Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was the greatest preacher and the greatest leader for social change of his generation. He had a unique way of putting together ideas and words to promote the most powerful nonviolent social change movement in U.S. history. His unique pattern was built predominantly out of his African-American experience, filtered through predominantly white conceptual language. It has now become a valuable heritage for people of every color committed to, or thinking about, nonviolence.

King was not a systematic theologian nor a great religious thinker. His ideas always arose not from theoretical reflection but from the specific demands of a concrete historical situation that required an active response. He himself said, "The experience in Montgomery [the bus boycott of 1955-56] did more to clarify my theology on the question of nonviolence than all of the books I had read." But the concrete historical situation that shaped his thinking stretched back far earlier than Montgomery. He always acknowledged that he was, above all, a product of the South and the African-American heritage of slavery, racism, and resistance. In the context of that heritage, any movement for social change had to be rooted in the religious life of the black community. Religion was the central focus of the community and the most basic foundation for all communal efforts.

As a graduate student in theology in the early 1950s, King absorbed a wide-ranging knowledge of white Christian theology and its philosophical underpinnings. But the way he used that knowledge showed that the black church was still his true home. He picked out the concepts that fit best into the black church tradition. He used those concepts to translate the basic principles of the black church into white theological language. He may have brought a few new ideas into the black Christian community, but they were not basic to his message. The fundamentals could all be found in the traditions he learned as a child and a youth within the black community. Above all was the most fundamental concept: Christianity as a religion of freedom and liberation. King certainly heard this from the white professors who taught him the theology of liberal Christianity. But he had heard it long before, and probably much more passionately, from his father and the other great preachers he heard every week as he was growing up.

The way King expressed his message also reflected the primacy of the black church tradition. That tradition sought truth primarily through personal experience, interpreted in light of the Bible and God’s moral laws—not through rational arguments. It sought to persuade others of the truth primarily by testifying about personal experience and asserting the religious truths that gave meaning to that experience— not by proving truths logically. In his own speaking and writing, King tended to assert the basic principles and truths of his religious outlook rather than propose logical arguments for them. He used basic principles, drawn from both black and white Christianity, as building blocks for his sermons, speeches, and articles. They were primarily tools for exhortation and persuasion, not tools of systematic argumentation. In the tradition of black preaching, King placed no great value on original ideas; he felt free to take others' ideas, and even their precise words (sometimes without acknowledging his sources).

So King could take many different concepts from difference sources, mixing and matching them to suit the specific occasion. He rarely offered any sustained linear exposition of ideas. He had no basic argument to make. He did have a distinctive array of concepts, out of which he built his distinctive discursive construction. But one can start anywhere in that construction and arrive logically at any other point. It is not a chain, but a web of interwoven ideas. It is not meant to analyze ideas, but to move people to action. In that sense, King should not be regarded as a great thinker. Yet he was an intellectual, because he respected ideas highly and always wanted to be sure that his action was supported and interpreted by intelligent, reasonable ideas. To understand his commitment to nonviolence, and the central role he gave nonviolence in improving society, we must understand his web of ideas in all its complexity.


At the very center of King's web of nonviolence thought is a central premise of all African-American Christianity: religion is and must be a personal experience, because God is personal. He rejected the idea, popular in his day, that the image of a personal God is merely a symbol, a way for humans to imagine and relate to an ineffable spiritual abstraction. God really is personality, he affirmed. God is the infinite perfection of those qualities that make each one of us a person: self-consciousness and self-direction. Therefore, the foundation of all being is infinite personality. Only personality is ultimately real. King could take quite literally the Bible's statement that God creates all humans in His image. This personalism (as theologians call it) provided a logical foundation for all of King's ethical and social teachings. Those teachings all center on two inherent qualities of all personality: freedom and equality.

Because God is perfectly free, every human being is innately free. "The essence of man is found in freedom," the freedom to deliberate, decide, and respond in any situation. The infinite value of each person means that each one of us should actualize our fullest potentials and the fullest possible range of values in our lives. To do that, we must have the fullest possible freedom. Freedom is "the opportunity to fulfill my total capacity untrammeled by any artificial barrier." Of course, life set limits to our freedom, and they must be respected. "Always freedom is within a predestined structure." Within that structure, though, every person deserves maximum freedom. When an artificial barrier is erected, someone else will be making choices for us. In that case, we lose our humanity and are "reduced to an animal." Freedom requires equal rights.

King's notion of equality, like his notion of freedom, was grounded in his theology. Because each person is an image of God and partakes of the infinite values of personal being, each person is a "soul of infinite metaphysical value." Because God is the father of all people, no person can have more worth than another. But freedom and equality do not give us license to do whatever we please. Freedom is more than just the ability to act randomly. It is more than just acts of any kind. It is a condition of being. Freedom means having a clear sense of who one is, what one is determined to be, and why. It means that a person's acts come from choices made by "the centered totality of his being." That is why "freedom is one thing—you have it all, or you are not free."

