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Martin Luther King, Tucson and non-violence

Our country pauses this weekend to honor Martin Luther King on his birthday, January 15. Our prayer cycle remembers Dr. King on April 4, the day he died. I well remember that evening in 1968 -- the violence that cut him down, and the violence that erupted after his murder. I remember my sadness – and disorientation and fear. That settled down after awhile, only to spike again two months later when Robert Kennedy was killed. The shootings in Tucson last week connect my psyche to the 1968 shootings in Memphis and Los Angeles – and the 1963 shooting in Dallas. And the scores of shootings in Newark last year – and several years ago at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. Not to mention the recent bombings in Egypt and Baghdad and Afghanistan. We know we live in a violent world. We cannot deny it, but most of us work very hard to keep ourselves removed from it. And we can’t. Not just because the violence can emerge almost indiscriminately outside a Tucson Safeway (which could probably be described as Ground Zero for Anywhere, USA), but because of the violence that lurks just beneath the surface in most of us. And which surfaces more often than we care to admit. I am talking about verbal violence. The verbal violence that emerges when dialogue dissolves into diatribe; when civility dissolves into sniping, scoring points and assigning blame. The not so subtle violence of Schadenfreude, when our happiness is built on someone else’s misery – which we can easily create by putting someone down or shutting someone out. Martin Luther King had a dream for America. Foundational to that dream was his commitment to nonviolence. And the challenge in his dream was that we embrace the biblical vision of nonviolence – and have the discipline to live it out. “No killer statements” was the mantra of every youth group I ever participated in. It took a lot of reminding to enable that mantra to take root. Research has shown that violence spreads. Violence is a pernicious and toxic contagion. Martin Luther King’s death demonstrated that. My experience and faith has demonstrated that non-violence is also a contagion: a life-giving contagion of hope and peace. Martin Luther King’s witness engendered that. Non-violence won’t solve the problem of violence, but the commitment to non-violence can stymie its spread – in the world and in us.


Non-violence is great, and it works for most of us for as long as we act like doormats. I have not found any happy medium. Maybe because I'm a woman and men are threatened by women who speak up. But, as I said, as long as I do the "happy airy stupid nice" thing I'm fine, but as soon as I speak up or speak out, all hell breaks loose.

Martin once said: "The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality....I've decided that I'm going to do battle for my philosophy. You ought to believe something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days....And I'm not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use."

Nonviolent resistance does not teach us to act like doormats, but to stand strong in the struggle for what we believe no matter what and in spite of the consequences.

If we don't speak up for non-violence, who will? As people of faith, isn't that our call? Certainly Jesus preached that and although it might be viewed as idealistic - we need to stand up and be counted. Together, we can make a difference.

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