by Heather-Jane Ozanne
“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time” – Dr Martin Luther King
Nonviolence is not a specifically Christian concept, indeed it has been developed and lived by exponents from many different faiths and none. In the Muslim tradition Ghaffer Khan, dubbed ‘the border Gandhi’ was a leader who led a nonviolence movement in the North West Frontier of India. He rooted his belief in the teaching of the Quran, seeing nonviolence as the weapon of Jihad, or Holy War, based on patience and righteousness. Jewish exponents include Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel. For some, nonviolence is simply an expedient political/strategic tool but for those who come to it from a spiritual or faith background, nonviolence often becomes a way of life.
Nonviolence has good ‘provenance’ in the Christian faith and I believe needs to be taken more seriously in our world where violence or superior hard power seems to be an all too easy method of engaging in conflict. The numerous social platforms acting out conflict engagement whether via entertainment or community/national interactions express boldly the above. There are many definitions of nonviolence. Some definitions refer only to non-engagement in physical acts of violence whilst. others, which are far more inclusive, involve refraining from violating the spirit of another or what could be viewed as a holistic or broader scope of the idea of violence.
Martin Luther King’s role
Dr Martin Luther King Jr is a person who rings in many hearts and is on the syllabus in UK schools, not least because he was assassinated on 4th April 1968 and left an important legacy in American history. Yet, how many here know of his legacy in terms of the training and strategy he began to develop in nonviolent action? Based on his Christian ideals, he developed a method which can and did transform many conflicts, preventing them from becoming violent or violating whilst encouraging the highest possible outcome for all parties – a methodology Dr King Jr termed “Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation” instead of resolution.
From childhood I knew something of the U.S. Civil Rights campaigns in the 1950’s and 60’s and big inspiring speeches King is so well-known for. However I had little idea of the deep Christian theological and philosophical underpinnings of King’s social activism, nor of the legacy he has left both in what he achieved in the Civil Rights campaigns and in the teaching and training in nonviolence he originated, Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation (KNCR).
That was until I attended an evening at St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, London in 2008. As Dr Yehoeshahfaht Ben Israel presented some of the key life events and philosophy of King, it was as though Martin Luther King was present. Certainly something of his spirit seemed to come alive.
Subsequently I attended 2 day orientation training, inspiringly facilitated by Yehoeshahfaht, who is possibly the only qualified trainer of Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation in Europe. (He received his training from Dr Bernard Lafayette Jr, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, who was with Dr King, a few hours on the fateful day, before an assassin’s bullet robbed the world of Dr Kings’ life). I had many light-bulb moments during the training weekend and it is not an overstatement to say that even this basic introduction was transformative in my personal and work life.
Taking root in our culture
How was it that I, with my background in social and community work and many years of work in the field of reconciliation and peace-building, had never before become aware of the depth of teaching and understanding the legacy of King provided, nor how deep-rooted they were in his Christian experience and theology? There are many answers to this question, one being that Kingian philosophy, thought and nonviolence in general are only recently beginning to take root in our culture where until now so many have been too ready to legitimise violence as a means of conflict ‘resolution’. This legitimacy squashes out any notion of the viability of reconciliation, establishing an emphasis on who is right rather than on what is right for social cohesion, harmony and onward development. All conflicts have an impact on society and community, whether large, small, delayed or in the moment unfolding.
Reconciliation rather than win/lose
King was a Baptist pastor and in 1957 he preached on loving your enemies, from the Sermon on the Mount. King says, ‘ it’s significant the he (Jesus) does not say, ‘Like your enemy’……Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them’. This outlook did not condone naively the crux of the conflict, but allowed for the separation of the inherent dignity of all humanity and their ability to move towards higher human transformation from the dysfunctional or destructive elements or “evils” expressed as a part of the conflict.
This to me is the active ingredient in King’s nonviolent philosophy, which seeks to work towards a harmonious and just outcome, a reconciliation instead of a win/loss resolution, where all share in the ‘victory’ or outcome without resorting to physical violence or violation of spirit of ‘the other’, along the way.
King was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and in Gandhi, perhaps the most famous leader of a nonviolent movement and Hindu ‘great soul’; we also see the influence of Christian teaching. Martin Luther King learnt much about nonviolent strategy from the example of Gandhi and pointed out that “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale,” King suggested that,”Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social transformation.”
Gandhi too was deeply moved by the Sermon on the Mount which he says ‘went straight to my heart’. He also wrote that “the example of Jesus’ suffering is a factor in the composition of my undying faith in nonviolence which rules all my actions, worldly and temporal.”6
In this brief article I have barely scratched the surface of the underpinnings of nonviolence in the Christian tradition. It is something I am learning more of and seeking, however imperfectly, to put into practice in my own environment.
Spirit of Peace programme
In our charity, Spirit of Peace we are developing and delivering talks and workshops on nonviolence, combined with our core training in HeartWisdom.
We are delighted too in continuing to work with Dr Yehoeshahfaht Ben Israel, who has delivered some outstanding Kingian training to schools, community groups and prisoners, a training which can be taken as a basic taster right up to Ph.D. level!
If you would like further information about any aspect of these talks and trainings please contact me, Heather-Jane Ozanne. This link will take you to the contact page on our website from where you can email me: www.spiritofpeace.co.uk/contact.
Thanks to Dr Ben Israel for his contributions to this article.
Heather-Jane Ozanne is Founder and CEO of Spirit of Peace, and is a member of the Living Spirituality Connections Steering Group. She is also Coordinator of our Towards Human Flourishing special interest area, which you can find more information about here – www.livingspirit.org.uk/sia/towards-human-flourishing.