(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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During the summers of 1944 and 1946, at the ages of 15 and 17, Martin Luther King, Jr. travelled with other Morehouse college students to Connecticut to harvest tobacco. The students were well paid for their work which helped them pay for their educations. What is interesting about the trips is how they shaped King’s views on segregation and racism. In a letter home during his first trip, King wrote, “After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all. The white people here are very nice. We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.” Many years later, King wrote, “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation. It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation’s capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.”
For King, his summers in Connecticut ingrained in him a deep anger at segregation – and more importantly a desire to fight it however he could. King later wrote in a magazine article, “I grew up abhorring segregation, considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable. I could never accept the fact of having to go to the back of a bus or sit in the segregated section of a train. The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood.”
King was born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. His given brith name was Michael King, Jr. His father, who was Minister to the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, travelled to Germany in 1934 and was inspired by the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. As a result, King, Sr. began calling himself and his son, Martin Luther King. The names stuck. And that re-naming was symbolic of Dr. King’s life. His values, and his views about racism, were strongly shaped by Christianity.
King was highly intelligent and skipped both his freshman and senior years in High School. He matriculated at the age of fifteen to Morehouse College and graduated at the age of 19. He first intended to be either a lawyer or a doctor but near the end of college, he had an epiphany. He later wrote that he had suddenly realized that the Bible “contains many truths which cannot be escaped” – and so he committed himself to become a minister to promote such truths. At 21 he graduated from Seminary and at 25, he earned his doctorate in Theology.
Many years later, King wrote about his Seminary years, “At this stage of my development, I was a thoroughgoing liberal. Liberalism provided me with an intellectual satisfaction that I could never find in fundamentalism.”
But King soon perceived shortcomings in theological liberalism. Its belief in the goodness of humanity was misguided, he believed. “The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin.”
King saw the nature of humanity through a Christian perspective. His views, however, were a combination of liberalism and fundamentalism. His fundamentalist side saw racism as sinful and something to be vigorously fought. But his liberal side believed people who perpetrate acts of injustice can be fought not by anger and physical force, but by love. Understanding this dichotomy in King gives insight into why his later protests were so successful and why, still today, he remains a figure whom many people believe followed in the footsteps of Jesus and Gandhi.
For King, segregationist laws are evil actions committed by otherwise good people. Even so, racism is an affront to God who created a perfect and peaceful universe. King embraced a viewpoint many people criticize as naive – hate the sin but love the sinner. For King, such a viewpoint reflected an awareness that history is a long succession of people’s inhumanity toward others – and that such behavior must be attacked. Importantly, however, methods for attacking evil must be carried out with loving concern for those who practice evil. King always said he had no quarrel with racists as individuals. But he took vehement stands against their racist beliefs and actions.
This viewpoint was well stated by King. He said, “The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
King therefore saw the effort by blacks to win full equality as a spiritual endeavor. Implicit in his belief was that those who endure the pain of racism and who struggle to end it are on the right side of God. As he said, “God is not interested merely in the freedom of black men, and brown men, and yellow men; God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.”
For King, the teachings of Jesus offer a bright path to justice. I believe that’s something to remember in understanding many African-American views even today. Christian principles guide many of their attitudes. For them and for King, Jesus was more than a religious figure. He was an activist liberator who fought against hatred and inhumanity by teaching and encouraging God-like love.
Crucial to King’s thinking was therefore understanding how Jesus opposed the discriminators of his day. Jesus fought against haters not with an army of warriors, but with the power of love. That is not just cliche. It’s true. I, along with many experts, believe substantial portions of the Bible detailing Jesus’ teachings are historically accurate. It was only much later writers, each with religious agendas, that added supernatural myth to the truth of Jesus’ life.
It’s because of that fact that we today can heed Martin Luther King’s encouragement to follow the example and teachings of Jesus. And the primary principle of Jesus that King adopted was non-violence. Jesus did not physically attack his opponents. He expressed love for his enemies and a hope that if they could understand God’s love, they would change their sinful ways. Jesus did not die a martyrs death during armed conflict. He surrendered himself for sacrifice as an example of non-violent opposition. These were lessons that fully informed how and why Martin Luther King, Jr. believed what he did about non-violence. Fight hate forcefully – but with love.
