“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when we celebrate the life and work of the Rev. Dr. King, who helped wage several successful challenges to the racist and segregationist policies of America during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. King was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and shortly before his assassination in 1968 he began to broaden his scope of activism, working for an “economic bill of rights” to address the underlying causes of poverty. Throughout his career, King espoused the principles of nonviolence and civil disobedience to bring change.
“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
I want to make a special point of honoring King on this day, as a Pagan, because I think too many of us conceive of him as only a Christian hero. A great voice for social justice, but someone who is operating outside our religious context. In reality, King’s methods of nonviolence and civil disobedience were deeply influenced by thinkers outside of his faith, and he was quick to give credit to those voices. The two most obvious were leading transcendentalist and author Henry David Thoreau, whose teachings, according to King, “came alive in our civil rights movement,” and Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi, pioneer of satyagraha. In 1959 King made a month-long pilgrimage to India where he met with disciples and confidants of Gandhi, and ended up using many of Gandhi’s methods as a model in the Civil Rights Movement.
“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. Love, for Gandhi, was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months. The intellectual and moral satisfaction that I failed to gain from the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, the revolutionary methods of Marx and Lenin, the social-contracts theory of Hobbes, the “back to nature” optimism of Rousseau. the superman philosophy of Nietzsche, I found in the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Gandhi. I came to feel that this was the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. […] To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.”
The ethos of King: nonviolence, social justice, and civil disobedience in the face of injustice, is not isolated to Christianity. These values can be found in most cultures and faiths throughout history. The first recorded labor strike happened in ancient Egypt, and in 494 BCE plebeians effected a shutdown of Rome to guarantee more economic and political rights. These tools are picked up again and again in different contexts and situations, and continue to find new life in today’s protest movements. While King was an ardent Christian, he was also a man who saw beyond the boundaries of his own faith, who acknowledged the wisdom and knowledge that can come from other cultures and philosophies. In this, as in many other things, we should emulate the great man. King was not afraid to enrich himself with the wisdom of others, and always strove for justice, two qualities that any Pagan should be proud to embrace.