Credit: Creative Commons/Library of Congress.
Note from Rabbi Michael Lerner: Here, Michael Nagler shares an important lesson learned from Martin Luther King Jr. that should guide all activities of spiritual progressives. Meanwhile, I’m working on my autobiography in which I share some of my experience with MLK Jr. It was an amazing experience to meet with him, shortly before he was murdered. And a huge honor to then receive the Martin Luther King Jr./Mahatma Gandhi Award for Peacemaking from Morehouse College in Atlanta and to be invited to deliver a sermon from the pulpit and church from which MLK Jr. preached some of his most inspiring sermons. What a beautiful moment in my life. King has been a central figure inspiring and guiding millions of people, including me, and I’m sure he has inspired you too. So let’s celebrate this holiday by building a spiritual progressive movement that embodies his teachings!
I never knew Martin Luther King, Jr., but I grew up politically in his America. My personal awakening to nonviolence came one day in Greenwich Village when I happened to listen in to a radio broadcast covering a Civil Rights rally going on somewhere down south. A justifiably angry African American man said to the rally organizer, “They beat us, they hit us: why don’t we use violence back?” The leader, whoever it was, calmly said, “Because that is not who we are.” From that moment on I lived with the vague feeling in the back of my mind that not only is nonviolence a key to what I want to be, it’s what we are as human beings, nonviolence is the destiny toward which we have to strive – if the human experiment is to go on on planet Earth.
It is common knowledge, I think, that King had an unusually deep grasp of nonviolence. What this means may not be so commonly acknowledged, namely that it lead him into a profound understanding of and optimism about the nature of reality itself. When he says that “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that,” he is pointing out a simple, polar difference between the two forces that determine the quality and direction of our life. St. Augustine long before him had said repeatedly in his monumental City of God, “there are two loves’ (or basic drives), that lead respectively to two world orders.”
There are times when we fail to see things because they’re too simple. It takes a kind of courage to peer into that stark, underlying simplicity, to grasp that those two forces, with their opposite character and opposite results, really make up the texture of the moral choices facing us every time we address the major issues of our lives, personal or political. It is the failure to see these two forces as the underlying criterion of our choices, almost without exception, that makes our decisions such a disastrous incompetence. Why does raining bombs on, say, Afghanistan, not make it a peaceful, democratic country? Why doesn’t it just eliminate “bad guys” and let “good guys” take over? How come, as one commander said about our war in Iraq a few years ago, “we are making terrorists faster than we can kill them”?