Introductory Note:

Many people were never able to understand the methods of non-violent direct action of King and the movement that grew up around him. And they did not understand it because they simply were unable to grasp the simple fact that “this is a spiritual movement.” Oh, they could understand non-violent direct action as a political tactic, and when it succeeded in its objectives they were all for it. But when it did not accomplish those objectives … well, that was a different matter.

Now, King did believe that violence was “impractical” and that non-violent direct action was the best way to achieve their objectives. But he believed more than this. He also believed that violence was “immoral.” And because violence was immoral he could not resort to it even when nonviolent direct action failed to accomplish his objectives. Where, I ask you, did he get this idea? He got it straight from the Sermon on the Mount, for, as he said, “this is a spiritual movement.”

What King understood (and what we are still trying to understand) is that someone, somewhere has to break the vicious cycle of violence in order to, as he put it, “cut off the chain of hate and evil.” This vicious cycle has a name—the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. Negatively put it says, “You gore my ox, I gore your ox.” Positively put it says, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back.” And the lex talionis is written across the face of humanity. But King saw that Jesus broke this vicious cycle of retaliation when He brought us the law of love. This is why King could see that violence was immoral.

And what does this say to us today: about war, about abortion, about the death penalty, about the arms race, about poverty, about euthanasia? Can we in all these areas maintain a spirit of peace, reconciliation, and respect in protecting the unprotected? Certainly not by ourselves. It would have to be a work of God; it would have to be a spiritual movement.

Richard J. Foster
Renovaré Founder

Excerpt from Spiritual Classics

On Love and Non-Violence

This is a spiritual movement, and we intend to keep these things in the forefront. We know that violence will defeat our purpose. We know that in our struggle in America and in our specific struggle here in Montgomery, violence will not only be impractical but immoral. We are outnumbered; we do not have access to the instruments of violence. Even more than that, not only is violence impractical, but it is immoral; for it is my firm conviction that to seek to retaliate with violence does nothing but intensify the existence of evil and hate in the universe.

Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil. The greatest way to do that is through love. I believe firmly that love is a transforming power that can lift a whole community to new horizons of fair play, good will and justice.

Love is Our Instrument 

Love is our greatest instrument and our great weapon, and that alone. On January 30 my home was bombed (1956). My wife and baby were there; I was attending a meeting. I first heard of the bombing at the meeting, when someone came to me and mentioned it, and I tried to accept it in a very calm manner. I first inquired about my wife and daughter; then after I found out that they were all right, I stopped in the midst of the meeting and spoke to the group, and urged them not to be panicky and not to do anything about it because that was not the way.

I immediately came home and, on entering the front of the house, I noticed there were some five hundred to a thousand persons. I came in the house and looked it over and went back to see my wife and to see if the baby was all right, but as I stood in the back of the house, hundreds and hundreds of people were still gathering, and I saw there that violence was a possibility.

It was at that time that I went to the porch and tried to say to the people that we could not allow ourselves to be panicky. We could not allow ourselves to retaliate with any type of violence, but that we were still to confront the problem with love.

One statement that I made — and I believe it very firmly — was: He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). I urged people to continue to manifest love, and to continue to carry on the struggle with the same dignity and with the same discipline that we had started out with. I think at that time the people did decide to go home, things did get quiet, and it ended up with a great deal of calmness and a great deal of discipline, which I think our community should be proud of and which I was very proud to see because our people were determined not to retaliate with violence.

Hold to Non-Violence 

Some twenty-six of the ministers and almost one hundred of the citizens of the city were indicted in this boycott (of the Montgomery busses). But we realized in the beginning that we would confront experiences that made for great sacrifices, experiences that are not altogether pleasant. We decided among ourselves that we would stand up to the finish, and that is what we are determined to do. In the midst of the indictments, we still hold to this nonviolent attitude, and this primacy of love. 

Even though convicted, we will not retaliate with hate, but will stand with love in our hearts, and stand resisting injustice, with the same determination with which we started out. We need a great deal of encouragement in this movement. Of course one thing that we are depending on, from not only other communities but from our own community, is prayer. We ask people everywhere to pray that God will guide us, pray that justice will be done and that righteousness will stand. And I think through these prayers we will be strengthened; it will make us feel the unity of the nation and the presence of Almighty God. For as we said all along, this is a spiritual movement.

Excerpts taken from Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines (Richard Foster and Emilie Griffin, Editors. Harpercollins, 2000.) and are used with permission.

Photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for loitering” in 1958. In the public domain.

· Last Featured on September 2022