Nor does equality give us license to do whatever we please. The root of equality, the fact that we are all created by the same God, means that we are all members of a single, infinitely valuable, family. Just as God loves all His children equally, so we should love all members of the human family equally. Just as God is agape (the Greek term for selfless love), so we should treat all people with agape love. Agape is "understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men." "He who loves is a participant in the being of God." Agape does not mean that we should like all people; some people are indeed unlikable. But it means that we should respect every person's unique personality and help all fulfill their highest potentials. Therefore it means caring about what happens to every person and responding to each one's unique needs. Agape creates "true person-to-person relationships."

Love of neighbor is the vital link between faith and action. There can be no individual spiritual development without a strong sense of social responsibility. King allowed no separation between spirit and matter or body and soul. He insisted that spiritual truths must be acted out in concrete social life. Agape acted out in society creates a sense of loving community. Because God is agape, He is always working to create community. Because our worth as individuals stems from being created in God's image, we too should always be creating community: "At the heart of all that civilization has meant and developed is ‘community’—the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother."

King's stress on community reflected not only his theology, but his life as an African-American in the South, where the sense of family and community was such a powerful reality. He may well have taken it for granted that the actions of groups were more meaningful and effective than the actions of individuals. In a sense, blacks and whites in the South formed a single community. Ironically, racism actually made them parts of a single community, The Jim Crow laws and the heritage of slavery that separated them also brought them together, by forming a single social system in which both races had to live. Few whites may have understood this, but it was painfully obvious to most blacks.

Intellectually, King grounded the need for community in his belief in God as creator. But he also offered an argument for community that needs no religious basis. He pointed out the obvious: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality. You can never be what you ought to be until I become what I ought to be"—and vice versa. "The self cannot be a self without other selves. I cannot reach fulfillment without thou.…All life is interrelated." "Creation is so designed that my personality can be fulfilled only in the context of community." All humans are one family because of this simple sociological and psychological fact.

Therefore, any individual can create value only by cooperating with others. Those others must be free to fulfill their fullest potential in order to help me fulfill my potential. Since I am only free when fulfilling own potential, I am only free when I am helping others to be free to fulfill their potential. So there is no conflict between freedom and responsibility to others in community. On the contrary, I can fulfill my freedom only by serving the needs of others, especially when their freedom is abridged. A threat to anyone's freedom is a threat to my own freedom. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." These are objective moral laws imposed by the moral order of the universe. In order to fulfill ourselves, we must conform to that moral order; the first law of life is "other preservation," not self-preservation. To King, of course, these were God's laws; agape is the force that creates the divine moral order. And "the end of life is to do the will of God, come what may," which means always to act with love.

Every person, whether religious or not, recognizes these laws, he claimed. Every person feels a need for justice, rooted in their inherent freedom, their intrinsic value, and their membership in an infinitely valuable community. This awareness is the source of our urge to freedom, dignity, and equal rights. Every person should be aware of their infinite value. Self-esteem is essential to a healthy identity formation. And a healthy sense of identity is essential for freedom. Since freedom must come from the center of our being, we are free only when we believe and feel ourselves to be free. Therefore King could say: "The Negro will only be truly free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive selfhood his own emancipation proclamation."

Self-esteem and freedom are crucial for moral conscience. Because God, as person, is infinite moral conscience, every human being has a moral conscience and is always free to choose the good. Recognizing ourselves as the image of God is necessary for awakening our fullest powers of conscience. But if we do not love ourselves and affirm our dignity and rights, we cannot properly love others and affirm their dignity and rights. Nor can we take responsibility for our moral choices. One of the most tragic things about injustice and oppression is that it undermines self-esteem. The oppressed person all too easily internalizes the oppressor’s image of himself or herself as less valuable than others. When self-esteem is low enough, it becomes self-hatred, which leads to hating others. Ultimately, the oppressed begin to cooperate with their oppressors and "become just as evil as the oppressors."


The tragic paradox of life is that self-esteem, which we all need, is also the source of our human problems. We all want the affirmation and recognition and distinction that we deserve. We all want to stand out and be noticed, to be a somebody rather than a nobody. King called this (in one of his best know sermons) "the drum major instinct." Naturally, we resent it if someone else is playing the drum major role. Since everyone wants to be the drum major, conflict is unavoidable. "The great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct." Self-esteem must be nurtured yet held in check.

King's view of human nature was therefore ambivalent: "Man is neither innately good nor is he innately bad; he has potentialities for both." There is an absolute difference in principle between good and evil, but the two are always mixed together in every person. His thinking about human nature combined personalism with the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr and another very influential theologian, Paul Tillich. Even in the worst person there is always a chance to choose the good, King said, because "the image of God is never totally gone." Therefore human nature is essentially good. But our existential nature, the way we live from day to day, is estranged from our essence. Only in God is essence identical with actual existence. Because we are free and finite creatures, our free choices never measure up fully to the ideal of our essential goodness. Inevitably, we make some wrong choices. Inevitably we transgress on the freedom and dignity of others and fail to respond fully to their needs. Inevitably we sin. Sin is not merely caused by our separation from our essential nature. Sin is that state of separation. This is what traditional Christian theology means when it speaks of original sin. King agreed with Niebuhr that sin is inevitable. He felt that Niebuhr had gone too far in the direction of so-called "realism." Still, he never gave up the idea that sin, selfishness, and the evil they cause are objective facts that must be acknowledged. Therefore it is unreasonable to demand or hope for perfect selflessness and the elimination of all desire.

