What are the limits of nonviolence?
I recently read a thought-provoking essay by Hanif Abdurraqib in which he argued that by the end of his life, Martin Luther King no longer believed that nonviolent protest was enough to bring about the liberation of black Americans.
Mr. Abdurraqib writes that by the summer of 1967, progress on civil rights had stalled to a point where many black Americans increasingly saw militancy and violence as their only option to move forward; that they were unable and unwilling to continue to follow Dr. King’s calls for peaceful, respectful protest in the face of continuing violent oppression. Moreover, he argues that Dr. King himself had come to see his nonviolent approach as a failure.
It’s worth quoting Abdurraqib’s piece at length:
One of the foundational notions of nonviolence is that in order to be respected, one must behave well and abide by the social contract: work hard, follow the rules, and prosper. The problem is that since the beginning of the Atlantic Slave Trade, black people had worked harder and followed more rules, more strictly than anyone in America. And still they found themselves in an impossible and impoverished situation. King might not have been as militant as the militants would have liked, and he may have become an even greater citizen of the world while cities were on fire, but by the time he spoke in the fall of 1967, he recognized that it would no longer be effective to tell black folks to only protest peacefully, kindly, and respectfully. They could not prosper in a game where they were the only ones expected to play by the rules.
He goes on:
King was concluding there was to be no hope for nonviolence. Perhaps not then, perhaps not ever. Martin Luther King, at the end of his life, was coming to understand the restrictions of nonviolence as a weapon against a violent oppressor who shows no moral compass. There are limits to how long one can attempt to quiet a fire. King’s transition from the summer of 1966 to the summer of 1967, was from hoping against violence to accepting it as a function of the society it operated in, as an inevitability for a people he had led to a promised land that did not deliver on its promise.
I disagree with Mr. Abdurraqib’s reading of Dr. King. Why? King’s own words make it clear that he stood for nonviolence—limitless compassion—more strongly than ever in his final days.
Anyone willing to put themselves in their shoes would feel empathy for the black Americans who rioted against the violent oppression of the white majority. Dr. King surely felt a great deal of that empathy himself, as Mr. Abdurraqib’s essay demonstrates. Surely, too, he must have had his own private moments of doubt, but his public statements were emphatic that nonviolence was the only way forward to peace.
In a speech given on April 3rd, 1968, Dr. King was unequivocal:
It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.
He was shot to death a few hours later. These words were among the last he ever spoke.
But Mr. Abdurraqib’s broader argument does raise a terrific question: why should the oppressed continue to play by different rules than the oppressors?
Why shouldn’t people who are violently attacked be able to defend themselves? Why should they be asked to resist only peacefully? Isn’t it the height of hypocrisy for an America that even now often treats its darker skinned sons and daughters as less than human to demand that they hold to some higher standard of protest—to surrender to their better angels even in the face of their white brothers’ demons?
Is there not a point where nonviolence becomes ineffective, even counterproductive—a tool of oppression, not liberation?
This question is as relevant today as it was in 1968. The answer depends on what you see as liberation, and how far you’re willing to go in order to achieve it.
If liberation means protecting yourself, your family, your home, your dignity and your way of life, then nonviolence can only take you so far. At a certain point, if those who would hurt you won’t back down, then taking up arms is the only way to defend what you hold dear. This position is understandable, reasonable, fair and what the vast majority of people would do, if pressed far enough.
But if you see liberation as ending suffering and creating true peace, this will never work. The only way to stop a war—not to win a war but to end it—is nonviolence.
The principle of karma is a helpful way to understand this. Karma is simple: all actions have consequences that we will inevitably encounter. If we hurt someone else, we experience that hurt ourselves, one way or another. This isn’t about punishment at all, but the simple truth that if we cause a mess, we have to live with it (or clean it up). Even death doesn’t get us out of the cycle; karma dictates we just come right back to it all again.
