On this holiday in which we remember a man who gave his life for “a more perfect union,” we should also remember how he acted. He was a man who lived in violent times, yet his response was peaceful.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a warrior, but not in the traditional sense of the word. He faced down acts of aggression with nonviolent resistance, which resulted in a national change of heart. He faithfully followed the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and Mohandas Gandhi, nonviolent men of great consequence. M.L. King was also a man who changed the world, by showing this nation the true power to turning the other cheek.
“Turning the other cheek” — now there’s a misunderstood expression. Too many think of it as a coward’s response, but there are times when it takes far more courage to stand nonviolently against the forces of evil. Moreover, it can be a far more effective response. Violence against violence perpetuates violence. Nonviolence against violence is a game changer.
King knew that, and the Civil Right Movement proved it. Yes, there were those in “the cause” who wanted to fight back, and did, but their gains were short-lived at best. King and his allies did more than desegregate the South. They went beyond the inevitable forces of change. They changed the hearts and minds of white America. Their’s wasn’t just a movement, it was a paradigm shift.
So here we are, in 2013, with the personification of that paradigm shift being sworn in today, for a second time, as President of the United States. The nation still has its challenges — discrimination and injustices of all sorts still persist — and there’s so much more to do. Front and center at this moment is a debate over guns, the weapon that put an end to King’s life. But as a man of nonviolence, King possessed a spiritual grounding. It gave him the moral authority to speak not only to the issues but to the soul of our nation. If he were here today, perhaps he’d tell us that the root cause of our violent tendencies is our inability to confront our fears. Isolation, hatred and intolerance, he might say, are the real killers.
But even if he were here, speaking to “We The People” right now, we might not even listen to him. At least not until his assassination. Like Newtown, sometimes it takes an unspeakable tragedy to wake us up. Then, after the pain and the soul-searching, we begin to envision a better world, a more peaceful world, one in which children and other disciples of nonviolence can live and dream and sing that old spiritual that Dr. King loved so much:
“Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”