Spiritual Foundations of Non-violent Resistance

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. sits in a cell at the Jefferson County Jail in Alabama.
Civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sits in a cell at the Jefferson County Jail in Alabama.

After the killings of   two black men at the hands of white police officers in July, and the subsequent murders of several law enforcement officers, there has been much discussion about the social injustices many African Americans and others have experienced in the United States for decades, if not centuries. 

The actions of Micah Johnson and Gavin Long, who murdered police officers in separate incidents in Texas and Louisiana, have been rightly condemned. Their stated aim of combatting violence with violence is not new. Organizations in the 1960s and early 1970s have advocated just that. Implicit in their argument is the idea that non-violent movements are somehow benign, slow, ineffective, and may even be seen as appeasing the oppressor. What has been lost on those who espouse this viewpoint– and, frankly, some proponents of ‘peaceful protest’–is that the non-violent tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were not just about non-violent protest, they were in fact about non-violent resistance, and civil-disobedience to an unjust system.  Above all their tactics were an outgrowth of their religious faith, faith in their God, faith in an ultimate truth that could not coexist with injustice and the systemic dehumanization of any group.

Spiritual Foundations of Non-violent Resistance

In April 1963, while imprisoned in the City Jail in Birmingham Ala., Dr. King wrote an open letter to several white clergymen critical of his tactics.  In the letter he laid out the key themes of his approach to achieve equality and social justice for African Americans and other oppressed peoples.  The letter also affirmed the faith-based underpinnings of his actions. For instance, he outlined the difference between ‘just laws’ and ‘unjust laws’—‘a just law is one that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is one that is out of harmony with the moral law.’ He also embraced the charge that his use of non-violent direct action was a form of ‘extremism’, citing the example of Jesus, asking, wasn’t Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies and to bless those that curse you’ an example  of  extremism in love?

The effects of his non-violent tactics have of course become known around the world: the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott,  his inspirational ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ at 1964’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,  the march from Selma to Montgomery and the resulting Voting Rights Act of 1965, to name but a few.

The tactics embraced by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s were based on methods developed by Mohandas Gandhi and his Satyagraha movement in the first half of the 20th century in South Africa and India. According to Stanford University’s King Institute Encyclopedia, Dr. King regarded Gandhi as ‘the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.’

Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy stemmed from his deep religious faith, based on a form of Hinduism, and Jainism. He was also profoundly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount which ‘went straight to [his] heart.’ [1] In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, he repeatedly testifies of his faith in God. ‘On all occasions of trial He has saved me… [i]n all my trials—of a spiritual nature, as a lawyer, in conducting institutions and in politics, I can only say God saved me.  When every hope is gone, “when helpers fall and comforts flee”, I find that help arrives somehow, from I know not where. Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than acts of eating, drinking, sitting, or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal’ [2].


“Are you ready to go to jail?” Gandhi asked a young man who had requested his assistance in alleviating the hardships of third class railway passengers in an Indian municipality. The actions resulting from this question, Gandhi records, ushered in Satyagraha in India.[3]

‘Truth (Satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement ‘Satyagraha’, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence…’ [4].

Gandhi used the Satyagraha tactics for almost forty years, between 1906 and 1944. One of the best known uses of the technique was to remove the laws prohibiting Indians from producing salt for domestic use, and forcing them to purchase it at high prices from British monopolies. Gandhi led a 200 mile march, terminating at the shores of the Arabian Sea where he gathered salt residue from the receding waves. Thousands followed his lead, resulting in mass arrests—Gandhi, and 60,000 Indians at one point–were thrown into jail [5]. Ultimately however the protesters were triumphant and the laws prohibiting Indians from collecting salt for domestic use were removed.

Final Thoughts

In the years since their deaths, Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi have achieved a saint-like status around the world, and are now almost universally considered inspirational figures. That they are now embraced by the powerful is due in part, I’ll argue, to a perception that they were ‘the good’ revolutionaries—that they played politely within the system and somehow waited for the authorities to realize their sins. This is revisionist history and a dangerous misconception. According to the King Center Dr. King was stabbed, physically attacked, thrown into jail over twenty times, and had his house bombed three times. Gandhi was thrown into jail on thirteen different occasions, spending over seventy-four months in prison, between 1908 and 1944. I think it’s safe to say that leaders and their organizations are not attacked in this way if their methods are benign, polite or ineffective.

These men and the organizations they led were not just proponents of non-violence, they in fact advocated non-violent resistance and civil disobedience to unjust laws, based on an underlying sense of truth and justice given to every human being by God.

© Weldon Turner 2016 All Rights Reserved

Next post: Jesus in Feature Film: The Musicals


‘Martin Luther King Jr. in Jail’
Photo by Bettmann Collection/ Getty Images
Used with permission.


[1] Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform), 2013. p51
[2] ibid, p 51
[3] M. K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa (Jitendra T. Desai Navajivan Publishing House), 1968 p7
[4] M. K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, pp106-107
[5] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, Edited by Louis Fischer, Vintage Books, 1983, p228

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