Pastors often struggle to discern how to advocate for social change when public advocacy is so fraught with the possibilities of violence, division, and partisan power.
Pastor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, led a movement for social change in racial inequality and oppression, poverty injustice, and unjust warfare. He did so as a pastor and leader and his decision to lead a nonviolent movement meant that he led as a Christian pastor. He led in a way that was distinct from political leaders.
Pastors today can follow in Dr. King’s shoes, but first we have to understand what he meant by nonviolent action. This central aspect of his pastoral leadership in society gives a picture of how a pastor can participate in nonviolent action in society for social change in a biblical and Christian way.
Dr. King’s article “An Experiment in Love” in Jubilee 1958 (included in The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr) was inspired by his reflections on Christ and the nonviolent movement in India under Gandhi is a place to start to understand how love and nonviolent action go together. I reflect on this not as a King scholar, but as a pastor.
Nonviolence is not passive.
Nonviolence is sometimes perceived as passive inaction. Dr. King writes, “nonviolent action is not a method for cowards. It does resist.” Nonviolence is not merely avoiding situations where violence might occur, hiding in the church or home. It is not passive. It is active, and it involves resistance and does not “quietly and passively accept evil.” Dr. King encourages pastors to get out in society, to find evil, and to be peacefully present where evil exists. He calls this method passive physically but “active spiritually.” As I reflect on this I recall Jesus teaching to “turn the other cheek.” We can’t receive that slap on the other cheek if we are hiding away somewhere. We must be out in the world, interacting, in order to turn the other cheek.
Many people have no choice but to suffer injustice, oppression, poverty, or abuse. Nonviolent action calls me, as a pastor, to go out and find where these people are and be with them. I have to learn to see Christ in them, and to resist with and for them.
As I reflect on this as a pastor, I have to ask myself whether I am trying to understand where evil and injustice are occurring around me? Am I willing to join with others to go where injustice is occurring, and to be a nonviolent presence? Or am I “looking away” like the Pharisee who doesn’t want to see the man in the ditch.
The Prayer Book includes the Collect for Social Justice which calls us to go out into society “to contend fearlessly against evil and to make no peace with oppression.” We can’t hide away.
Nonviolent action is not an attack on human beings.
Action to oppose injustice could be viewed as a desire to destroy or attack our fellow human beings. If we are to see all human beings as made in God’s image, and thereby sacred, how can we actively resist people who are committing evil or contributing to injustice? Are we attacking people?
St. Paul said that we do not battle “flesh and blood” but “principalities and powers.” Dr. King believed that all human beings have a God-given moral sense, and that nonviolent resistance is a way to “awaken” that moral sense. It “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
As a pastor, I am called to serve every person. I am called to serve even the most blatant white supremacists and to treat them with dignity and love. And yet I am also called to oppose white supremacy and racial inequality. It is pretty easy for me to Tweet against white privilege. But I find it much harder to make speak up when I see it in a local church or neighborhood group. I’m afraid that I will be attacking the person rather than the injustice.
Dr. King’s nonviolent resistance is a way to oppose injustice without dehumanizing the unjust. Being present in society where injustice occurs, as a pastor, allows for the spiritual battle to be made visible to the world. It allows for the Holy Spirit to convict hearts. It exposes evil. And yet we are also present as a witness that every person, and every institution, can be reformed. When “love comes to town” things change. Dr. King calls this “redemptive goodwill.”
As I reflect on this, I have to ask myself what I see in the white supremacist. Do I see another human being? Am I placing myself above him? Or am I making myself present to resist him, while at the same time seeking his conversion and salvation? Am I speaking up, or am I afraid?
Nonviolent action is an expression of Agape love.
Finally, for Pastor King, nonviolent action is an expression of love. He writes that Agape love seeks not one’s own good, but the good of my neighbor. It is directed both toward friend and enemy. And agape is not “weak, passive love. It is love in action.” It will “go to any length to restore community.”
The first letter of John says that “perfect love casts out fear.” Dr. King did not picture a world in which being nice to people always heals relationships quickly. He did not picture a movement that would paper over real evil and injustice, or pretend things were better when they are not. Agape, for him, was not a quick fix or an act of denial about the real state of the world.
Agape is the action of a redeemed people in a world that needs healing, love, and grace. The “perfect love” the Bible talks about casts out fear because it keeps being present. It keeps seeking healing. It keeps working toward the common good.
As I reflect on this as a pastor, I have to ask myself where I am seeking the common good in my own community. Where am I seeking to foster and make present agape love?
Today, our prisons and morgues are filled with a massively disproportionate amount of Black men. Poverty is spreading like a virus among service workers, while billionaires profit from the pandemic. Undocumented immigrants are being treated like pawns in a political game while they and their children suffer under a broken immigration system that we created. Violence is growing on our streets. Unborn children, and born children, are treated as commodities. As pastors, are we a visible, nonviolent presence in these places of injustice and evil? Or are we looking the other way?
Dr. King’s vision of nonviolent action can be lived out by pastors who emulate him. By seeking out places and spaces of injustice, where human beings suffer at the hands of other human beings, and then actively being present to resist injustice, we can point to the way of love. There is a better way.
None of us is Christ himself. We are simply undershepherds of the Great Shepherd. But even in our imperfect acts of nonviolent love, we can see his perfect love at work in our world.
All references are from “An Experiment in Love” The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by James M. Washington. HarperOne, 1986. Pages 16-20