Greg Moses
Still Knocking
c 1995
Delivered at Nonviolence Conference
Huston-Tillotson College
Austin, TX
March 3, 1995

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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Theology of Nonviolence:
Still Knocking at the Door of the White Church

It is appropriate today that we illuminate nonviolence by religious lights, because history teaches us that religion and nonviolence are twins. As they keep each other company, they take turns with questions, challenges, and encouragements. All we have to do is turn to the great pioneers of nonviolence to see that the religious dimension is crucial. For Gandhi, nonviolence is a singular discipline which combines politics and religion. King also argues that nonviolence must seek to combine the resources of God and man. Neither Gandhi nor King is superstitious about this nonviolence. Both are shrewd operators in the world of politics, yet capable of profound meditation. We learn from these great practitioners how nonviolence is an art which combines faith and politics, but we are also liable to take this great lesson in all the wrong ways.

For example, we often want to think that Gandhi and King operated at all times with gazes directed upward, toward heaven, understanding themselves as dreamers of the better tomorrow, who somehow lucked into high visibility by virtue of their divine qualities. They did outlandish things because they were perhaps a little touched in head. If their foolish ecstacies turned out well, it was only because their hallowed charismas were convincing enough to draw gullible followers. Those days, we say, are gone forever.

Now I want to highlight the religious dimensions of nonviolence today, but I don't want to encourage the error of thinking about nonviolence as a pie-in-the-sky-oriented activity. When Gandhi paralyzed the coal mine in Newcastle, South Africa, or when King paralyzed the business district of Birmingham, Alabama, these great nonviolent leaders held steady gazes upon a world of dire political consequences. In a long study just completed, I have taken pains to show how the political dimensions of King's nonviolence were distilled from centuries of African American struggle. Likewise, with respect to Gandhi, I would like to suggest that the wisdom of nonviolence is expressed in political campaigns which fight the tough fight at the level of political power. And I want to stress that we best understand the religious dimension of nonviolence from within the experiences of political mobilization.

In these brief remarks today, I will examine the religious dimension of King's nonviolence in order to demonstrate its engagement with struggle. By such lights, we shall see how the concept of God helps to sustain and guide nonviolent activity. Finally, I shall suggest how we are implicated in some strenuous imperatives when we approach the nonviolent quest from a religious point of view. Especially I want to suggest that the theology of nonviolence has been a long time knocking at the door of white Christianity and should no longer be treated as an unwanted stranger.

Perhaps you know the story of King's conversation with God during the Montgomery bus boycott. What I want to emphasize about that story is the fact that King was wrestling with death threats at the time. Although King was relatively young (26 years old) and new to town (having just assumed his first appointment as a pastor), he was chosen to preside over the massive year-long boycott, and to represent the black citizens of Montgomery during their dramatic stride toward freedom.

As King tells the story, his telephone line was inundated by threatening phone calls, and one night he picked up the phone to hear a voice telling him, "Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you. Before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery" (King 1963, p. 113). With this phone call, King's world seemed to crash in upon itself. Writes King, "I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point" (King 1963, p. 113).

I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, "Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm. (King 1962, p. 113)

Three nights later, when King's home was bombed, he was able to take the news calmly and issue sincere appeals for peace. Nearly ten years later, King wrote that nonviolence had mysteriously revealed the living presence of God:

The agonizing moments through which I have passed during the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in the past the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category that I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm. In the midst of lonely days and dreary nights I have hear an inner voice saying, "Lo, I will be with you." When the chains of fear and the manacles of frustration have all but stymied my efforts, I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power. To say that this God is personal is not to make him a finite object besides other objects or attribute to him the limits of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm its perfect existence in him. It is certainly true that human personality is limited, but personality as such involves no necessary limitations. It means simply self-consciousness and self-direction. So in the truest sense of the word, God is a living God. In him there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart: this God both evokes and answers prayer. (King 1963, pp. 154-55)

Once again, I want to repeat that King's religious quest is revealed through his political struggles, in much the way that Gandhi insisted upon that inseparable relationship.