However he did not agree with Niebuhr that society must depend on selfishly motivated, coercive actions. Although sin is inevitable in every one of us, we can nevertheless love others and work together in community to enrich the lives of all. King sometimes made this case by pointing to social-psychological facts. We need others to fulfill ourselves. We must live in whatever kind of community we create. The happier and healthier the community, the happier and healthier our own lives. And we can get great ego satisfaction from helping others and improving our community. We can satisfy the drum major instinct by being drum majors for justice and peace. For all these reasons, when we help others we are also serving ourselves: "We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of morality coalesce with our self-interest."

But for King, the problem of sin, like every other problem, was ultimately resolved by faith in God. His religion was deeply rooted in the Bible, particularly the Hebrew Bible's story of God rescuing the Israelite slaves out of Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land. From Tillich, King took a subtle philosophical interpretation of that story of God's saving work in human history. In this interpretation, the slavery in Egypt (an exile from the Israelites' true home) is a symbol of our estrangement from our essential human nature. The Exodus, the return from exile to the Promised Land, is a symbol of restoration to our essential nature, making existence match essence. Restoration and salvation are brought about by God's saving love. Divine love is the motive force of history. An infinitely loving God is always working to reconcile all that has been separated and return humanity to its essential goodness. Divine love is a cosmic process that overcomes all alienation and fragmentation.

For King, the most crucial arena for God's saving work is human society. He never ignored the Christian hope for personal heavenly redemption. But he never separated it from the hope of societal earthly redemption. In true Christianity, as he saw it, the two are always dialectically related; each requires the other. To integrate oneself with God, a Christian must be fully integrated in social relationships with other people. The Christian church had started out as an effort to improve society, according to his reading of history, and it was obligated to stay true to those roots. In this, he was staying true to his own roots in African-American Christianity, which always focused on the earthly liberation of God's people as well as the spiritual resurrection of the individual. King, like so many black preachers, easily merged the image of Jesus with the image of Moses, for both had overcome bitter trials in order to bring freedom. And every southern black could understand the complex experience of being rooted in a community yet still feeling like a stranger in that community. The Exodus story spoke directly to the hope of resolving that tension.

In King's reading of the Bible, social relationships are the way in which we express both our sin and the overcoming of sin. Humanity is, in its essence, a single community of interwoven destiny; we are always already bound together. But our society is driven by individualism and competition, because we are in sin, estranged from our essence. Competitive individualism leads to hierarchical social structures. Those above dominate those below, and the result is a society riddled with conflicts, separations, and injustice.

God is "love in action," overcoming political, economic, and social conflicts to return us to our communal essence. God's work of resolving historical conflict, harmonizing human relationships, and overcoming sin is the work of creating freedom and justice. "The universe is under the control of a loving purpose." "The moral arc of the universe bends toward justice." King did not claim that it was necessary to be religious to appreciate the force of his teaching. He said that the objective moral order, the fact of our interconnectedness, works to liberate all who are enslaved and corrects all injustices. Even those who do not believe in God must believe in "some creative force that works for togetherness, a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole." .

For King himself, the only way to express this was the language of religion. In that language, the goal of God's work in history is the Kingdom of God. Most often, King called it "the beloved community." This is the ideal of the Bible: a society of perfect freedom, justice, and harmony, where everyone follows the divine moral order. In the beloved community, everyone recognizes the truth that we all are, always have been, and always will be interdependent. And everyone acts upon that truth. The ideal is active interdependence and mutual service, not individual self-reliance and competition. Therefore, there are no hierarchies, no unresolvable conflicts, no oppression. The beloved community is one of perfect unity but not strict uniformity. Diversity is fully valued, because the distinctive qualities and potentials of every individual are fully valued. The unity comes from each one appreciating and enhancing the qualities that make every other one different and unique.

This vision of the beloved community is not an irrelevant utopian ideal, King insisted. God's moral order is constructed to reconcile all that is separated. God’s love and power are infinite. Therefore we have a guarantee that, despite all our sin, God can and will overcome all sin and reconcile every conflict, that some day humanity will live in the beloved community. This promise, in turn, guarantees the success of human efforts for justice, freedom, and community. But God does not do this alone. He calls humans to be His co-workers in history. History is a dynamic theater of interacting forces; there are always new crises demanding human responses. King spoke of his own time of civil rights struggle as an era of especially acute historical tensions. But every crisis "can spell either salvation or doom" Every person must choose to act, to help history toward either chaos or community. Of course chaos often precedes community: "When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born."

This pattern had begun in biblical times, with the Exodus, which was "the opening chapter in a continuing story." The civil rights movements was another chapter, in King's view. Yet he did not teach that the beloved community will arrive in discrete stages. Now is always the time to participate fully in God's moral order, to follow God's lead and give special loving concern to those who suffer, who are outcast and helpless. For King, it meant plunging into the concrete struggle for justice, as a religiously meaningful act: "It’s alright to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day." In other words, Christianity must have an inescapably political dimension. It is a positive duty to work through the political system, to secure equal rights and basic material needs, for oneself and for all others.

