| |

Peacemaking According to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

By Saliy Milbury-Steen

In thinking about peacemaking, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helps us identify four things that are essential for being and doing peace: human interconnectedness, justice, love, and the practice of non-violence.

Human Interconnectedness 

Relating to one another lies as the very heart of peace violence in much the same way that it is central to the teachings and actions of Jesus who taught us to “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” This sense of connectedness means that as a peacemaker, I must embrace the wider world as my neighbor hood and recognize that you and I are all part of the same human family. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expresses it this way:

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world s neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it’s a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made: this is the way it is structured. ( Remaining Awake through revolution)

  • This article is a talk that Sally Milbury Steen, the Executive Director of Pacem in Terris, gave at the Mother African Union Church in Wilmington, DE on January 15, 2006 as part of their remembrance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King , Jr.


In November when I visited a Ruth Kolber who moved from Wilmington to Birmingham, Alabama in September, we visited the Civil rights Museum which is located close to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where the four little girls were killed bomb blast. One of the exhibits that I shall never forget is the re-creation of the cell in which Martin Luther King wrote his Letter from a Birmingham Jail in response to an open letter written by liberal white clergymen in the city condemning his use of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance to end Jim Crow segregation.

The cell itself is most ordinary. It is cramped, only 13 feet by 8 feet, and 7 feet high, and furnished with the bare basics: a hard cot, a wooden folding chair, and a narrow table that served as a desk. It is the bars that are the most powerful part of the exhibit. They are the actual ones from the cell where Dr. King was incarcerated and they serve as an indelible symbol of his struggle against laws that barred African Americans from their civil liberties and civil rights. Something surged through me when I touched them. Something that established for me both a spiritual and a very real physical connection with him. Surely, his hands had held onto them and at times had extended through the spaces between the bars. It was really a small cage, but within its confines, his mind, heart, and spirit were free and soared. His unfettered hope, his limitless faith, his uncompromised truth, and his powerful resistance to racial apartheid are tangible when you touch the bars.

It was in this cell that Dr. King formulated so eloquently his thoughts about justice. He identified justice as an essential component of peace. He would certainly have agreed with Pope Paul VI who said “If you want peace, work for justice.” Dr. King writes in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Later on the Letter, he notes, We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and non-violent pressure. History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily… We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; It must be demanded by the oppressed. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ We have waited for more than three hundred any forty years for our constitutional and God given rights…there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the blackness of corroding despair.”

In another part of his letter, Dr. King explains, Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, and that when they fail to do this they become dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.. the present tension in the South is merely a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, where all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

Martin Luther King’s drive for justice included not only racial equality, but broadened to include economic justice through his poor People’s campaign which he was working on at the time of his assassination. In the final years of his life, he critiqued capitalism and discovered that democratic socialism offered a more effective distribution of wealth and a way to care for the most vulnerable in society with practicality and respect. He clearly recognized and spoke out against the triplets of  “poverty, materialism, and militarism” that were keeping our society from being the fair and just one that it had the potential and the necessary  to be.


Love is an essential seed of peace and is the basis of the non-violence that Dr. King practiced. He made this very plain in his sermon, Loving Your Enemies, which he delivered at Christmas, 1957, at the Dexter Avenue Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. He actually wrote it while he was in jail for committing non-violent civil disobedience during the Montgomery bus boycott. He tells us, “Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world Jesus is not an impractical idealist: he is the practical realist.”

King points out that the first step in loving our enemies is developing and maintaining the power to forgive, “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.’ He later explains that “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done… It means. That the evil act no longer remains as barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.” Dr. King’s next point about forgiveness is that “we must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is …we must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy, but to win his friendship and understanding.” Dr. King clarifies that the kind of love that we are being asked to show is an agape love that is an understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart.” He later says that we should be relieved and happy that Jesus did not command us to “like” our enemies, since it is very hard to like one’s oppressor.

Martin Luther King gives us several reasons why we should love our enemies:

  1. We should love because returning hate for hate multiplies hate

  2. We should love our enemies because hate scars the soul and distorts the personality hate is just as injurious to the person who hates as to the person who is hated.

  3. We should love our enemies because love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

  4. We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of His holiness.

Dr. King concludes his sermon by telling us that, While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community. To our most bitter opponents we say, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. Love is the durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in mankind’s leaders of the past have gone. And their empires have crumbled and burned to ashes. But the empire of Jesus, built solidly and majestically on the foundation of love, is still growing.’ 

Martin Luther King put all of this together in his practice of non-violence. It is interesting that in English, the word “non-violence marks the absence of violence as if violence is the norm and non-violence, the exception. Gandhi’s word for non-violence was “soul force” which communicates the positive power of love and connection that underlines it. 

