This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

What you might not know about Martin Luther King Jr.

I’ve recently been working through Martin Luther King Jr.’s A Testament of Hope. Here are some quick thoughts from my notes on this holiday honoring him.

My overall thoughts are that King challenged practices in “Christian” America that were anything but Christian. I am continually scandalized at what “Christian America” could consider Christian not that long ago! The challenge for me today is humility & repentance for the perpetual challenge, facing even those of us inside the church, of setting ourselves up as superior to others and seeing God’s kingdom as big as it truly is.

So now, some other thoughts:

King says much about peace that conservative Anabaptists agree with and Evangelical Christians can learn from.

For example, he notes on page 10: “Always avoid violence…” and he meant exactly what he said. Also: “violence, even in self-defense, creates more problems than it solves…” [p58]. King spent much effort convincing others that the proper Christian response was one of love and not violence.

I am impressed by the many meetings (noted in “Stride Toward Freedom”) the black leaders of Montgomery had to train in extremely practical ways (It reminds me of Mennonite Bible school sessions on nonresistance!) on how to respond with love and respect in challenging situations. A question I have: If we are going to “learn war no more” (as the ancient Jewish prophet noted), wouldn’t it stand to reason that we will start “learning peace?”

Surprisingly, King might not have been as gung-ho about boycotts as you might expect.

I always had the impression that King was an all-out, no-questions-asked boycott supporter. But then I came across this: “I had to recognize that the boycott method could be used to unethical and unchristian ends … From then on I rarely used the word ‘boycott’…” [p428]. This was at the beginning of the events in Montgomery, which was at the beginning of King’s career as a civil rights leader.

King only had 20 minutes to prepare for “the most decisive speech of my life.”

The Dec. 5, 1955 speech launching the “noncooperation with the evil” of the Montgomery bus system was prepared in five minutes of prayer and 15 minutes of study [p433]. King had considerable concern about only having 20 minutes to prepare when he normally spent 15 hours preparing for a sermon. One of his main concerns was ensuring that he communicated and encouraged the love of Jesus for all in the response. Listen to it here.

King had criticism for his fellow black people.

“Many of us [Negros] live above our means, spend money on nonessentials and frivolities…” [p150]. In a magazine interview King was asked why donations largely come from non-black people, and he noted: “We have to face and live with the fact that the Negro has not developed a sense of stewardship…”

I recommend reading Stride Toward Freedom. This is the narrative of what King called the non-cooperation with the Montgomery bus discrimination. It is very accessible and a good story to be familiar with.

Point of disagreement: nonresistance vs. nonviolence

In Stride Toward Freedom [p335], King notes: “Nonresistance leaves you in a state of stagnant passivity and deadly complacency.” A question for those of us who use the term nonresistance might be: Is our nonresistance actually more passivity than loving the enemy? Is what I call nonresistance actually a complacent attitude?

As I thought about the difference between King’s “nonviolence” and conservative Anabaptist “nonresistance,” I think the difference is not “active” versus “passive.” Neither is the difference a willingness or unwillingness to be involved in nonviolent civil disobedience. Anabaptists have continually shown themselves willing to “obey God rather than men.” From the subversive act of baptizing only believers in the 1500s to a willingness to reject portions[1] of the Pennsylvania Child Care Act in the 21st century because it is deemed to inappropriately place the state between brothers and sisters speaking truth to each other and is seen as compromising the structural integrity of an autonomous church, conservative Anabaptists are no stranger to “obeying God rather than men.”

The crucial difference seems to be whom change is being demanded of. The conservative Anabaptists’ “protest for justice” includes demands only of themselves and to others only a call and offer to voluntarily join the kingdom. This is demonstrated in the “action” of Dirk Willems actively rescuing his pursuer. Or the “action” of the Mennonite pastor who heard his roof being destroyed in the night by hoodlums and who welcomed the troublemakers in for a good breakfast, thereby “loving them” into appropriate behavior.

I am challenged to ensure that what I call nonresistance is living the power of God’s love, and that this love is something that is seen as “overcoming evil”. In another passage, King makes a comment that might indicate he is not as far away from “nonresistance” as even he thinks: “History has proven … unmerited suffering is redemptive…” [p222].

[1] – I say “reject portions” very advisedly. Conservative Anabaptists agree with the goal of the Pennsylvania Child Care Act: to protect children against abuse. This cannot be overemphasized. It is only the means that causes disagreement.

Matt Landis lives with his wife, Rosalyn, in Ephrata, Pa., and attends Calvary Mennonite Fellowship, a Mid-Atlantic Mennonite Fellowship congregation. He blogs at Mennonite Minute, where this post first appeared.

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