The effort must be political because it directly involves power: "Freedom is participation in power." The only way to get real reconciliation between groups is first to equalize their power, which would require a major shift in power relationships. And power is always political; it is "a social force any group can utilize by accumulating its elements in a planned, deliberate campaign to organize it under its own control." King saw nothing intrinsically bad about political power. His vision of the beloved community, as an ideal that can be realized in this world, implied the need for, and the possibility of, a moral and loving government. The beloved community would not eliminate power relationships, but it would set them right: "Power at its best is the right use of strength"; Participation means sharing power so that no one dominates. In a society based on love, power would be used to obtain and maintain a just harmony, not for some to coerce others. So power would be exercised nonviolently.

Drawing on Niebuhr’s thought, King accepted the need for force and compulsion in order to achieve the beloved community. All people are sinners, he said, and political action in the present will be inevitably be tainted by sin. But this is no reason to avoid politics, as long as the goal is freedom and justice: "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed" The end of oppression may amount to a total revolution. Yet this revolution need not destroy social order. It is crucial to recognize that social order is good only when it promotes justice; order is a means to justice, not vice versa. When justice is lacking, revolution is necessary to make the social order follow the fit cosmic order. In the process, revolution will clearly reveal the social disorder that already exists, yet has been hidden. This will appear to be a heightening of disorder. Rather than evoking chaos, however, revolution protects society against chaos, if it promotes justice. The exercise of power, even revolutionary powerful, is moral, as long as it aims at the beloved community¾ and as long as it remains strictly nonviolent.


King argued for a strict, principled nonviolence on three levels: pragmatic, moral, and religious. He saw these three as interlocking and inseparable. But they can be distinguished for analytical purposes.

Pragmatically, he saw violence as self-defeating, because it is embedded in a network of harmful values. "Violence has been the inseparable twin of materialism, the hallmark of its grandeur and misery." "Violence grows to the degree that injustice prevails; the more injustice in a given community, more violence, or potential violence, smolders in that community." When a society feels threatened by its own inadequacies, it uses violence to prop itself up. A militant mass movement that uses violence only increases the sense of threat and therefore provokes counter-violence. This increases conflict, "which in turn breeds anarchy." Out of anarchy comes more injustice and violence.

Nonviolence is the best antidote to violence and injustice, King affirmed. But it must be employed carefully. It must be preceded by careful investigation of the facts, to be sure that there is a real injustice being done. Then there must be a serious effort to negotiate a just solution. If negotiation fails, good people must purify themselves of fear and selfish motives and then take direct action. Action is even more important than the commitment to nonviolence: "There is one evil that is worse than violence, and that’s cowardice." When King spoke of nonviolence, he always meant firm resistance: "the persistent and determined application of peaceable power to offenses against the community" There is nothing weak or passive in it. Far from backing away or easing tensions, nonviolence uses power to increase the tensions that already exist: "A community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

In King's analysis, nonviolence is practical because it offers a better chance of controlling the mounting tensions and avoiding mutual destruction. It is "an object lesson in power under discipline." It turns the tensions into a constructive energy that can move the conflict toward resolution. Everyone can see that the resistors are seeking reconciliation, not revenge for past oppression. Their tactics keep everyone focused on the evil being protested, without being distracted by personal animosities. Those who adhere to nonviolence always remember that their enemy is an evil social structure, not the people who support the structure. They accept the traditional American belief that everyone can make a new start, that all people can be redeemed. They even acknowledge that there may be some right on the opponents' side. Nonviolence "helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves." Thus both sides can learn and grow from the conflict.

Nonviolence also demonstrates the resistors' willingness to find moderate solutions and get the maximum justice for everyone. Therefore it helps both sides avoid destructive extremes. Nonviolence eases the opponents’ fears, though it does aim to evoke guilt and shame: "It weakens his morale and at the same time it works on his conscience. He just doesn’t know how to handle it." In the past, the opponent may have dealt with guilt feelings simply by repeating the familiar guilt-creating behavior. Resistance aims to make that impossible. What the resistors are seeking is a new situation, created by their opponents' free decision to act differently. But if they can awaken the sleeping conscience, they can induce changed behavior without humiliation. Then the hard work of reconciliation can begin.

King explained that he had seen this happen. For example, in the Birmingham, Alabama, protests of 1963, white policemen refused to obey the harsh orders of the racist police chief, "Bull" Connor: "Then slowly the Negroes stood up and advanced, and Connor’s men fell back as though hypnotized…I saw there, I felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence." That power was amplified by the television cameras showing the scene to the world. Because the blacks were strictly nonviolent, they stirred the conscience of most whites who watched; it was the turning point in public attitudes toward the civil rights movement. "The pressure of public opinion becomes an ally in your just cause," King knew, as long as you remain strictly nonviolent.

