Why we need to move closer to Martin Luther King’s understanding of nonviolence
Nonviolence isn’t just the absence of violence; it’s a stand against injustice and a commitment to repair harm.
The following is an edited version of a chapter from Kazu Haga’s new book, “Healing Resistance: A Radically Different Response to Harm,” published with permission from Parallax Press and Waging Nonviolence.
In Kingian Nonviolence, a philosophy developed out of the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., there is a distinction made between nonviolence spelled with a hyphen, and nonviolence spelled without a hyphen. “Non-violence” is essentially two words: “without” “violence.” When spelled this way, it only describes the absence of violence. As long as I am “not being violent,” I am practicing non-violence. And that is the biggest misunderstanding of nonviolence that exists.
I live in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Oakland, with an equal mix of black, Latino and Asian residents. One day, I was taking a nap in my apartment when I was woken up by a couple yelling at each other below my second-story window. I decided to get out of bed and look, and I saw a woman on the ground being beaten, crying and screaming for help. I jumped up, put on my shoes and ran downstairs. By the time I arrived, about 15 of my neighbors had also come outside, but they were just watching this woman get beat, doing nothing to help. I managed to break up the fight and get the two to walk away from each other, one fuming with anger and the other in tears.
My neighbors who were just watching this were practicing “non hyphen violence.” They weren’t throwing punches or kicks. They were explicitly being “not violent.” So, you see how, from a Kingian perspective, what a difference that little hyphen makes. You see how big of a misunderstanding it can create if we think that nonviolence is simply about the absence of violence. If we define nonviolence as “not violent,” then we can hide behind the veil of nonviolence while still condoning violence.
It’s easy to be a bystander. We see rising homelessness, and we turn the other way. We see unarmed black folks being killed by police, and we blame the victim. We hear about high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth, and we do little or nothing about it. We read reports on the climate crisis but leave it to the next generation to deal with. We watch our communities and the earth being assaulted every day, and we just gather around and watch.
Nonviolence is not about what not to do. It is about what you are going to do about the violence and injustice we see in our own hearts, our homes, our neighborhoods and society at large. It is about taking a proactive stand against violence and injustice. Nonviolence is about action, not inaction.
This misunderstanding of nonviolence leads to a dangerous misunderstanding of peace. Similar to misunderstandings of nonviolence, calling for a misunderstood peace can be an act of violence. On February 3, 1956, a woman named Autherine Lucy became the first black student to attend classes at the University of Alabama. Within days of her arrival, riots broke out. A mob of more than a thousand people surrounded the car she was traveling in, and rioters climbed on top.
In response, the university expelled Lucy. They claimed that her presence was causing a threat to the safety of the school. The following day, the riots stopped. The local newspaper ran a headline that read, “Things are quiet in Tuscaloosa today. There is peace on the campus of the University of Alabama.”
There is peace. What kind of peace was the paper talking about?
A one month later, King gave a sermon in response to this titled, “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious.” In it, he said the peace the newspapers described was not a real peace. He said that this is “the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the Almighty God.” Strong words from the man who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. When King spoke of a “peace boiled down to stagnant complacency,” he was talking about what peace educator Johan Galtung calls “negative peace,” a peace that describes the absence of tension at the expense of justice. King went on to say that, “peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”
Oftentimes, we think of peace as calm and quiet. We conjure up images of watching the sunset on a tropical beach, meditating in the forest by a creek, incense and scented candles. That can be as problematic as thinking that nonviolence is about not being violent. I guarantee you that the moment after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, things were really quiet. So did we create peace? If someone is screaming in my face, and I stop them by knocking them unconscious, did I just create peace?
As ridiculous as that sounds, this is how our society tries to create peace, because we have such a gross misunderstanding of it. This is what allows us to justify going to war to create peace. If we just kill all the terrorists, we’ll have peace. It justifies the militarization of the police. If we just lock up all the protesters, then our streets will be quiet and peaceful. It justifies mass incarceration. If we just lock up all the bad people, we’ll have peaceful neighborhoods.