Like Jesus, King’s fight against hate was not with syrupy sentimentality. King’s non-violence was active and it was practiced with full awareness of the the evil that can exist in human hearts and minds. As he said, “I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”
After earning his doctorate in Theology, in 1955 King was appointed Minister to a church in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon after his appointment, blacks in the city began a boycott of the city’s bus system because of its segregation policies. Despite being relatively unknown, he was asked to be the movement’s spokesperson. He immediately perceived the significance of boycotts as a way to fight. King said, “I am concerned about our moral uprightness and the health of our souls. Therefore I must oppose any attempt to gain our freedom by the methods of malice, hate, and violence that have characterized our oppressors.”
He drew much of his inspiration on HOW to fight evil from Mahatma Gandhi. He saw how Gandhi’s Indian policy of non-violence, called “satyagraha”, was a model to use. Gandhi’s satyagraha against British colonialism used love-force as a way to fight. It is not passive and meek, but instead quite forceful. One looks for the falsehoods in an opponent’s repression and then calls attention to the truth of their immorality in a non-violent way. The goal is to change an oppressors heart and thereby change his or her actions.
Many white Christians in 1956 Montgomery supported segregation. King and the bus boycott pointed out the Christian immorality of laws that forced blacks to sit in the back of buses, or use separate and inferior facilities. King pointed to Jesus’ actions and teachings to highlight the hypocrisy of white Christian society. Jesus taught and modeled love and equality for the marginalized – the poor, the lame, the blind, lepers, women, non-Jews, and those of other races. It was simply a matter of comparison for King and his followers to point out that segregation and discrimination are not loving, and are contrary to Christianity. Boycotts were this a non-violent form of aggression designed to highlight immorality. Even more, King emphasized that for blacks to continue submitting to segregation, was to themselves participate in a moral wrong. The Montgomery bus boycott was not just a way to peacefully fight back, it was a spiritual statement – “We will not participate in your immoral actions.”
King later said about his time as leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, “I came to see for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
The Montgomery bus boycott led King to adopt six preconditions for non-violent action – ones that remain guidelines for non-violent protest today. First, a person or group must thoroughly educate themselves about an injustice. Second, a person or group must educate others about the injustice and why it is morally wrong. Third, one must remain committed to non-violence even in the face of violent opposition. Fourth, one must negotiate by bringing the oppressed and the oppressors together. Then, according to King, a person or group should “Use humor, intelligence and grace to lead to solutions that benefit the greater good.” Fifth, if negotiation fails, an oppressed person or group should initiate non-violent action – like a boycott. Sixth, a person or group must always act and speak peacefully and constructively. That includes peacefully agreeing to disagree – while continuing efforts to end injustice.
My hope is that a better understanding of King’s principles of non-violence will inspire more people to act the same. Most people never act physically violent. But many do, on occasion, speak with verbal violence. Using sarcasm, anger, demeaning words, or by raising the volume of one’s voice, people can attack and bully others. Many justify their verbal violence by arguing they are fighting for justice and what is right. Others refuse to negotiate with oppressors because that signifies, for them, a surrender to evil. But the examples of Jesus, King and Gandhi point to a far different conclusion.
Creative and forceful non-violent actions are not weak. They are instead paradoxically strong. Indeed, it is far easier to hit or verbally bully someone than it is to peacefully argue against their actions. That does not mean King, or non-violent advocates today do not understand the nature of evil and the frustration oppressed people feel at the ongoing reality of inequality. When talking about blacks who rioted, King counseled against those methods. But he equally said that riots are the voice of those who have been unheard for too long. Despite their anger, King believed in the redemptive and healing power of love to fully defeat hate and evil. Throughout his life he refused to believe a moral outcome justifies immoral violence to achieve it. Even more, violent actions are never successful for very long. Violence only embitters opponents and motivates them to attack in response. That, as King said, creates a continuing cycle of violence.
For me, for this congregation, for anyone who desires to create lasting change in the world, I believe the lessons of Dr. King are timeless. They remind me to try and think before I write or speak – something I don’t always do. His principles also remind me that evil can never be ignored and must be fought – but that it takes creativity and strength of character to fight, argue, and advocate with love.
In this year 2020, a time filled with demagogues, tyrants and forces of hate that appear to get more and more powerful, fighting with love seems naive. Were Dr. King to be alive today, I imagine he’d be terribly frustrated at the excruciating slow progress to end racism. Even so, given his principles, it seems likely to me that he would still be preaching creative non-violence and, most of all, love even for enemies.
I wish you each much peace and joy.