All of these practical advantages of nonviolence were well understood before Martin Luther King, Jr., appeared on the scene. His analysis showed that he had carefully studied the tactics he learned from others. But he always insisted that genuine nonviolence had to be more than a pragmatic technique. It had to be a moral commitment. And it had to be more than just a collection of ideas. It had to be a way of life. His original contribution was to set nonviolence in the larger context of his moral and religious thought, to share that with the nation, and to embody it in the life of the political movement he led.

King's moral argument for nonviolence was based on his belief in agape—selfless love—as the highest moral imperative. He assumed that nonviolent acts are, by definition, selfless acts of love aiming for the well-being of all. In the beloved community, all action would be an expression of agape love. A nonviolent act is one that makes the beloved community not only a distant goal, but a present reality.

King argued for nonviolence in terms of distant goal, present reality, and the inseparable link between the two. If the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice and the beloved community, then there is a universal moral order that binds all people and things together in mutual relationship. This means that the universe is a moral unity, with all its elements connected. Therefore ends cannot be divorced from means. In fact, the ends preexist in the means; where one arrives depends on how one gets there. The future depends on the present.

Violence violates the universal moral order because violent means inevitably produce violent results. Thus violence creates conflict and separation, not only physically but psychologically. It may reflect the nature of our existence. But it directly contradicts our essence: the fact that "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," that our individual freedom and fulfillment depends on the freedom and fulfillment of others. Only in acts of nonviolence do we embody this essential nature of the universe. Only nonviolence conforms to the fact of our present interconnectedness and dependence on others. And only nonviolent acts in the service of justice can move the universe toward its ultimate destination, in which our existence will fully embody our essence. Therefore, nonviolence is more than just a nice ideal. It is the only way to live and act in accord with how things really are, and are meant to be, in the world.

That explains why violent efforts to improve society are self-defeating. Every act of physical violence both reflects and increases an inner violence, which is hatred of an other. Hatred leads us to depersonalize and dehumanize others, to treat them as an "It" rather than as "Thou." Because violence always perpetuates this dehumanizing, it can only "intensify the cleavage in a broken community." In the end, it "leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue." It simply will not work to pursue the goal of community by means that drive people apart. Even when violence is used to promote a just cause, it destroys the very community it seeks to create. So violence can never unify. It can never produce a social order that matches the moral order, the true nature of reality. It can only produce an endless cycle of meaningless chaos.

The only way to follow the moral law of the universe is through reconciliation of what has been separated. Responding to hate with love "is the only way to reestablish the broken community." Principled nonviolence tries to bring people together at every step of the way in order to reach togetherness. It tries to harmonize people in order to create harmony. Its ends are fully present in its means. It makes the ultimate moral goal, the beloved community, a present reality. The beloved community is at peace. But this is not what King called "negative peace," just an absence of tension. Rather it is the "positive peace" of agape actively grappling with and overcoming tensions to produce freedom and justice for all. Unless all are equally free to fulfill themselves in community, there will be and can be no genuine peace. Until all are equally free, society will be chaotic and distressed, because it will be contradicting the essential nature of reality.

Again, it must be stressed that this message of peace and love is not at all a counsel of passivity. It is the very opposite: "We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts." That action may very well involve refusing to comply with, or actively breaking, an unjust law. King carefully analyzed the moral responsibility to break unjust laws: "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust laws is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law…Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."" Philosophically speaking, just laws treat persons as ends in themselves, while unjust laws treat persons as means to someone else's ends.

Politically speaking, just laws treat everyone equally and are made by all the people affected by them. Unjust laws treat people unequally, thus making difference legal. So they must be imposed by others on those affected by them. Yet even when lawbreaking is justified, one must break the law openly and be willing to accept penalty. This shows respect for the principle of a society based on legal order and a clear willingness to abide by just laws. (Pragmatically, it also reassures the wider society that resistance will not provoke disorder.)


King's pragmatic and moral arguments, voiced so eloquently, helped to give nonviolence a universal appeal. But he was always, first and foremost, a Christian preacher of the gospel. For him, the truest and most compelling arguments for nonviolence came from his religion. He set nonviolence at the center of the triangular relationship of self, others, and God. It is the only way to get and preserve right relationships among all three. When those right relationships are acted out, especially in the midst of bitter conflict, it brings the beloved community a step closer. In the beloved community, every person is neighbor to every other; no one can be an enemy. Nonviolence is the only means of social change that makes God's goal for the future visible in the present.

King preached against violence because to injure another person is to deny that person's sanctity. No matter how evil a person's acts may be, "the image of God is never totally gone." And violence injures the image of God. (King viewed violence against property differently from violence against people, because life, being personal, is sacred, while property has no personal being and thus cannot be sacred.) Since all people are our brothers and sisters, all deserve our empathy and solidarity, not our hatred or even our pity. So we must remain nonviolent for the same reason that we can demand justice: the inherent dignity and equality of all people as children of God. King also used this as an argument for the efficacy of nonviolence. Because the opponents remain at all times an image of God, they can always change their ways. Nonviolence aims to treat others as we would have them treat us, to show them "that mutually they confront the eternality of the basic worth of every member of the human family." There is no guarantee that this will evoke change, of course. But violence virtually guarantees that the opponent will not change.

