Honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Remembering the Christian Origins of Nonviolent Resistance and Civil Disobedience

Every January, since its first federal observance in 1986, the national holiday honoring the life and legacy of the great civil rights leader and humanitarian, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us of the seminal role and moral good of nonviolent, peaceful resistance, protest, and civil disobedience in the struggle against injustice.  Rev. King rightly represents the most enduring figure in American history to be associated with these principles and practices.  Indeed, he and his life’s work are inseparable from both the history of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and from the enshrinement of nonviolent resistance and peaceful civil disobedience in the body politic and culture of postwar America. 

Yet, despite his popularized, current depiction, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not merely a political activist or community organizer who gained national influence through his eventual leadership of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.  Rev. King was a devout Baptist minister, for whom Christian faith, philosophy, and principles were the cornerstones for how he understood life and society.  Indeed, Rev. King’s recognition of, and responses to, racial and social injustice, including his articulation and use of nonviolent civil disobedience to tackle injustice, were based entirely on his Christian beliefs.  In 1967, Rev. King famously stated: “Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel.  This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment.  You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry.” 

The public statements that Rev. King made about the centrality of Christianity in his engagement with civil rights were reinforced in his writings.  In one of the most famous and important documents of the Civil Rights Movement, the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in April 1963 after his arrest and harsh detention following a nonviolent protest against racism and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, Rev. King wrote to his “fellow Christian brothers” in an open letter that would be widely published: “of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience…It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face the lions and the excruciating pain of the chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.”               

History before Christianity does not provide us with any examples of peaceful social resistance.  Several religions which predate Christianity—Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism—may all have espoused the virtues of peace, but none, not even Indian Jainism, which regards nonviolence as the most fundamental practice of its faith, articulated a coherent philosophy of peaceful, nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.  In this sense, the life of Christ and the early history of Christianity are instructive for understanding the origins, and establishment for the first time in human history, of the philosophy and practice of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience.

Through his preaching and example, Jesus Christ—God Incarnate—presented mankind with an example of how to respond to injustice and evil with nonviolent resistance.  Unlike the Zealots and other Jewish contemporaries of Jesus who used violence in their national struggle against Roman rule, Christ embodied a more revolutionary means and message to overcome injustice, conflict, and division in the world—love.  In His “Sermon on the Mount,” the main source for the philosophy of nonviolent resistance and peaceful civil disobedience, Christ tells us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  This moral lesson and tenet of faith sustained the Early Church and contributed decisively to its survival and growth during its first few centuries, a time when Christians were violently harassed and persecuted first by Jews and then by the full force and power of the Roman state.  Nonviolent resistance to injustice and abuse did not end with the Christianization of the Roman/Byzantine Empire beginning in the fourth century.  Indeed, Christian mass civil disobedience, whether to heretical emperors or Iconoclasts in power, arguably acquired its most overt qualities through the repeated episodes of Orthodox resistance to corrupt or errant political and ecclesiastical authority in the Byzantine Empire. 

Reflecting on its long history, the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese priest and prolific theologian, Fr. Philip LeMasters, notes “nonviolent resistance has been present in the Church from its earliest days until the present.  Martyrs and confessors, both ancient and contemporary, have disobeyed laws and other directives that they discerned to be contrary to their faith and conscience.  Some have done so when governments commanded them to commit idolatry or embrace heresy.  Others have refused to obey unjust laws by protecting the innocent or calling for social and political change, rejecting passivity or submission in the face of evil.  These are examples of deliberate acts of resistance and refusal to allow corrupt worldly powers to control the conscience and actions of Christians.”

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, deliberate act of nonviolent resistance against the lingering, morally corrupting racist structures rooted in America’s shameful history of slavery was anchored in Christ’s tenet of love for all men.  Again, Fr. LeMasters makes it clear that such nonviolent resistance, like Rev. King’s civil disobedience, was a direct reflection of Christian philosophy: “These examples do not present nonviolent resistance as a merely prudential tactic to achieve a political goal that might also be accomplished by violent means.  Instead, these types of nonviolent action grow from the heart of the Christian faith: the selfless, suffering, forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ whereby we reconciled to Him and to one another, even our enemies.  Christ spoke and acted prophetically, denouncing evil and challenging social and religious structures that were contrary to God’s will for human beings.  Orthodox nonviolent resistance to evil follows Christ’s example.” 

This Christian view of the fullness in purpose of nonviolent resistance against evil and injustice is what accounted for Rev. King’s understanding of his civil rights mission as a religious ministry rather than as a campaign in political activism.  Consequently, when American society and state honor the memory of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., they also acknowledge, albeit unwittingly, a debt to Christ, whose message of love and forgiveness—of which we are all beneficiaries—resonated through Rev. King’s own life and martyrdom.            

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.