Dr. King’s Gauntlet:
Nonviolence or Nonexistence
BY JOHN DEAR
I consider Martin Luther King, Jr. the great, holy prophet to the nation.
He was a prophet of nonviolence sent by the God of peace and justice to
call our country to repent of the sin of violence and war and to call
us to the new life of nonviolence and peace. As we recall the life of
Dr. King, I hope we can remember his central, crucial, critical message.
On April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated (by our government),
Dr. King told thousands of people at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee:
“For years now, we have been talking about war and peace. But now,
no longer can we just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between
violence and nonviolence; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”
“Nonviolence or nonexistence.” That is the choice. These are
the last words of Dr. King, the gauntlet he threw down before us and the
whole world. Nobody talks about it, but this is the heart of Martin Luther
King, Jr. It remains the critical choice before us all.
Dr. King was an apostle of nonviolence. He wants each one of us, individually,
personally, to become people of nonviolence. But more than that, like
Jesus of Nazareth and Mahatma Gandhi, he wants us as a nation and a planet
to become nonviolent. He insists that nonviolence is the highest calling
So the question is: How do we become people of nonviolence? What did he
mean by nonviolence? How do we define nonviolence? I hope we will reflect
on this challenging word, that we will discuss it with family and friends,
define it and practice it for the rest of our lives.
Dr. King taught that active nonviolence begins with the vision of a reconciled
humanity, the reign of God in our midst, what he called “the beloved
community,” the truth that all life is sacred, that we are all equal
sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already reconciled,
all one, all already united. Once we accept this vision of the heart,
we could never hurt or kill any other human being, much less remain silent
while our country wages war, maintains nuclear weapons, executes people
or allows millions to starve to death.
For King, active nonviolence is much more than a tactic or a strategy;
it is a way of life. We renounce violence and vow never to hurt anyone
ever again. Nonviolence is not passive. It is active love and truth that
seeks justice and peace for the whole human race, and resists systemic
evil, and persistently reconciles with everyone, and insists that there
is no cause however noble for which we support the killing of a single
human being. Instead of killing others, we are willing to be killed in
the struggle for justice and peace. Instead of inflicting violence on
others, we accept and undergo suffering without even the desire to retaliate
with further violence as we pursue justice and peace for all people on
Nonviolence is active, creative, provocative, and challenging! It’s
a life force, Gandhi said, that when harnessed becomes contagious and
can disarm nations and change the world; a force more powerful than all
the weapons of the world. Nonviolence works! We’re just beginning
to tap into it. Dr. King insisted that it is the only way to live.
The world says there are only two options in the face of violence: you
can fight back or run away. Nonviolence gives us a third option: creative,
active, peaceful resistance to injustice. We stand up and resist war publicly
with creative love, trusting in the God of peace. So nonviolence begins
in our hearts, where we renounce the violence inside ourselves, and then
moves out with active, contagious nonviolence toward our families, communities,
churches, cities, nation and the world. We practice it personally in the
face of violence, but also join the international grassroots movement
of nonviolence for justice and peace. When we organize nonviolence on
the national and international level, we can transform the world, as Gandhi
demonstrated in India’s revolution, as Dr. King and the civil rights
movement showed, as the People Power movement showed in the Philippines,
and as Archbishop Tutu and South Africa showed against apartheid.
I’ve come to the conclusion that all the major religions of the
world are rooted in nonviolence. Islam means peace. Judaism upholds the
magnificent vision of shalom, where people beat swords into plowshares
and study war no more. Gandhi exemplified Hinduism as active nonviolence.
Buddhism is all about compassion toward all living things. Even Christianity
is about nonviolence! Mahatma Gandhi once said that Jesus was the most
active practitioner of nonviolence in the history of the world, and the
only people who don’t know Jesus was nonviolent are Christians.
Dr. King called Christians back to the heart of the Gospel. He wants people
of faith and conscience to dig deep into the spiritual roots of nonviolence
and join God’s nonviolent transformation of the world.
Dr. King said he had a dream, but his dream was a vision of nonviolence.
The night before he was killed, Dr. King said he saw the promised land,
but what he saw was a new land of nonviolence. Dr. King calls us to pursue
the most noble, the most radical, the most revolutionary vision of all,
a new world of nonviolence, a world without racism, poverty, hunger, the
death penalty, war or nuclear weapons. As we celebrate his 75th birthday,
let’s pursue his daring vision of nonviolence by renouncing violence
once and for all, and become like him, practitioners, heroes, saints of
“We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent
co-annihilation,” Dr. King said one year to the day before his death.
“Let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter--but beautiful--struggle
for a new world. This is the calling of the sons and daughters of God.”
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