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Lions Roar : January 2005
48 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 INFLUENCES: Reinhold Niebuhr Niebuhr was profoundly affected by what he saw when he was the minister of a small, working class church in Detroit from 1915 to 1928. Niebuhr challenged the assumptions of the Social Gospel, which held that if Christians followed the laws of God, that alone would be enough to transform society. Niebuhr argued that injustice must be resisted forcefully, albeit through nonviolent means. He called this Christian realism. WHEN THE STRONG exploitthe weakthey produce a conflict that is not the result of igno- rance but of the brutality of human nature. It may be that the strong can be convinced in time that it is not in their ultimate interest to destroy the weak. But they can hardly gain this convic- tion if the weak do not offer resistance in some form to oppression. It may be that this resistance need not express itself physically at all. It may express itself in the use of the “soul force” advo- cated by Gandhi. But even as thoroughgoing a spiritual idealist as Gandhi has realized that the forgiving love of the oppressed lacks redemptive force if the strong are not made to realize that alternatives to a policy of love are within reach of the oppressed. Oppressed classes, races and nations, like the industrial worker, the Negroes, India, and China, are therefore under the neces- sity of doing more than appeal to the imagina- tion and the sense of justice of their oppressors. Where there is a great inequality of physical advantage and physical power it is difficult to establish moral relations. Weakness invites aggression. Even the most intelligent and moral individuals are more inclined to unethical con- duct with those who are unable to offer resist- ance to injustice than with those who can.... It is obviously possible to resist injustice without using physical force and certainly without using violence. In a world in which conscience and imag- ination have been highly sensitized, the oppressed may seek relief against their oppressors and punish them for their misdeeds by indicting them before the bar of public opinion.... It is possible to justify the use of such force without condoning violence of any kind.... When oppressed groups resort to violence they also confuse the moral judgment of the society from which they seek justice. © From Love and Justice (1957) an angry, armed black crowd spoiling for a showdown with white policemen at the scene. The situation was edging toward violence. King raised one hand to quiet the crowd, and then said, “I want you to go home and put down your weapons. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonvio- lence....We must meet hate with love.” Later, the policemen would say King saved their lives, and his Gandhi-esque stance, his agapic vision, was heard round the world as something uniquely redemptive in the bloody, centuries-long struggle for black liberation in America. King’s calming words, in the heat of racial violence, were an American’s skillful adaptation of Gandhi’s observation that, “Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time. Hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.” (“Christ furnished the spirit,” said King. “Gandhi showed me how it worked.”) That was the law of King’s life and polit- ical vision in the fifties and early sixties. “Power at its best,” he said, “is love implementing the demands of justice; justice, at its best, is love correcting everything that stands against love.” Championing such wisdom resulted in his receiving fifty assassi- nation threats, the wrath of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and the envy (and sometimes opposition) of Black Power activists. A $30,000 bounty would be placed on his head. He would be stabbed once (in Harlem by a mad black woman named Izola Curry) and arrested and jailed again and again. Despite all that, King embraced as a Christian much of what a Buddhist would see as the bodhisattva vow; he traveled to India in 1959, a guest of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, and returned to America determined to devote one day a week of his ever strangu- lation-tight schedule to fasting and meditation. In this initial phase of King’s public life, his core beliefs can be expressed, as I argue in my novel Dreamer (1998), in three transcen- dentally profound theses. First, that nonviolence—in words and actions—must be understood not merely as a strategy for protest, but as a Way, a daily praxis people must strive to translate into each and every one of their deeds. In its fullness, therefore, King’s moral stance implies non-injury (ahimsa) to everything that exists. Consider how this translates into the ten points of the “Commitment Blank,” a kind of Decalogue signed by members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and their followers during the electrifying Birmingham campaign: COMMANDMENTS FOR THE VOLUNTEERS I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF—MY PERSON AND BODY—TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING COMMANDMENTS: Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus. Remember always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a ©ROBERTW.KELLEY/TIMELIFEPICTURES/GETTYIMAGES