I. A Moral Revolution 

Martin Luther King, Jr., at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and facing three centuries of hatred, racism, and oppression, had a powerful message for his tormentors: “We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we will not obey your evil laws. We will soon wear you out by pure capacity to suffer.”

This statement strikes the soul as profound and disturbing not only for what it says, but for what it doesn’t say. Nowhere, for example, does it mention using violence, though striking back physically is a natural reaction to being hated and abused. Even more disturbing, it doesn’t sanction using physical force under any circumstances, even for self-defense, advocating a lamb to the slaughter mentality that seems, to most ears, to be foolish and weak. Even masochistic.

This doesn’t mean that Dr. King had a magical immunity to anger and resentment; these are, after all, human reactions to being perceived (and treated) as something less than human. I’m sure he felt offended and humiliated at times, and, on some level, probably felt the attraction of militancy and violence. Objectively, those who hurt others “deserve” to be hurt, and Dr. King understood this principle and absorbed it deeply before moving beyond it.

Here’s what he discovered:

A persecuted people can only maintain the integrity of their cause by reacting to their torments in a manner that is different from, and superior to, the behavior of their oppressor.

Dr. King understood that the legitimacy of the cause of the oppressed is most clearly seen and poignantly felt when society at large has the chance to compare one side’s behavior (peace, love, resilience, capacity to endure suffering) to the other side’s behavior (anger, hatred, cruelty, violence).

He knew that the dignity, restraint, and resilience of his people, their actions and behavior, would speak to the world just as loudly as their cause, and infuse it with power and meaning. Contrariwise, acting out in anger and violence and otherwise engaging in the behavior of their oppressor (i.e. stooping down to his level) would backfire terribly. It would divert the world’s attention from the values of their cause and water down everything it stood for. The Civil Rights Movement was a righteous revolution. It could never have succeeded through violence 


II. MLK’s Secret

One might wonder how MLK did it; he was certainly amazing, but the wisdom he practiced seemed eerily more than human—godlike, almost. And that’s because it was. Dr. King took his play book directly from Jesus. By studying the Gospels he figured out that a genuine revolution, in order to change for the better the structure of society, had to first take place on a personal level in the heart and the spirit.

Not that Jesus didn’t advocate resistance: he stoutly resisted the Pharisees, on one hand (religious hypocrisy and malicious intent), and his disciples, on the other (spiritual blindness, misinterpreting His mission). But He made His thoughts clear on resistance through force in the Garden of Gethsemane when Simon Peter, seeking to defend His life, drew out his sword and cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear.

“Put away your sword,” Jesus commanded. “Don’t you know that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword?” In case this is too specific, and one interprets it to mean personal violence, as opposed to collective use of force, consider John 18:36. When Jewish leaders brought Jesus before Roman governor Pontius Pilate to accuse him of leading an insurrection against Rome, Pilate asked Jesus if He claimed to be a king (claiming to be a king, to the Romans, meant denying the sovereignty and divinity of Caesar, a capital offense). Here’s what Jesus said:

“My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, than would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews . . .”

Dr. King, through studying this verse alone, would have understood that: 1) “not of this world” meant a spiritual, moral revolution, not a political coup, and 2) “if my kingdom were of this world” meant that King, like Jesus and his followers, must not use physical force to accomplish spiritual aims.

Does this mean that the philosophy of nonviolence is against defending one’s own life? It depends. For Jesus and MLK, who were dedicated to God’s specific will for their lives, that’s exactly what it meant.

Dr. King, shortly before his murder in Memphis, Tennessee, and keenly aware of a marked increase in death threats against him, effectively prophesied his own assassination. In his Mountaintop speech, he strongly implied that he wouldn’t make it to the “Promised Land” (i.e. he wouldn’t live long enough to see equal rights, racial harmony, and brotherly love in America) but his people most certainly would. Unless we assume he made a foolish mistake, or was, in fact, not following God’s will, we have to assume that what happened to him, like the murder of Jesus, was a part of God’s plan. Not that God would have preferred it that way—it was permissible will: He allowed a certain measure of evil to play out—i.e. Satan’s big mess—before stepping in to stage a powerful comeback, and, ultimately, a much bigger victory.

For other people, however, in different situations, God might both support and provide the means for them defending their lives and/or the lives of their loved ones.