Fortunately, for us, Rev. Dr. King in his autobiographical essay, Pilgrimage to Non-violence, lays out for us just how non-violence operates in our lives by outlining the following six basic principles of non-violence. While he is addressing his thoughts specifically to non-violent resistance for social change, I believe that each one applies to the interpersonal interaction as well. They are:

  1. Non-violence is not for cowards. It takes self-discipline, control, and courage than responding in kind. It is active non-violence resistance to evil and is ultimately the way of the strong man or woman.

  2. Non-violence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent. It never loses sight of either the humanity of the opponent or of our own. It never forgets as Gandhi admonished us, that each of us has a part of the Truth.

  3. Non-violence is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. Non-violent social change struggle against the injustice which is the root of the problem not the individuals who serve as its agents.

  4. Non-violence is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation. This occurs through the power of forgiveness, which enables such suffering to be transformative. The non-violent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it.

  5. Non-violence is without contradiction, since it avoids both external physical violence and internal spiritual violence. In non-violence, the means carry the ends justifying the means. If our goal is to make the world less violent, we cannot use violent means to achieve that end Rev. Dr. King tells us that non-violence cuts off the chain of hate by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives. This is the kind of agape love that does not divide the world into worthy and unworthy people, but builds and restores relationship by helping us see all people as our neighbors and co-creators in establishing the Beloved Community.

  6. Non-violence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Rev. Dr. King used to say, “The universe arcs toward justice.” To him, the practitioner of non-violence knows that he or she has cosmic companionship that there is a creative force that is working for universal wholeness. God is with is in all that we do for peace, giving us courage, strengthening our voices for justice, opening us up to greater compassion and love, clearing our minds and spirits from distraction, helping us to focus on what. He wants us to do. One of the great comforts of this partnership is that we know that God is not requiring us to be superheroes who can successfully bring peace on earth. He is only requiring us to be faithful to the task, to do all that we can. We know that he is working at this moment through millions of others as well and that after we are gone. He will work with and through generations to come. The task is enormous, but He doesn’t expect us to do it all. He does expect us to figure out what we can do and to keep on doing it, even when we can’t see results. Rev. Jim Walls talks about being faithful to what we can do. He tells us that “Hope is believing I spirit of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.”

The six principles of non-violence that Rev. Dr. King gave us, strike me as an expression of the Quaker Peace Testimony. At the heart of this testimony or witness to the world is the experience that there is something of God the seed of the Spirit in all people. A statement by British Quakers describes it this way: members of the Religious Society of Friends believe that more can be accomplished be appealing to this capacity for love and goodness, in ourselves and in others, than can be hoped for by threatening punishment or retaliation if people act badly. This is not to ignore the existence of evil. It is to recognize that there is no effective way to combat evil with weapons which harm or kill those through whom evil is working. We must turn instead, in the words of early Friends, to the ‘weapons of the spirit,’ allowing God to reach out through us to that of God in those with whom we are conflict. ‘Spiritual weapons’ love, truth saying, non-violence, imagination, laughter are weapons that heal and don’t destroy.

(Quaker Peace Testimony by Quaker Home Service, 1989, London.) 

Another inspiration for us as peacemaking is found in Psalm 85, verse 10. Here the psalmist writes, “Mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” In this verse, all of the elements for personal and societal transformation have come together in a wonderful way, mercy which combines compassion and forgiveness truth which includes speaking truth to power as well as stripping ourselves of our self-delusions and lies: righteousness which is justice, and peace. Notice that peace and justice embrace and kiss. They don’t just wink, wave, or greet each other from afar, or talk on connected as closely as a chrysalis to a butterfly. They are integrally related. To separate one from the other is to reduce justice to a law book and peace to a conflict that can easily re ignite. Without it, warring factions cannot journey through truth to reconciliation. Without it, they cannot restore their relationship with one another and renew their experience of God’s love. It is from the chrysalis of justice that the butterfly of peace emerges.

Finally, there are the beautiful words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, “Blesses are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Notice, he did not say, “they shall be called the rabbis, the pastors, the bishops, the leaders, the politicians, CEOs, the policemen, the scholars, the merchants, or the experts of God. No the children of God. What relationship could be more fundamental more essential than of a child to apparent? In this Beatitude, Jesus is telling us the profound truth that’ Peacemaking is Relational.’

All of this brings us back to where we started with Dr. King with relationship with our interconnectedness. For him, peacemaking was based on his relationship with God. It was about his being a channel for the in-breaking of God’s love and peace. It was about his relationship with one another. It was about bringing people and nations into restored relationships with one another. It was about justice based on the mercy that recognizes that each of us is more than the worst thing that we have ever done. It was about breaking the cycle of violence through non-violence. It was about the transformative power of forgiveness. It was about being a partner and an agent of God’s shalom.

Source : Anasakti Darshan, Volume-2 No.1 January-June, 2006

| |