Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahatma Gandhi stand as shining examples of the power of non-violent resistance to overcome profound injustice. The similarities in method between the two have oft been noted, as has the one’s influence on the other. What I offer here is a reflection not on their similarities but on one key difference: MLK knew not just the power of non-violent resistance; he knew its limits.
In the run-up to World War II, as Nazi mistreatment of the Jewish community increased, members of the Jewish community began to look abroad for both wisdom and aid. Some looked to America and England for military deliverance; others sought the wisdom of Gandhi in how to deal with their oppression. In a letter from December 1938, Gandhi gave what can only be characterized as haunting advice: “If the Jews can summon to their aid the soul power that comes only from non-violence, Herr Hitler will bow before the courage which he has never yet experienced in any large measure in his dealings with men.”
Martin Luther King, Jr, though embracing non-violence in his quest for racial equality in America, understood that non-violence does not always work. MLK is often quoted as saying: “If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi. But if your enemy has no conscience, like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not eagerly embrace the idea of forceful resistance to Hitler. In the 1930’s, as war appeared on the horizon, he prayed for the strength not to take up arms. But as the war progressed and the atrocities of the Nazis grew, Bonhoeffer felt compelled for the Church and for Germany to oppose Hitler. When pacifism failed to provide any meaningful opposition, he joined a plot to kill Hitler…a plot which was discovered and ultimately led to his execution days before the Allies liberated Berlin.
MLK realized that non-violent resistance only works if the group you are resisting possesses the ability to be shamed, embarrassed, guilted, or convicted into rethinking its treatment of you. But if your opponent is perfectly content to use your non-violence as an opportunity to send you by the millions to concentration camps, then another path is required….the path of Bonhoeffer.
But why am I bringing this up? Surely what the worlds needs now is not a reminder of the right to respond with violence. Perhaps I am bringing this up to make sure our portrait of these three men is as complete as possible. Perhaps I am bringing this up to remind us that there is such a thing as the just use of force. Perhaps I am bringing this up to remind us that even when we turn to the use of force, we must, like Bonhoeffer, do so begrudgingly.