III. “One-upping” Evil

Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” According to this verse, not only do we have the power to not be overcome by evil—which, admittingly, is a monstrous force—but we have the authority to beat it with good.

Love and nonviolence are not about wimpiness or victimhood; on the contrary, the greatest and most enduring revolutions in history: the Christianity of Jesus, the Civil Rights Movement, the role of Mahatma Ghandi in freeing India from British colonialism were accomplished through peaceful resistance. Good, in all its “weakness,” overcame evil.

These revolutions, though they did involve a prolific amount of writing, speaking, and exposing injustice, as well standing together to resist evil laws, were mostly about endurance: the capacity of people to weather persecution for the sake of upholding moral law. Of course, only love, and not resistance through violence, can enable the oppressed to expose to the world, through their actions alone, the moral superiority of their cause.

Goodness and love, though proven throughout history to beat evil and hatred, are less frequently used and thus appear to be losing. Even those who have a tendency to follow their conscience don’t want the brute struggle of: 1) practicing unconditional love, and 2) practicing it consistently. Self-sacrificing love, paradoxically, is both the law of the universe—i.e., moral law/the law of nature/the conscience—and the hardest act to follow. Most would agree it’s much easier to hate.

Ideally, if more people chose to love one another than chose to indulge in anger and revenge, evil would collectively be starved and diluted, and the scales of morality would tip. Here’s how it’d work: if a person was wronged or injured or wronged by another, he would instantly forgive the wrongdoer (practicing love in his heart), and forgo retaliation (applying love to real life). He would not feel used or shortchanged, but instead would feel a grave moral sickness being healed, for, by recalling all the people he has wronged in the past, and imagining the struggle that they had forgiving him, he would learn how to empathize with his perpetrator.

As you can see, if everyone “one-upped” evil it would soon be consumed from the planet. Squeezed out, you might say. This is the genius of love: unlike hatred, which wounds both the hater and the person being hated, it heals both the lover and the person being loved.

IV. The Way of the World

Every legal code and penal system ever devised, from the Torah of Moses to the Code of Hammurabi to “a breach of the King’s peace” and African tribal laws, was cut from the cloth of retribution. This is also known as retaliation, punishment, “just desserts,” or revenge.

These laws might appear to be cruel and outdated, with their “eye for an eye” and “hands shall be cut off’ and “he who steals a chicken shall repay a goat.” But are they really? In modern society, one has electrodes fastened to his head and legs until smoke rises from his head and his body jerks so hard it defies the law of gravity. Or he is banished from society and his family and thrust in a sterile and hate filled environment for five or six decades until he dies from his loneliness or loses his mind or is finally released an old man. The ancients might have seen this as cruel.

What all punishments have in common is their concern for natural justice. And what, exactly, is justice? Justice requires that one who injures another should have that injury, in as close an approximation as is possible and legal, returned upon his head. In a nutshell, two wrongs make a right. In the words of J. Hogarth, “This concern in turn is based on a notion of returning things to their natural order—a state of equilibrium between the parties [victim and perpetrator] that existed before the event [the crime]. While there was no way to undo the harm, it was possible to subject the offender to an equivalent evil (emphasis mine) and thereby bring things into balance.”

Justice, therefore, when stripped of its finery, is correlated with evil, not good. It is based on the faulty premise that the scales of morality, being tipped to one side by an action of evil, can only be balanced by piling more evil on the side that is already tipped. Wouldn’t it make more sense that forgiveness and love, acts diametrically opposed to and weighted the opposite of evil and vengeance, would more accurately balance the scales? This even makes sense from a scientific standpoint; a man who’s confronted with a blazing inferno doesn’t try to put it out by adding more fire. He instead uses water, its opposite.

The New Testament, of course, is a paradigm of love as a higher morality, and this includes mercy and forgiveness. It isn’t meant to contradict the “eye for an eye” edicts of The Old Testament, but to demonstrate the difference between justice (getting what you deserve, for who hasn’t wronged other people?) and mercy (getting better than you deserve, which gives hope to all humanity).

Interestingly enough, The New Testament doesn’t offer its “new way” as a pleasant alternative to the “old way.” On the contrary, it commands it. I Peter 3:9 says, “Do not repay evil with evil,” Romans 12:19 says, “Do not take revenge,” and Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (i.e., don’t fight against evil by becoming or practicing evil yourself, or by using the same weapons that it uses against you, but fight it with goodness and love).