If the opponents do have a change of heart, it will probably be largely because they see nonviolent resistors being attacked and not fighting back. No doubt the impact of undeserved suffering can be explained psychologically. For a Christian, though, its meaning and power is ultimately theological. Redemptive suffering is the essence of the Christian story: "All who honor themselves with the claim of being Christians should compare themselves to Jesus. … [who] loved his enemies so fully that he died for them." Divine love is agape love, selfless and therefore self-sacrificing. Only agape redeems us from sin and broken community. Only in undeserved suffering can we be sure that our actions are selfless and therefore redemptive. That is the message of the Cross and of Christianity: "The essence of the Epistle of Paul is that Christians should rejoice at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believe." But suffering is redemptive only when it is for the sake of justice, part of a struggle to end the unjust suffering of others.

King was sure that his African-American audiences would readily understand this message, because of their constant experience of persecution and pain. He aimed to give that pain meaning, as so many in his community before him had done. By making nonviolent resistance a moral and religious ideal, he could readily interpret it as Christ-like suffering. So it helped to enhance self-esteem and lead away from bitterness. By leading a great movement, he could help others experience their suffering in a group, not alone. So it became not only more meaningful but more endurable.

King's philosophical bent was always to harmonize opposites. As in his political life, this did not mean making compromises. It meant finding a way to take two extremes and bring them together without sacrificing the integrity of either one. His thinking about nonviolence offers a good example. He brought together the natural desire to avoid the pain of violence and the equally natural desire to avoid the pain of injustice and moral evil. He was consciously trying to avoid the dangers he saw on both sides: "The nonviolent approach provides an answer to the long debated question of gradualism versus immediacy. On the one hand it prevents one from falling into the sort of patience which is an excuse for do-nothingism…On the other hand it saves one from the irresponsible words which estrange without reconciling and the hasty judgment which is blind to the necessities of social process."

He was also trying to bring together the seemingly irreconcilable views of the nonviolence tradition and its most famous critic, Reinhold Niebuhr. He certainly agreed with Niebuhr's argument that nonviolence was the only practical tactic for U.S. blacks to win their rights; armed uprising was a vain hope. He also agreed with Niebuhr that good and evil are mixed in every social situation and in every individual. King stated the logical implication: even the nonviolent are never sinless. Their lives and tactics are never pure. But they are choosing the less evil path, one that offers hope for goodness and justice overcoming the effects of sin.

Most importantly, perhaps, King shared Niebuhr’s view that people will rarely, if ever, cease their unjust ways voluntarily. The only way to move society toward justice is by force; i.e., by inflicting so much physical, economic, or psychological pain on the unjust that they change their ways, due to their selfish desire to avoid the pain. King’s greatest achievement in the theory of nonviolence was to reconcile Niebuhr's insistence on force with nonviolence's trust in human nature. Tactically, he did this by sanctioning coercive political moves (boycotts, sit-ins, etc.), while gracing them with his gentle Christian oratory of love, forgiveness, and racial harmony. By publicly endorsing power politics and strict nonviolence simultaneously, he embodied the possibility of synthesizing the two.

Theologically, he did the same thing by adopting Tillich's idea of sin as estrangement from our essential nature. Though he never spelled this out explicitly, King assumed that Niebuhr was describing our existential nature (the way we live now), while the nonviolence movement deals with human nature in its eternal essence: just, loving, and good. Nonviolence can succeed because God's love is always working to overcome our existential estrangement and return us to our essence. Yet King cautioned that nonviolence cannot ignore the existential facts; it cannot be passive and simply wait for the unjust to mend their ways. He agreed with Niebuhr that some degree of coercion is always necessary. As long as that coercion is applied with agape love, in the service of a just cause, aiming to benefit all humanity, it helps move the world toward the beloved community. Therefore it is, by definition, nonviolent. This view made it possible for King to talk about nonviolent coercion. For Gandhi, this was an oxymoron; all coercion was by definition violence. King simply changed the definition of nonviolence and thus made nonviolent coercion possible.

King's effort to integrate Niebuhr's thought into nonviolence marked a subtle but profound shift in the nonviolence tradition. King's unchallenged prestige and the changing mood of the times combined to open the nonviolence movement to the idea of forceful compulsion as a legitimate means, though never as an end in itself. The successes of the movement (greater than any nonviolent movement in U.S. history, to most observers) made King's approach seem credible and appealing. Of course, those who took that view were judging by results, which is just what Niebuhr argued we must do and many earlier nonviolence thinkers had cautioned against. The willingness to judge by results was one more sign of a relative shift in the movement away from strict principles toward political efficacy¾ a shift that had been underway since World War I. It now received a tremendous practical and theoretical boost from the work and words of Martin Luther King, Jr.


Among white people in the U.S. today, Martin Luther King, Jr., is widely regarded as the greatest African-American, and perhaps the greatest American, of his generation. The immense respect he earned does not necessarily reflect a widespread embrace of his thought. Certainly few of those who praise him, black or white, are familiar with the full range of his web of ideas. And few have committed themselves to the strict nonviolence that was so central to his message and life. It seems likely that his respect among whites comes largely from his unique ability to couch the message of black liberation in language that is meaningful and appealing to so many whites, especially Christian whites. By drawing on familiar language, he made nonviolent direct action and radical social change seem less threatening.

