I’ve recently been working through Martin Luther King’s “A Testament of Hope”. Here are some quick thoughts from my notes on this holiday honoring Martin Luther King.
My overall thoughts are that MLK challenged practices in “Christian” America that were anything but Christian. I am continually scandalized at what “Christian America” could consider Christian not that long ago! The challenge for me today is humility & repentance for the perpetual challenge, facing even those of us inside the church, of setting ourselves up as superior to others and seeing God’s Kingdom as big as it truly is.
So now, some other random thoughts:
MLK says much about peace that conservative Anabaptist’s agree with & Evangelical Christian’s can learn from
For example he notes on page 10 “Always avoid violence…” and he meant exactly what he said. Also: “violence, even in self-defense, creates more problems than it solves…” [p58] MLK spent much effort convincing others that the proper Christian response was one of love and not violence.
I am impressed by the many meetings (noted in “Stride Toward Freedom”) the black leaders of Montgomery had to train in extremely practical ways (It reminds me of Mennonite bible school sessions on nonresistance!) on how to respond with love and respect in challenging situations. A question I have: If we are going to “learn war no more” (as the ancient Jewish prophet noted) wouldn’t it stand to reason that we will start “learning peace”?
Surprisingly MLK might not have been as gung-ho about Boycotts as you might expect
I always had the impression that MLK was an all out, no questions asked “boycott” supporter. But then I came across this: “I had to recognize that the boycott method could be used to unethical and unchristian ends…From then on I rarely used the word ‘boycott’…” [p428]. This was at the beginning of the events in Montgomery, which was at the beginning of MLK’s career as a civil rights leader.
MLK only had 20 minutes to prepare for “the most decisive speech of my life”
The Dec 5, 1955 speech launching the “noncooperation with the evil” of the Montgomery bus system was prepared in 5 minutes of prayer and 15 minutes of study [p433]. MLK had considerable concern about only having 20 minutes to prepare when he normally spent 15 hours preparing for a sermon. One of his main concerns was ensuring that he communicated & encouraged the Love of Jesus for all in the response. Listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TmoFoG5P-U
MLK had words of truth for his fellow blacks
“Many of us [Negros] live above our means, spend money on nonessentials and frivolities…” [p150] In a magazine interview MLK was asked why donations largely come from non blacks and he noted:”We have to face and live with the fact that the Negro has not developed a sense of stewardship…”
I recommend reading “Stride Toward Freedom”
This is the narrative of what MLK called the non-cooperation with the Montgomery bus discrimination. It is very accessible and a good story to be familiar with.
Point of Disagreement: Nonresistance vs Nonviolence
In “Stride Toward Freedom” [p335] MLK notes “Nonresistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and deadly complacency.” A question for those of us who use the term nonresistance might be: Is our nonresistance actually more passivity than loving the enemy? Is what I call nonresistance actually a complacent attitude?
As I have thought about the difference between King’s “nonviolence” and conservative Anabaptist “nonresistance” I think the difference is not “action” versus “passivity”. This seems well demonstrated by the stories we tell. The “action” of Dirk Willems actively rescuing his pursuer. Or the “action” of the Mennonite pastor who heard his roof being destroyed in the night by hoodlums and who welcomed the troublemakers in for a good breakfast, thereby “loving them” into appropriate behavior.
Neither is the difference a willingness or unwillingness to be involved in nonviolent civil disobedience. Anabaptists have continually shown themselves willing to “obey God rather than men”. From the subversive act of baptizing only believers in the 1500’s to a willingness to reject portions of the Pennsylvania Child Care Act in the 21st century because it is deemed to inappropriately place the State between brothers & sisters speaking truth to each other and is seen as compromising the structural integrity of an autonomous church, conservative Anabaptist’s are no stranger to “obeying God rather than men”.
The crucial difference between King’s nonviolence and conservative Anabaptist’s nonresistance seems to be who is being demanded to change. The conservative Anabaptist’s “protest for justice” includes demands only of themselves and to others only a offer and call to voluntarily join the Kingdom.
I am challenged to ensure that what I call nonresistance is living the Power of God’s Love, and that this love is something that is seen as “Overcoming Evil”. In another passage MLK makes a comment that might indicate he is not as far away from “nonresistance” as even he thinks: “History has proven…unmerited suffering is redemptive…” [p222]
 – I say “reject portions” very advisedly. Conservative Anabaptists agree with the goal of the Pennsylvania Child Care Act: to protect children against abuse. This cannot be over emphasized. It is only the means that causes disagreement.