Martin Luther King's Pilgrimage to Non-Violence

Many of us are familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of racial justice and the lasting impact of his work, but we are most likely less familiar with King’s theological evolution. Raised a Baptist in a middle class black family in Atlanta, King’s initial views on human nature were shaped by both religious and social forces: the “love your neighbor as yourself” ethic of Jesus proclaimed by his faith, and his direct experience witnessing the “inseparable twins” of systemic economic inequality and the blatant violence of racism in the American south.

How could good white Christians treat black Christians so cruelly? He began a keen interest in the concept of evil as it manifested in human nature through individual acts of violence and in social structures that dehumanized and disenfranchised African Americans. He became curious about a Christian theology and practice that would address both individual and systemic evil. 

King began his education at Morehouse College in 1944, pursued a theological education at Crozer Seminary beginning in 1948, and completed a PhD in systematic theology at Boston University. Early on at Morehouse, he quickly began to explore methods to address the social evil of inequality and had an early introduction to nonviolence through the writings of none other than Henry David Thoreau. In an essay called My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, which would become a chapter of Stride Toward Freedom, King’s memoir of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, he writes”

“During my student days at Morehouse, I read Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience for the first timeFascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. This was my first intellectual contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.”

At Crozer Theological Seminary, he held his interest in methods of social change, while embracing and falling in love with Baptist Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel movement of the early 20th century. Rauschenbusch was a buoyant, idealistic disciple of the liberal theological tradition: pacifist, democratic, nationalistic and fundamentally optimistic about human progress. Rauschenbusch believed in the power of faith to overcome the evil of selfishness and individualism through collective social responsibility.  Among the most important tenets of liberal theology is an optimistic view of human nature and an unwavering view of history’s turn towards progress. King embraced this liberal view of human nature wholeheartedly in his early academic career, but found it to be the most difficult theological principle to reconcile with his personal experience of social injustice.

In Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, King describes this dilemma:

“There is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its devotion to the search for truth, its insistence on an open and analytical mind, its refusal to abandon the best of reason…. It was mainly the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depth and strength of sin…I came to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil. I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism.”

Reading Reinhold Neibuhr and other orthodox Christian theologians, King became concerned about the consequences of collective evil on human nature. Refusing to acquiesce to a theological cynicism, King’s critique of liberal theology created in him a crisis of faith, driving him away from theology and into the theories of philosophers and social ethicists he perceived as more willing to consider the complexities of humankind’s collective will to power. He writes:

“During this period I had almost despaired of the power of love in solving social problems. The “turn the other cheek” philosophy and the “love your enemies” philosophies are only valid, I felt, when individuals are in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations are in conflict a more realistic approach is necessary.”

When King discovered the writings of Mohandas Gandhi, he found a kindred spirit, a social approach to countering violence and oppression fueled by the religious principle of love, with demonstrated strategies and methods that had actively countered racism and colonialism and by so doing changed the course of history:

“The whole Gandhian concept of satyagraha (satya is truth which equals love, and graha is force; satya graha means truth force or love-force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see that for the first time that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom…. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.”

King’s religious commitment to love led him to seek out the nature of the human heart and a systematic approach to confronting oppression and injustice that refused to forsake the oppressor. He would not let the love ethic of Jesus go, in spite of the evidence. King’s journey took him into the depths of his own soul and thrust him into the public leadership role for which we remember him today. When he began as a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954, he had no concept of how his intellectual inquiry would fuel his ministry as he organized the now legendary Montgomery bus boycott campaign. Again, from Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, he writes:

“Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than the method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life.”

This way of life drew him into a life of teaching Gandhian principles and direct action strategies. He traveled to India to immerse himself in Gandhi’s legacy and to understand how the plight of African Americans to win freedom were linked to liberation struggles across the globe. A pilgrimage is a spiritual journey to a sacred place as an act of religious commitment. King’s pilgrimage to nonviolence reminds us that we are all on our own pilgrimages of faith.  Like a beacon of light beckoning us towards freedom, the vision of King’s beloved community can today still guide us…“The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation.”

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