The philosophy of nonviolence has great wisdom, even for those of us who are not pacifists.
In twenty years of writing and speaking about Martin Luther King Jr., I’ve generally stayed away from discussing King’s philosophy of nonviolence. That’s because I’m not a pacifist. I think if you are physically attacked – either as a person, a community or a nation – and you need to physically defend yourself, you ought to be able to. I think the defensive battles that the Prophet Muhammad engaged in with the Meccans who were looking to extinguish Islam were necessary. I think the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II were, broadly speaking, necessary. That doesn’t mean that I agree with every detail, or that I support violent aggression, but I don’t think you need to just stand there and get run over either.
In the Trump era, I am learning that there is a wisdom to the philosophy of nonviolence that even those of us who are not pacifists can embrace.
Mandela was not a pacifist. In fact, he co-founded the armed wing of the African National Congress. But Mandela exemplified the ethos of nonviolence.
No matter what his jailers did to him, he treated them kindly. He took pains to learn the language they spoke, Afrikaans. When he was released, he personally invited them to attend his inauguration as president of South Africa.
When Mandela took office, he did not fire the white staff in the South African government. He added white officers to his personal security detail, including ones who had been the enforcers of apartheid. He embraced the South African rugby team, wearing their uniform in public, even though rugby was viewed as a white sport and therefore symbolically representative of the past regime.
Many black South Africans resented these overtures. But Mandela was working a strategy that operated on two levels, personal and political.
On the personal level, Mandela was highlighting that each of us controls our own psychology. As Victor Frankl before him recognized, the jailers may have your body, but you control whether you give them your mind. And the way you discipline your mind dictates the way you behave.
To put it simply, Mandela was not going to let the apartheid regime’s evil be at all reflected in his psychology or behavior. He was not going to let the cruelty of his jailers transform him into a worse person.
There is a famous story about the Prophet Muhammad, in which he encounters a woman who insults and throws trash at him on the street. The Prophet is unfailingly kind to her. When she is sick, he visits her. She becomes convinced of the truth of Islam through the Prophet’s decency, mercy and compassion.
This, in short, is Mandela’s political strategy. Neither Mandela nor the Prophet Muhammad were debasing themselves by acting with decency towards people who treated them with indignity. Nor were they putting on an empty morality play. Rather, they were strategically using the ugly behavior of their interlocutors to dramatize their own exceptional ethics.
And along the way, they were teaching, and converting. Most human beings want to be better, at least over the long run. When the difference between the ethics of the gutter and the ethics of excellence are on clear display, it forces people to ask the question, ‘Who do I want to be?’, and choose a side.
Sometimes, the ones perpetrating the injustices change in dramatic fashion. The woman throwing trash comes to see the truth of Islam. The formerly apartheid-supporting white South African rugby team sings the new national anthem during the World Cup Championship.
Why am I referring to this as the spirit of nonviolence? Because it is allowing someone else to act with hostility towards you without responding in kind. It is absorbing an indignity and responding with ethical excellence.
Why is it strategic? Because a winning strategy isn’t principally about defeating large groups of people, it is about converting them. And you convert people by attracting them with beauty and excellence, not by competing for ownership of the dirtiest parts of the sewer.
As the civil rights activist Pauli Murray said, “I intend to destroy segregation by positive and embracing methods. When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”
Back now to Martin Luther King Jr, who provides us with example after example of the ethic of nonviolence in action. My single favorite example might be in the year 1966, in my home city of Chicago, where King had launched a campaign for Fair Housing. His 700 peaceful activists in the Marquette Park neighborhood of Chicago were met with several thousand people violently protesting their presence, shouting the ugliest racial slurs imaginable, throwing bottles and bricks, one of which bloodied King’s own head.
In the midst of one of these melees, King broke from his security detail, made his way to a group of white ethnic teenage boys with racist slurs frothing in their mouths, and said: “You are all good looking and intelligent. Where did all that hate come from?”
This was not premeditated. This was a spur of the moment decision. King’s instinctive response to kids who are screaming racial slurs at him was to go up to them personally and say: I believe you are better than the way you are behaving. I see the angel in the stone. I want you to be that angel. I am building an America where both you and I can thrive.
And that is precisely why, in the long run, King wins.
Eboo Patel is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization founded on the idea that religion should be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division. He is inspired to build this bridge by his identity as an American Muslim navigating a religiously diverse social landscape. This article originally appeared as a January 21, 2019 blog post on his Conversations on Diversity blog at insidehighered.com. Reprinted with permission of the author.