Most familiar of all were his words about "the American dream." Far from criticizing the values of white America, he praised them. He warmly endorsed the belief in democracy, progress, equal rights, and equal participation in the political community. He virtually equated his vision of the beloved community with the ensemble of American ideals. King was well served by the tradition of millennialism so basic to white culture in the U.S. Although few whites had heard the exact words "the beloved community," most could easily understand what those words meant. Most were inclined (at least emotionally, if not intellectually) to believe that God is moving history toward some grand culmination and that the U.S. has a special role to play in God's plan. Most were inclined to believe that the U.S. is special because it provides more rights and more equal opportunity than other nations.

King played masterfully upon the rich rhetorical tradition of U.S. patriotism and millennialism. He made it clear that the civil rights movement asked only that whites live by their own stated ideals. He made it equally clear that the goal was integration and harmony. Desegregation without real integration would bring only "physical proximity without spiritual affinity … a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness."

He argued for integration not only on moral grounds, but in very practical terms. Blacks and whites in the U.S. had to live together, whether they liked it or not, he pointed out. Blacks would never leave the U.S. en masse. Nor could they ever hope to become the dominant group in society. (Hearing this, whites could feel reassured that this powerful orator was not following the example of the anticolonial movements abroad. He was not rousing the oppressed to turn on and drive out the oppressors.) But blacks would no longer allow whites to dominate through segregation. So it was to everyone's advantage to integrate: "We have the duty to remove from political domination a small minority that cripples the economic and social institutions of our country and thereby degrades and impoverishes everyone." By suggesting that only a "small minority" of whites supported racial discrimination, he implied that integration was a very realistic goal. He made integration more possible simply by saying that it was possible.

Whites who followed King's words carefully knew that he wanted a beloved community that prized and enhanced diversity. But for most whites it was easy to assume that he was endorsing the familiar "melting pot" idea, in which white middle-class values were adopted by all. King also used the language of the cold war, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed for the allegiance of people of color throughout the third world. "The prestige of our nation is at stake," he warned; the civil rights issue could "determine the destiny of our civilization in the ideological struggle with communism."

Yet King did aim piercingly critical words at white America. He drew on the prophetic tradition of the Bible, which affirmed the essential goodness of God's chosen nation by criticizing its existential sins. He preached that the actuality of U.S. life failed to live up to the essence of America and the essence of Christianity. Above all, he denounced racism as the most bitter gap between the real and the ideal. Therefore he presented the civil rights movement, not as an attack on America, but as a call to white Americans to fulfill their own ideals and the American dream. And to Christians he presented the suffering of blacks as redemptive suffering: just as Christ had suffered to redeem all humanity, so blacks were suffering to redeem the entire nation. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference adopted as its motto: "To save the soul of America"

By depicting African-Americans as a messianic group, akin to the biblical Israelites, King built on the U.S. millennial tradition of a chosen people with a special role in history. He proclaimed that U.S. blacks, in saving the U.S., would be saving civilization. But in the context of his whole framework of thought, this idea took on a new meaning. The millennial mission was now to help God bring about the beloved community. In that community, everyone seeks to serve, not dominate, others. Obviously, the only way to attain it is to begin now to serve others. And the place to begin is at home. King also applied his sociological theory of community on an international scale. Each nation can only preserve its own best values by helping others enhance their own, he argued. Every nation should build and serve a humane world community, for its own self-advantage. Each nation would flourish most if all showed "an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole."


Until 1964, King's work and words focused almost entirely on gaining civil rights for African-Americans in the South, where they were denied their rights by law. In 1964 and 1965, he began to look to the North. There he saw that there is more to justice than legal civil rights. He began to wonder whether the economic and social racism blacks suffered in the North might not be worse, because the racism was more hidden and the whites’ conscience could not be so easily aroused.

Once he had broadened his view beyond legal rights and the South, King recognized that he was actually dealing with the entire range of injustices, and therefore the entire structure, of U.S. society. "Justice is indivisible, " he declared; all political, economic, social issues are interrelated. So he began to consider a host of issues that he had not considered before. He looked at the role of technology and found that U.S. society tended to value technological means as ends in themselves, without asking what moral (or immoral) ends might be served by technological innovation: "The devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live" had become more important in most people's lives than spiritual values.

Looking at the machinery of production and consumption led to thinking about how products are distributed and consumed. King already believed that integration required equally shared political power and responsibility. Now he took full account of the links between political and economic power. He argued that integration required a major redistribution of wealth. To explain how this could be done, he had to become something of an economist: "We must make the nonproducer a consumer or we will find ourselves drowning in a sea of consumer goods." Why were so many people kept in poverty, as both nonproducers and nonconsumers? The basic answer he found was the nature of capitalism: "The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I-centered than thou-centered…Capitalism fails to realize that life is social."

