The path of nonviolence: six principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Martin Luther King Jr

Sunada drew my attention to this detailed exposition by Dr. King on the principles and practice of nonviolence. I thought it was worth reposting in its entirety, especially given the levels of violence being directed against the Occupy protestors, and the need for the movement to remain nonviolent:

First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight … The method is passive physically, but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive nonresistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent … The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

Also see:

A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil … We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.

A fourth point that characterizes nonviolent resistance is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back. ‘Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood,’ Gandhi said to his countrymen. The nonviolent resister … does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it ‘as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber…’ “What is the nonviolent resister’s justification for this ordeal to which he invites men, for this mass political application of the ancient doctrine of turning the other cheek?” The answer is found in the realization that unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.

A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love …

A sixth basic fact about nonviolent resistance is that it is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship… a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.

–Martin Luther King. Jr., in Stride Towards Freedom

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8 Comments. Leave new

  • I am struck by his statement “Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.” which seems very Buddhist to me. Mostly, it seems to me, Buddhists tend to reject suffering as a path to awakening, but MLK seems to suggest that suffering is such a pathway.

  • It depends on what you mean by “suffering as a path to awakening.” The first noble truth in Buddhism is, of course, that suffering exists. The second is that there is a cause of suffering. We need to explore our suffering in order to see how we’re causing it. The third truth is that our suffering isn’t necessary, and the fourth is the existence of a methodology for eradicating our suffering.

    So the Buddhist path is the exploration of suffering and its causes, so that we can free ourselves progressively from dukkha by unlearning the habits that cause it.

  • I love the contrast between physical and spiritual strength. Although nonviolence is physically soft; it is mentally and spiritually tough.

    thanks for the repost.

  • The way I see it the Buddhist and the Christian views of suffering are exact opposites. As you point out, Buddhism teaches that suffering isn’t necessary. Christians seem to feel it is necessary, in a way, for redemption. This suggests to me that Christians regard suffering as ineradicable, in exact opposition to the Buddhist idea that suffering is eradicable. The contradiction fascinates me. Have you given any thought to these contradictory views?

  • I’m not sure the term “opposites” is very useful here. There are broad similarities, as well as profound differences. Both traditions deal with suffering and its cause, and offer the prospect of an end to suffering. For the Christian, suffering results from the first humans’ disobedience to God, and it will end in heaven as a result of faith, which can sustain a person through suffering. Suffering is a test of faith, and therefore to be welcomed.

    For Buddhism the cause of suffering is clinging to deluded notions of a separate and permanent self. Suffering — or at least mopst of it — will be ended when we eliminate craving and the delusion that feeds it. Suffering is inevitable, though — even the Buddha experienced pain, although he didn’t add to his pain through “poor me” thinking. On the way to Awakening, suffering is inevitable, and although we don’t seek it out for its own sake, there are still teachings that point to its value, sich as Shantideva’s reminder that to have an enemy can be seen as a good thing because it gives us an opportunity to practice patience.

    Frankly, I think the Christian view of the origin and end of suffering are delusional and illogical, but Christian ideas of reframing suffering so that it’s seen as an opportunity to strengthen faith aren’t that different from some Buddhist ideas. I do think some Christians put themselves through suffering unnecessarily, seeing it as ennobling when it might in fact may just be self-indulgent, distracting, and pointless, but perhaps this is a misapplication of a teaching rather than a flaw in the teaching itself.

  • “I do think some Christians put themselves through suffering unnecessarily, seeing it as ennobling when it might in fact may just be self-indulgent” I think that’s referred to as a “martyr complex.”
    You also wrote: “even the Buddha experienced pain”. In the Buddhist books I’ve read over the years most people distinguish between pain and suffering – arguing that pain in inevitable, just because of the nature of this world, but suffering is not inevitable. As I recall, Cheri Huber used to have a t-shirt which read “Suffering is optional.” I’ve always found it useful to keep that in mind.

    • Yes, indeed, the “martyr complex” and suffering being optional are what I had in mind, although the phrase “suffering is optional” disguises the fact that physical pain is a form of suffering.

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