Each year on or about this time of Martin Luther King Jr. birthday I explore a different aspect of his life, death and ministry. I thought this year I would go back to the beginning of his ministry and I read one of his earlier books, Stride toward freedom about when he first entered Ministry and his experience with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King who had received his Phd from Boston University had received offers from Churches in NY and Massachusetts and 3 offers to teach at a University.But he accepted the call from Dexter Ave Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, which he called a “comparatively small church with a membership of around three hundred people”. I wonder what the world today would be like if he had chosen Massachusetts or teaching over Montgomery. I often think about how the choices we make in life sometimes put us in the place we need to be to fulfill the purpose we were meant to fulfill, put us in a place we needed to be at a particular time in our lives to meet the people we needed to meet to learn the things we needed to learn.
Martin Luther King was the person who was needed at that time in Montgomery when the opportunity to change our country came about. And everything that had happened previously in his life had prepared him for this moment, whether he realized it or not. In the book King traces the development of his theory of non violence and his decision to strive against the systems of injustice on the streets, for he knew his intellectual pursuits of ministry could not be disconnected from the lives of the people he ministered to. In addition to scripture, ancient philosophers, Christian theologians and Gandhi, King was deeply influenced Unitarian Henry David Thoreau,
In his autobiography King states
“During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau's essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.
No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral person can patiently adjust to injustice.”
When King came to Montgomery he did not know what would unfold. Yet all of his experiences in life up until that point and the intellectual influences I spoke of earlier led King to develop his belief in the use of non violent resistance. In the book, he describes the six principles that guided his actions and I share them with you today.
The First principle
“non violent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. While the non violent resister is passive in the sense t hat they are not physically aggressive toward their opponent their mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade their opponent that they are wrong.
The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. ”
This speaks to me to having the courage and the fortitude to stay engaged with those we disagree with, to stay the course, though it may be long, though we may be tired, and the way may not always seem clear, and at times we may doubt, but we must stay focused, for those who wish to oppress people, and wish to consume the earth are not letting up. We need to inspire the imaginations of others and build coalitions of moral and religious people from all walks of life if we are to have a hope for justice. We must sustain ourselves through our community to lift ourselves and others up.
The second principle
“non violent resistance does not seek to to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win their friendship and understanding. Resistance is merely a means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation.”
This is what we mean by the concept of beloved community. That we will one day all be reconciled. I know this may seem impossible. Yet looking back over 50 years to the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott compared to now, we as a society have changed. We still have a long way to go, but we have changed. We have seen in the past number of years rapid changes in attitude on LGBTQIA rights and now as law the legalization of marriage equality, and I am heartened when I think of the young adults today who show not only acceptance of difference, but embrace difference. The fact that the forces of systemic injustice are rising up trying to limit change such as through voter suppression, is a sign that change is happening and our values of love and diversity are wining. People can change. We know this. We know we have changed. So if we know we can change, we know others can change as well. We just have to help them see the way which brings us to Kings third principle which is
“the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. The tension is between justice and injustice. We are out to defeat injustice and not white person’s who may be unjust”
People with power in our country often try to be divisive. We see many people today often acting against their own best interests. If we look back in American History to Bacon’s rebellion in 1676 when 1,000 colonists of all races and classes joined together to stand up to the Governor of Virginia we see that change can come when those oppressed work together toward a common goal.
But after the Bacon rebellion, the forces of power have since set up hierarchies of oppression and pitted group against group setting up competing oppressions to minimize the power of people. We must all join together for all who are oppressed. By joining together with those who share our moral values and acting WE – CAN – HAVE – POWER
The fourth principle is
“non violent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from opponent without striking back”
This is of course the essence of why it is called non violent resistance.
And certainly it worked at times for Gandhi against the British in pre world war II India, and it certainly worked for King here in American during the civil rights movement. I am not always sure this method would work with tyrants and dictators. Gandhi’s biographer suggested that Gandhi thought the Jewish people should have sacrificed themselves on the spot instead of being passively taken to concentration camps. And it is true that in some areas such as Denmark there was passive resistance against the Nazis to save Jews. But nine million people died at the hands of the Nazis and many more would have if not for armed intervention of the allies.
King calls unearned suffering redemptive saying “Things of fundamental importance to people are not secured by reason alone, but have to purchased with their suffering.” I could do a whole sermon on that sentence alone. But suffice it say we do learn through suffering. Often our heart is opened up due to suffering, but I would like to imagine a world where we can love and gain meaning and secure justice without suffering. You know, I will say this, It is much easier to reject non violence when you have the overwhelming power. I think this is part of the resistance of white America to Racial Equality. We fear giving up our power, because we cannot imagine that there will not be retaliation for all the evil we have perpetrated upon people of color over the history of this country. It is only through love and forgiveness, that we can find the breach in this intransigent challenge. Let us watch a short video of Cornell West speak at last year’s Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.
"A tradition to love no matter what the situation."
King speaks of this in his fifth principle which states
“non violent resistance avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.”
King speaks of loving his enemy. King wrote “it’s a good thing Jesus did not say like your enemies.” King is speaking of agape love written about in Christian Scriptures. He describes it as “understanding, redeeming goodwill for all people. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative.” How many of us respond that way in all their interactions? I know I don’t. I try, god knows I try, but I don’t always succeed. But I have spent a lifetime learning and continue to learn and I know deep in my heart that responding to hatred with hatred only creates more hatred. This was as true for the Hatfields and McCoys as it is in the Middle East, even in our Congregation, with people holding hurts from times gone by. So let us lay our hatred down, let us let go of all the things that burden us. Loving others doesn’t mean acquiescence. But let us consider what is needed for the greater good as opposed to our own personal good. Jesus in 1rst Corinthians as is often used in weddings says
“Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.”
Rejoices in the truth. Even though it may hurt, love rejoices in the truth. I think there was an old Roy Orbison song love hurts, Well Truth like love as the song says “leaves wounds and marks on any heart not tough or strong enough to take a lot of pain.” So we must be strong enough. Martin Luther King Jr. asks us to face the truth about racism in America, about the pain it has caused so many people of color and even though it is 50 years later, his words still calls to us as our siblings of color are still suffering discrimination and bias. We must open our eyes and see that the world is not colorblind, or even that the being colorblind is a beneficial thing at this point in history to look towards.
As Robin DiAngelo, Director of Equity for Senior Services, Seattle tells us "At one time, being “colorblind” was considered virtuous. It’s 'the result of an education – a training – that many of us have received, especially White Americans' What we now know — because people of color have told us that it’s so — is that being “colorblind” isn’t helpful, and has even been harmful. However they identify, people of color wish to be seen for who they are, because race is central to their identity in a way that’s often not true for we who are white.”
We can learn, and we must be intentional about learning. We must choose to be on the side of justice. Whenever we face uncertainty, or fear we must choose to have courage, whenever we face fatigue we must choose resiliance, whenever we face doubt, we must choose faith. For Kings sixth principle is
“non violent resistance is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice”
As Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker said as often quoted by King “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Let us honor Martin Luther King Jr. not just on his birthday, but every day, putting our values into action, facing the world with courage, with resilience, with love and choose to work for justice. May it be so.