Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, Tucson and non-violence

Our country pauses this weekend to honor Martin Luther King on his birthday, January 15. Our prayer cycle remembers Dr. King on April 4, the day he died. I well remember that evening in 1968 -- the violence that cut him down, and the violence that erupted after his murder. I remember my sadness – and disorientation and fear. That settled down after awhile, only to spike again two months later when Robert Kennedy was killed.

The shootings in Tucson last week connect my psyche to the 1968 shootings in Memphis and Los Angeles – and the 1963 shooting in Dallas. And the scores of shootings in Newark last year – and several years ago at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. Not to mention the recent bombings in Egypt and Baghdad and Afghanistan.

We know we live in a violent world. We cannot deny it, but most of us work very hard to keep ourselves removed from it.

And we can’t. Not just because the violence can emerge almost indiscriminately outside a Tucson Safeway (which could probably be described as Ground Zero for Anywhere, USA), but because of the violence that lurks just beneath the surface in most of us. And which surfaces more often than we care to admit. I am talking about verbal violence. The verbal violence that emerges when dialogue dissolves into diatribe; when civility dissolves into sniping, scoring points and assigning blame. The not so subtle violence of Schadenfreude, when our happiness is built on someone else’s misery – which we can easily create by putting someone down or shutting someone out.

Martin Luther King had a dream for America. Foundational to that dream was his commitment to nonviolence. And the challenge in his dream was that we embrace the biblical vision of nonviolence – and have the discipline to live it out. “No killer statements” was the mantra of every youth group I ever participated in. It took a lot of reminding to enable that mantra to take root.

Research has shown that violence spreads. Violence is a pernicious and toxic contagion. Martin Luther King’s death demonstrated that. My experience and faith has demonstrated that non-violence is also a contagion: a life-giving contagion of hope and peace. Martin Luther King’s witness engendered that. Non-violence won’t solve the problem of violence, but the commitment to non-violence can stymie its spread – in the world and in us.