When King goes on to declare that, "Our God is Able," he alludes to the reality of ideals which bring ruin to evil, and he alludes to the power, not quite one's own, which sustains a person as she or he risks death and suffering in the name of love and justice:

God walks with us. He has placed within the very structure of this universe certain absolute moral laws. We can neither defy nor break them. If we disobey them, they will break us. The forces of evil may temporarily conquer truth, but truth will ultimately conquer its conqueror. (King 1963, p. 110)

But God does not act unilaterally:

The idea that man expects God to do everything leads inevitably to a callous misuse of prayer. For if God does everything, man then asks him for anything, and God becomes little more than a "cosmic bellhop." (King 1963, p. 131)

A serious theology of nonviolence seeks heaven, but conceives of that heaven within the context of human experience, and stakes ones active body upon the actualization of heavenly ideals. Within this struggle, the truly living meet their living God:

He offers neither material resources nor a magical formula that exempts us from suffering and persecution, but he brings an imperishable gift: "Peace I leave with you." This is that peace which passeth understanding. (King 1963, pp. 111-112)

Not only are God's ideals worth fighting for, but the sufferings and turbulence of such struggles open the mysterious gates of God's own peace. Let me say this one more time. If we understand King's theology of nonviolence, we see that struggle is imperative, that God's deepest revelations open up within the moments of the nonviolent campaign.

I don't want to suggest that political nonviolence is some exclusive path to God. But King is saying that God's ideals must be sought, and that one must be prepared to suffer. He warns us away from the temptation to engage in "the callous misuse of prayer." And we misuse prayer whenever we say to God that he is going to have to do all the work to bring his ideals into reality. For instance, King used the example of the man who said, "I believe in integration, but I know it will not come until God wants it to come. You Negroes should stop protesting and start praying" (King 1963, p. 131.) This kind of attitude would substitute prayer for action, and thus reveals the insincerity of the prayer itself. As King replies,

I am certain we need to pray for God's help and guidance in this integration struggle, but we are gravely misled if we think the struggle will be won only by prayer. God, who gave us minds for thinking and bodies for working, would defeat his own purpose if he permitted us to obtain through prayer what may come through work and intelligence. Prayer is a marvelous and necessary supplement of our feeble efforts, but it is a dangerous substitute. (King 1963, p. 132)

And so, when we do nothing but pray for the day of integration to arrive, we reveal a tragic delusion about the dynamic relationship between God and humans.

I have taken time to recover King's theology of nonviolence, because I think as we reflect upon the path that white Christianity has taken for the past thirty years, we find that prayer has not been well used in behalf of integration. If the man who talked to King represented the state of white Christianity thirty years ago, then I think we notice a change of attitude, but the change is not hopeful. Whereas the white man thirty years ago at least encouraged a prayer for integration, the white Christian church today has very nearly stopped praying for integration altogether.

I think it is important to collect examples of exceptions to the rule of white Christianity today, but let me repeat the general observation that white Christians neither pray for, nor work for, nor do they seem prepared for any suffering on their part in order to usher in an age where integration is a valued ideal. In his last book to America, King implored the white church to "recapture its prophetic zeal." Otherwise, said King, the white church would, "become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority" (King 1967, p. 96.) Indeed, if the white church today is not irrelevant, it is because the authority of the white church has been up to its old tricks of aiding and abetting racist backlash. At least that's the way it looks to me as I survey the American scene.

King said segregation is a sin, because it is, "established on pride, hatred, and falsehood." He said segregation is a sin, because it is, "unbrotherly and impersonal." He declared that, "segregated souls never meet in God"; and he observed that segregation, "denies the sacredness of human personality." Therefore, "A religion true to its mission knows that segregation is morally wrong and sinful" (King 1967, p. 97.) To deepen the case, King points out how segregation denies freedom, and therefore damages the essence of human beings as fellow creatures of God. King's last book thus implores the white church to do the righteous thing:

The church has an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God as man. The undergirding philosophy of segregation is diametrically opposed to the undergirding philosophy of our Judeo-Christian heritage, and not all the dialectics of the logicians can make them lie down together.

But declarations against segregation, however sincere, are not enough. The church must take the lead in social reform. It must move out into the arena of life and do battle for the sanctity of religious commitments. And it must lead men along the path of integration, something the law cannot do. (King 1967, pp. 99-100)

Indeed, the law has not led the hearts of our nation in the past thirty years. In fact, it appears that hearts are hardening against the laws of integration, even as we speak today. But the theology of nonviolence is still knocking at the door of the church and patiently waits for a sanctuary that will take it in.

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