Negative peace is prevalent in many of our relationships, homes, workplaces, faith communities and institutions. This is often the type of negative peace created and maintained by a ubiquitous, unspoken understanding that surfacing conflict is not welcome. My home country of Japan deals with this type of negative peace on a national level. As a culture, we tend to be conflict-averse. We are taught that the honorable thing is to hold it in, keep our heads down and endure. It is considered rude to bring up difficult topics that could create tension because we would be placing a burden on others. It’s impolite. So we endure.
Japan may be one of the safest nations on Earth in terms of violent crime, and from the outside looking in, it looks peaceful. But we also have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. To learn to endure life’s challenges with dignity can absolutely be a positive trait, but when it results in a nation of people trying to simply endure trauma, isolation and living a life without purpose — when people are taught not to speak out about injustice and oppression and to “stay in their place” — that’s repression. It is negative peace.
I once heard someone describe this phenomenon as the “tyranny of civility.” We’re told in corporate workplaces not to speak out about sexual harassment because it would “create conflict.” We’re told in our churches not to question the use of church funds because “it’s improper.” So we go on pretending there’s no problem. Enduring.
We see this everywhere in our society today. Racism? Not a problem anymore; the only people still talking about racism are the racists! Patriarchy? Look at all the women leading major corporations now! Poverty? The economy has never been better! Look at the stock market!
It is easier in the short term to sweep issues under the rug and settle for a cheap yet ultimately unsustainable negative peace. It is an entirely different conversation to proactively work against violence and build toward a positive peace that includes justice for all. It requires us to lift the veil off injustice and work to repair the harm.
When we associate peace with only the absence of tension, we actually move farther away from the positive peace that King called for. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote, “My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”
In 2015, in response to the police killing of Freddie Gray, the city of Baltimore erupted into an uprising. This included some members of the Baltimore community engaging in acts of violence. Buildings were burned. Car windows were smashed. Former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis implored the protesters to “stop the violence.”
As a nonviolence trainer, I don’t necessarily think that burning buildings is the most effective tactic to creating lasting change. And at the same time, I was disappointed at Lewis’s statement. There is great irony in his call for protesters to “stop the violence.” Because that is exactly what the protesters were trying to do. The uprising in Baltimore wasn’t only about the killing of Freddie Gray. It was a response to 500 years of violence against people of African descent in this country. People were out in the streets because they were the ones sick of the violence perpetrated in their communities for so long.
King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Riots are ultimately a cry for peace from communities who have never had it. To condemn oppressed people for lashing out against centuries of violence is to ignore the larger context of violence they are lashing out against. It is the inevitable response from a community whose pain had gone unacknowledged for centuries.
Calls for Black Lives Matter protesters to be peaceful following the latest police killing can be a form of repression. It is a call for peace that acts as a euphemism for “stop complaining” and “stay in your place.” Peace is messy. Justice is loud. If we expect that creating peace in a society as violent as the United States will be a neat, calm and quiet process, we will be in for a rude awakening.
Real peace-building requires us to learn to have the conversations we don’t want to have with our families and with society. It may require us to hold interventions, shut down highways or perform other acts of resistance. When we do those things, we are not creating the conflict. We are simply surfacing the conflict that already exists so that it can be addressed.
King was arrested 29 times in his short life. Many of those times, he was charged with “disturbing the peace.” Think about that for a moment. Let that sink in.
This still happens today to many activists. When we use nonviolence to confront violence and injustice, we are not disturbing the peace, we are disturbing complacency. We are disturbing the normalization of violence. We are disturbing negative peace. When massive homeless encampments become normalized, we need to disturb that. When we accept a 50 percent dropout rate from urban high schools, we need to disturb that. When we invest in a prison system that produces an 83 percent recidivism rate, we need to disturb that. When corporate interests are destroying our planet and endangering the livelihoods of future generations, we need to disturb that.
The charge of “disturbing the peace” should be stricken from the criminal codes of this country until we finally learn to live in real, positive peace. We cannot disturb something that doesn’t exist in the first place. When we engage in the hard work of nonviolence and social change, we are not disturbing peace. We are fighting for it.
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