Signs of the Time: The Power of Gospel Nonviolence

Remembering Martin Luther King on this 50th Anniversary

by Scott Wright

Today, as we mark the beginning of Easter Week in the nation’s capital, we commemorate the life and legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many more unsung men and women, as well as children – remember the four children who died in the bombing of their church in Birmingham –  who embodied in their lives the courageous struggle for racial equality, human dignity, and the power of nonviolence and redemptive suffering.

We remember his “I Have a Dream” address at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, and his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address in Memphis the night before he was killed in 1968. We remember, too, the courageous action of an entire community during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the fire hoses and dogs in Birmingham in 1963, the bloody march on the bridge in Selma in 1965.

What was the end for which people gave their lives? In Dr. King’s words:

“The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

I remember the April night of his assassination in 1968 vividly, walking back to my room on a Southern university campus. I was 18 at the time, and my life was about to change dramatically. The next day I joined my first nonviolent protest. Our silent vigil lasted ten days and ten nights, as we supported black employees and hospital workers, advocated for more black students, and watched in disbelief as our nation’s cities burned and National Guard troops and tanks patrolled the streets.

These were turbulent times. Even “official” voices declared “our nation was moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” That was the conclusion of the Kerner Commission, which had been commissioned by President Johnson in 1967 after three years and 24 race riots between 1964 and 1967.

Such issues as poverty and inequality, access to education and health care, jobs and voting rights, police violence and mass incarceration still deeply affect the poor in our country in systemic ways, and especially African Americans. The roots of racism go deep in our history, and require all the resources of our faith traditions, the courage of our convictions and consciences, and above all God’s grace to meet the challenge.

Today, fifty years later, we still mourn the loss of young black lives in our nation’s streets and urban communities. Just two weeks ago, 22-year-old Stephon Clark was shot in his grandmother’s backyard by police officers in Sacramento, California. He was holding a cell-phone. There is still too much fear of one another, too much polarization when we know that our faith reminds us we are all sisters and brothers, children of one God. Recent events in our nation challenge us to a conversation – and to renewed action – to challenge the racism, poverty and militarism in our midst, what Dr. King referred to as “the giant triplets of evil.”

Like the prophet Isaiah, and like Pope Francis in our own day, Martin Luther King was a person of hope: “The arc of the moral universe is long,” he said, “but it bends toward justice.” Pope Francis, too, calls us to go out onto the highways and byways to be with the people, to welcome immigrants, visit prisoners, embrace the poor and vulnerable, challenging nations to place mercy and justice above profits and fear.

And just as Dr. King helped bring nonviolence into our nation’s character, so Pope Francis is doing to bring nonviolence into the character and values of the church on a global stage, inviting us “to make nonviolence our way of life… To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.”

Today we are inspired by so many young people who put their faith into action. Two weekends ago, hundreds of thousands of high school students “marched for our lives” and theirs, protesting the proliferation of guns and mass shootings in their schools. Young immigrant “Dreamers” continue to lift up the most cherished values of our people as a “nation of immigrants,” remind us not to forget the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Young black men and women remind us that “Black Lives Matter,” and affirm the human dignity of African Americans, as their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers did a generation before, marching with Dr. King in the civil rights movement. Young Native Americans, those subject to broken treaties and forgotten dreams, identify themselves as “water protectors” and remind us of our sacred bond with creation and our sacred covenant with future generations.

In a similar fashion, Pope Francis invites us to “an ecological conversion,” and to remember that “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” (LS 217)

That is the power of remembering and honoring those who bear witness with their lives to the deepest values and dreams of our religious traditions and our Christian faith.

From his time in the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King knew the depths of discouragement and disappointment, yet he never gave up hope in the power of redemption, even for those who publicly declared themselves to be his enemy, even for those in the churches who opposed him and cautioned him to conform. His response was to express his disappointment with love and hope, but above all with challenge and invitation:

“In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.... Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

Dr. King did not live to see his dream fulfilled. He did not get to the Promised Land. Yet while he lived he never stopped proclaiming the values of the Beatitudes and the Kingdom, and a faith that calls us to what he called “a true revolution of values.”

“A true revolution of values will strive to eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation…. Racial injustice is still the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame…. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.” “It’s no longer a choice,” he said, “between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

It was the deep pain and suffering of violence at home and abroad that led him to speak out against the war in Vietnam in his address at Riverside Church in 1967; and the national disgrace of poverty in the U.S. that led him to organize the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, and demand a reordering of our national priorities to promote justice at home, not war abroad.

When challenged on his views, he sometimes responded: “Cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? Experience asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks, is it right?”

On this day we offer our gratitude for his life, and the hope that he instilled in a generation of our fellow citizens. If we are to reach that Promised Land about which he spoke, and to offer a glimpse of that dream to our children, it will take all of us – as sisters and brothers and children of one God – to build the Beloved Community, rooted in the values and teachings of our faith traditions, and the risen Lord we celebrate during this time of Easter.