is what it means to stand on the side of love, to be rooted on the side of love. It’s about centering the interconnectedness of all beings. It’s about meeting anger and hate with love and compassion, not just through our actions but also through our intentions, through our thoughts. It’s about the energy we actively bring into the world.
When members of the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September of 1963, just weeks after the March on Washington, King preached at the funeral of the four young girls who were killed and he said: “In spite of the darkness of this hour we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn torespect the dignity and worth of all human personality.”
How is that possible? How could King stand in front of 8,000 mourners and call on them to not lose faith in the white segregationists who murdered these children? They too are our brothers, he said. The dignity and worth of all human personality will win the day, he said. It’s possible because of his faith. Because of faith in the power of what is alternately called ahimsa, nonviolence, Christian love, God. There is another way, a way of love, a way of community, a way of balance, a way of that arc of the universe bending.
But you want to know something even better? It starts small. It starts with how we are with one another, with the decision to choose loving speech. It starts with practice. What is the one thing you are going to do today to choose the path of positive energy instead of negative energy and bring more love into the world? You might stub your toe and decide to send love and compassion to the pain in your foot instead of cursing and shouting at the top of your lungs and kicking whatever tripped you up. You might get annoyed at someone for not replacing the toner cartridge again and decide to send love and compassion to that person instead of getting sour and grumbly about it. I’m talking small. I’m talking one choice at a time, every day.
I attend a Unity church in Brookline sometimes and my favorite pastor there, Rev. Carlos, once preached about how God doesn’t give you no points for being nice to people you like. You have to be willing to choose loving speech and also loving thoughts and loving intentions toward people you struggle with—even people who cause you harm. You don’t have to give them a hug—remember, it’s not affectionate love we’re talking about here. It’s compassion. It’s refraining from adding negative energy to the world and choosing to add positive energy instead.
For me, it starts with extending love and compassion to myself. It starts with not beating myself up when I’m not perfect. Not belittling myself. This is where it starts. This is what nonviolence offers. And I want to invite you to join me in this great experiment of love. All it takes is one choice at a time, one choice every day, practicing what it is like to bring a force more positive than electricity into your life and into the world.