Was MLK Wrong About Non-Violence?

images-4Fifty years ago, accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made a bold statement about non-violence. On that day in Stockholm, he argued that non-violence was not simply a protest tactic to overcome the oppression of his time but a new way for humans to exist together:
“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Reading these words to a group of European dignitaries, all of whom had lived through the brutality of the Second World War, Dr. King’s message sounds spiritually uplifting, messianic and, truthfully, somewhat naive. Can humans really evolve beyond revenge, aggression, and retaliation? Are there examples when “love” built a foundation that really succeeded on a societal level? Or is his vision another fantasy?

In the fifty years that have passed since King’s Nobel speech, the world has witnessed genocides in Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and a half dozen other nations. In America it seems that every week that goes by there is another person being shot by a police officer in a moment of panic or someone shoots at a police officer in a twisted act of revenge. In France, those killed in two attacks are now being laid to rest. In Nigeria, another horror. From the perspective of the grieving families worldwide, it can be argued that society is becoming more violent, more obsessed with revenge, aggression, and retaliation. On a personal level – almost daily I watch a news clip or read an article or see a friend’s post and feel like it is all spinning out of control. Is a foundation built on love a realistic answer, or is some level of violence needed to keep violent people in check?

I reflect on this question after a year of researching the roots of violence, particularly male violence – the force that is behind ninety percent of the murders on the planet. In preparation for a broadcasted presentation I recently delivered at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I looked at new work by primatologists who focus on baboons, chimps, and bonobos – species very similar to our own – and compared their findings to spiritual and religious perspectives on male violence. My question: Is it inevitable that humans engage in revenge, aggression, and retaliation?

The surprising answer is yes and no. Chimpanzee researcher Frans de Waal of Emory University was one of the first to prove that even the most “Alpha” of Chimp males engage in both revenge and reconciliation. His work Chimpanzee Politics outlines a complex male social order very similar to our own. De Waal has also studied Bonobos, who, like chimps are 97% equivalent in their DNA to humans. Bonobo males or females, however, do not murder one another. In fact, they deal with conflict primarily through reconciliation and physical affection. Baboon researcher Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University has chronicled how an entire troop of Baboons transformed from a hyper-aggressive one to a relatively peaceful society. In Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s work The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined he summarizes what we now understand about human nature and aggression:

Human nature may embrace motives that lead to aggression, but it also embraces motives like empathy, self-control, and reason, which, under the right circumstances, can outweigh the aggressive impulses.

So, was King wrong?

In 1963, he argued:

Man was born into barbarism
 when killing his fellow man
was a normal condition of existence. He became endowed with a conscience. And he has now reached the day when violence toward another human being
 must become as abhorrent as eating another’s flesh.



New work by primatologists and anthropologists has shown that King was wrong about the origins of human nature. We were both “barbarians” and had a “conscience” from the moment we became humans. But King was right in thinking that it is possible for us to outweigh the aggressive impulses.

In Jewish tradition, there is a beautiful teaching regarding the process of outweighing those impulses. In the Book of Genesis, Esau is depicted as a hunter – a vengeful and murderous man. When his brother, Jacob, approaches him in a non-violent, forgiving, and open manner, the text reads:

“He ran, he embraced him; he fell upon his neck, he kissed him and they cried.” – Genesis 33:4

The 19th century rabbinic sage known as the Netziv points out that “they cried” has a special meaning. The words “They cried,” he taught, happen both in the moment of their meeting and in the future. The difference in wording is a spiritual allusion to a future time when even the most violent men will cry in happiness because they will have realized that they can finally put violence behind them.

On this holiday celebrating the achievements and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we are all called on to not only remember his work but to take concrete steps in moving closer to a world where empathy, self-control, and reason outweigh aggression and revenge. This year may we all move closer to that dream.

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