Since King had started analyzing these issues out of his concern for integration, he was quick to see the links between capitalism and racism. He saw that private property, nearly all of which was owned by whites, supported and embodied the white power structure. On a more theoretical level, he saw that the institution of private property means valuing things that have no personal being and thus no genuine reality. A society built on such a dehumanizing basis will naturally dehumanize and exploit other person. Property is the most basic symbol of exploitation. This, he said, was the meaning of the riots that began breaking out in northern black ghettos in 1964. The seemingly blind destruction of property was, above all, a protest against the institutionalized exploitation built into U.S. society.

King's focus on the North and the broader societal structures coincided with the escalation of the U.S. military effort in Vietnam, which began in 1965. The war soon became the most pervasive public issue in the nation. King could hardly avoid it. But he viewed it in the context of his new, broader vision. For him, as for all the more radical critics of the war, Vietnam was not an aberration from U.S. values, or an isolated case of excessive U.S. power. Rather, it was a logical and predictable outcome of U.S. values. It was a symptom of the deeper evils of capitalism, imperialism, and militarism.

As an advocate of nonviolence, King was naturally opposed to all war. As early as 1959, he had begun to preach against the dangers of war in the nuclear age. Calling nuclear weapons "the most colossal of all evils," he warned: "It is either nonviolence or nonexistence." By the mid-'60s, he saw links connecting nuclear weapons, conventional weapons, technology, and capitalism to racism. When a society makes machines and property more important than people, he said, it cannot stop "the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism" He also saw this complex as the root of the poverty. He explained that the exploitation of blacks in the U.S. is the paradigm for the exploitation of all poor Americans. Poverty here is directly related to the increase in U.S. capital investments abroad, which create more poverty and oppression in other nations. To sustain those oppressive structures, the U.S. must build up its military and be prepared to fight wars, like the war in Vietnam. Thus racism, poverty, materialism, militarism are all interwoven and "deeply rooted in the whole structure of our society." It was this whole structure that had led inexorably to the tragedy of Vietnam.

In the last three years of his life, King's words combined his increasingly sophisticated economic and political analysis with the moral and religious preaching that always remained his foundation. "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values," he proclaimed. This call to revolution drew on the basic principle of nonviolence¾ attacking evil structures, not individual people. Since King had long supported this principle, it was natural for him to call for a total transformation of societal structures, a total change in "the system." It was equally natural for him to justify this in personalistic moral terms: "We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ to a ‘person-oriented’ society."

Here, too, nonviolence could make a crucial contribution. Through self-sacrificial suffering for others, people would learn that there are values more important than self. They would learn to separate themselves from the individualism, hedonism, and narcissism of our consumer society. They would act out their opposition to those values and encourage others to join in the nonviolent radical revolution. King admitted that he did not yet know what new structures would be take the place of the unjust system we live under today. But he did not see that as a problem: "Structures will follow, if we keep our ears open to the spirit."

Martin Luther King, Jr., did not live long enough to see new structures emerge, nor to lead any kind of revolution. There is no way to say what might have happened to the revolutionary fervor of the late 1960s, had its greatest and most powerful leader survived. Perhaps he died because others feared that he might indeed be great and powerful enough to lead a revolution. There is no way to say what directions his life and thought might have taken, had he survived. He was clearly learning and changing very rapidly in the last three years of his life.

In those three years, he saw many African-Americans turn away from his teaching of nonviolence to embrace a Black Power philosophy that urged blacks to take their rightful share of power and resources "by any means necessary." In the African-American and radical white communities, King's commitment to nonviolence was criticized (sometimes quite harshly) as foolish obstinacy. His influence began to wane. Some said that his work was done, that the movement for social change had moved on to a new phase in which King's thought would be largely irrelevant. King was not deaf to the criticisms. He responded by voicing respect for the Black Power movement. He saw validity in its central argument: before power can be equalized between white and blacks, there must be some separate black structures, in order to build up black power. But, despite the immense pressures on him, he held firmly to his commitment to and arguments for nonviolence. So it seems likely that, no matter how long he might have lived and how radical he might have become, the revolution he worked for would always have remained a nonviolent revolution.

Would this have doomed him to the margins of the nation's political life? Or would he have moved the whole nation closer to nonviolence? The answer must remain forever unknown. As it is, his radical leanings in the last years of his life have been largely forgotten, so that their influence has been very marginal. He is remembered and revered in both the black and white communities almost solely for his leadership of the civil rights movement in the South. Yet how much influence does that memory have upon the nation's life today? The success of the civil rights movement is widely debated because its ultimate results are so unclear. The lasting impact of King's nonviolence is even less clear. Did he make nonviolence a significant enduring force in the U.S.? Or did his nonviolence allow the white community to see him as harmless and therefore to ignore the radical challenge of his message? Is the creation of "Martin Luther King" as a national icon another a way of avoiding that radical challenge? To what extent has the revered image permanently eclipsed the actual man and his message? Because the answers to all these questions remain uncertain, the true measure of King's influence remains uncertain as well. Perhaps it is simply too soon to tell.

Notes to Chapter 11: Martin Luther King, Jr.