From a karmic perspective, the problem with our violent actions is that they always lead to more violence. Hit someone and they either hit you back or take their anger out on someone else (or themselves). The person they hit will then lash out, and the cycle continues.
We see this play out not just in our own lives, but on a global scale as well. There is no war to end all wars, no final act of violence that brings about a lasting peace. All of human history shows us that this is simply not possible.
It doesn’t matter if our reasons for committing an act of violence are just. I can think of no clearer example of a righteous war then the fight against Nazi Germany, but the conquest of Berlin led almost immediately to another fifty years of violence between the Soviet and American victors, fought not even in their respective lands but in those of bystanders: Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, Afghanistan. Even today, we experience the ongoing ripples of that struggle. Conflict never stays confined to the original participants, in space or time.
The cycle of karma is never-ending and we never escape, unless we break it by doing something so radical that it shatters the whole system: committing wholly to nonviolence and loving our enemies as we would hope to be loved ourselves. To end all violence, we have to surrender completely and be willing to give up everything—from our comfort and security to our bodies and our very selves.
This sounds like a beautiful principle, but is it one we can live up to? More importantly, would we even want to? That’s a choice we all have to make for ourselves. But it is worth remembering that should we choose violence over nonviolence, everything we fight to protect will disappear anyway in the end.
However, nonviolence is certainly not for the faint of heart. Indeed, if we really think about it, an absolute commitment to nonviolence leads to some incredibly uncomfortable outcomes.
Mahatma Gandhi, whose own nonviolent revolution in India inspired Dr. King, wrote an open letter to the British people during the early years of World War II. In it, he suggested that they lay down their arms, allow Germany to invade Britain without offering violent resistance of any kind, and if necessary give themselves up for slaughter. He made similar remarks about the Jewish people facing the Holocaust.
That sounds insane, doesn’t it?
It is, and that’s the point. If we want to break the wheel of blood for blood, we have to try something outside the logical and rational thinking that has always kept the violence going. We have to try an insane approach.
It is important to recognize that nonviolence isn’t fair to ask of anyone. Dr. King called upon us to walk that path anyway: to make peace by sacrificing ourselves to ensure the safety of our enemies. To resist hatred and cruelty by standing against it armed with only an open heart and a willingness to keep it open no matter the cost. Perhaps not to stand against hatred at all but to stand in it, as a butterfly in the eye of a hurricane—to offer equanimity and love to the Bull Connors of the world and expect nothing in return.
It is a cruel irony that it so often falls upon the powerless of the world to teach us that violence is not the only way. But nonviolence is the tool of the powerless precisely because it is the only tool they have left—the one act of power all of us have that can never be taken away.
In other words, nonviolence—limitless compassion—is the only true power that there is.
But perhaps we have to feel powerless in order to find it. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor because only the poor are willing to look for it. The rich are too distracted with what they think they have.
There is nothing easy about practicing nonviolence. It goes against our every instinct of self-preservation and even our most closely held values of family and community. True nonviolence demands a middle path: standing up for what’s right, but doing so peacefully, no matter what. It demands sacrifice: a willingness to give up everything, so that our compassion is all that remains. Who among us has the strength to do that?
I don’t know if I do. I certainly don’t want to have to find out. I’d like to live a comfortable, peaceful, easy life without having to make any great sacrifices. You probably feel the same way. I’m sure Dr. King did as well. He told us as much on that April night in Memphis.
But he also told us this:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
His final public words were of universal brotherhood, of sacrifice, and of a love and compassion that fears not even death.
I think he knew that standing for love in the face of hate would one day get him killed. He knew it, and he did it anyway. In the words of the Reverend Samuel Billy Kyles, who was in the crowd for King’s last speech:
[King] knew he wouldn't get there, but he wouldn't tell us that…He preached himself through the fear of death. He just got it out of him.
With his life, Dr. King showed us how to walk the path. With his death, he showed us that he was just a man—flesh and blood, as fragile and vulnerable as any of us. He was just like us.
If he can walk the path, so can we.