Now why would The New Testament command such a thing? Because the writers weren’t familiar with the finer points of justice? Not at all. Rather, The New Testament writers, enlightened by Jesus Himself, discovered a higher way. The only way to survive. They understood that if everyone were punished according to his deeds, and punished by humans who were themselves imperfect, the world would implode in a holocaust of “justice.” Self-imposed justice. Or mutually assured destruction. For there’s more evil in the world than there are lives to atone for it if the requisites of justice are met.

This sequence of crime and revenge, in which one party injures another and is retaliated against with equal measure, engenders a cycle of victim and perpetrator. I say cycle, because the perpetrator, if punished severely and hopelessly enough, begins to see himself as a victim, as well. Feelings of resentment against society grow, until the perpetrator—now a “victim”—lashes out against society and again becomes the perpetrator. It’s an escalating cycle of evil.

But human nature is funny that way. When victimized, it clambers after justice, and will accept nothing less. It seems to forget that it too is imperfect. However, when it itself commits evil, and victimizes another, it quickly seeks refuge on the altar of mercy. It seems to forget the requirements of justice. But humans at best are self-centered and flaky. They are sadly ill equipped to pass judgment on themselves; how much less are they qualified to punish?

V. Another Man’s Shoes

In order to forgive, we must generally understand that we too have transgressed, and how, in the cosmic sense, we also deserve punishment. Specifically, genuine closure, i.e. forgiving and moving on, as opposed to fist-clenching vengeance , can only take place where empathy is present. This is achieved in two ways:

1) By personally reconciling with the perpetrator. This isn’t always possible, but accounts abound of how victims or their families have received true closure by finally having a chance to ask “Why?” “Why did you do it?” “What were you thinking?” “How do you feel about it now?” Their consequent feelings of contentment, they reported, were more genuine and lasting than the “closure” they received while watching their perpetrators being sentenced or executed. They reported that, unlike the shadowy psychopath paraded around the news, their perpetrators were human, with emotions and flaws.

2) By adopting the sociological perspective. This relatively new science seeks to unearth, through hard data and observable facts, the patterns in human behavior. By discovering factors outside one’s control that make a behavior-belief-attitude statistically probable—or improbable—it seeks to reconcile different elements of society. You might say it brings realism to the table, making empathy more feasible on a practical level. 

In 1989, for example, in New York’s Central Park, a woman out jogging was repeatedly raped, stabbed, and bludgeoned by a gang of 20 youths. Though horrific, the crime occurred within a larger framework of social forces and factors that the youths didn’t ask for or determine, such as age, sex, socioeconomic status, and location. Sociologists soon found that the youth’s position with respect to one of these factors carried a higher than normal risk for criminal behavior, and that, combined, they made the youths abnormally predisposed to violence.

The youths, for example, were all male, and males are 900% more likely to commit violent crimes than are females. Moreover, the youths were between the ages of 15-24, and this age block, though it represents only one-sixth of America’s population, is responsible for half its violent crime. Furthermore, the youths were mired in poverty, which made them more likely than rich and privileged to be involved in violent crime period, whether as victims or perpetrators. Finally, the location of the attack, New York City, sees more violent crime in a week than most cities in Europe see in a year. To put it differently, a group of elderly, affluent women in Europe, due to forces outside their control, would have an almost nonexistent chance of committing the same crime (John C. Macionis, “The ‘Wilding’ Controversy,” Sociology, Third Edition, 1991, p. 6).

These factors aren’t meant to absolve free will, but to show that one’s choices aren’t made in a vacuum; that every person, if born in another man’s shoes, is equally capable of a given behavior. This can help with the empathy process.

In conclusion, we discover a true principle at work: that justice, when applied, becomes evil and hatred, and mercy, when applied, becomes goodness and love. 

Evil is simply falling short of perfection, and fallen human beings will ever err against each other. However, in our battle against evil and crime, let us take careful note lest we err as it does. We can never act perfectly, and we can never punish imperfect actions perfectly, for we are not perfect ourselves. But since we must err, let us err in this way: let us err on the side of sweet mercy and love.