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Nonviolence has been used as an instrument of peace throughout history and it has proven to be an effective tool in instigating change in the society. Spearheaded by Mohandas Gandhi’s moving principle of nonviolent action towards the unjustly rule of the British forces in India, change is indeed possible if done out of the context of truth in love. The precept in nonviolence operates under what Gandhi termed as satyagraha or soul force which sought to compel change by way of non-cooperation and self-sacrifice for the attainment of justice.
Gandhi’s worldview revolutionized the path social movements followed and morally awakened its consciousness. It didn’t take long for the whole world to take notice of Gandhi’s efforts and aspire to understand the philosophy behind nonviolence as a means for social transformation. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the modern social reformists who adhered to the teachings of Gandhi’s nonviolent action in order eradicate racial segregation in America. Just like Gandhi, King had personal experiences of racial discrimination which had propelled him to act in defiance towards the injustices that prevailed in American society.
His frustration on the black segregation system prompted him to find alternative solutions for the furtherance of black civil rights in a white-dominated America. Impressed by the impact of Gandhi’s satyagraha principle, King incorporated the concept with his strong Christian background and created an unstoppable force within the convictions that echoed the sentiments of the black people. While great minds do think alike, their ideas tend to diverge in different tangents and this holds true for Gandhi’s and King’s comprehension of nonviolent action/passive resistance.
Both Gandhi and King believed that in order to free themselves from the fetters of racial prejudice, they had to resort to disclosing the social realities that undermined their civil rights in a way that did not induce a violent force, rather, a force that was directed towards love. This entailed self-sacrificial acts to incite a moral response from the oppressors such as enduring physical torture from the oppressors, submitting to the law if need be and protesting under dire circumstances. It was a feat that seemed too daunting to be carried out since it requires more from the oppressed individual (Dilks, Nonviolence: A Weapon for Peace).
The precepts of non-violence engage the individual to be physically submissive but mentally and spiritually active and any individual who is willing to undergo through that must be prepared and committed to take it to the long haul. Both Gandhi and King took the principle to heart and lived it. They did not rest until everyone listened. They understood that freedom would only be granted to them if they demanded it. Gandhi had emphasized that in order to achieve outward freedom, one must be free from within and this could only be attained through self- sacrificial actions in the context of self-purification.
He believes that by being a strong spiritual leader, he would not only set an example for the people of India which would garner their support, but also possess the power to change the course of their existence. King had operated on this concept of freedom but was more apt to focus on the attainment of outward freedom since he believed that it appealed more to the American society as it is a nation that revels in the intricacies of law technicalities (Dilks, Nonviolence: A Weapon for Peace). In the letter that Martin Luther King jr.
had written in Birmingham jail, he had discussed the relevance on breaking the laws of man if it hindered to protect and enforce the rights of an individual. King had explained the concept of law by stating the ideas of St. Augustine on its two different types, the just law and the unjust law. According to St. Augustine, just laws were in accordance with the natural laws of man in proportion with moral codes. Unjust laws were simply corrupt laws made by man which debases humanity as a whole (Dilks, Nonviolence: A Weapon for Peace).
King had expressed that laws which discriminate individuals are unjust laws since it encourages inhumane treatment to an individual. While Gandhi’s belief on the necessity of breaking laws is quite similar, in essence he observed it through simple demonstrations and the importance of spiritual well-being. It is crucial to note that cultural differences are at play here since India’s religion is much more rooted on its people than it is for most Americans, which explains why Gandhi’s approach was much more inclined to spiritual self-fulfilment.
In King’s Letter in Birmingham jail, he also wrote that the pressure appended to passive resistance should rouse social tension that would render negotiations. Though Gandhi has emphasized the need for patience in executing satyagraha, King understood that waiting was not an option at this point for they were dealing with a different audience. King had realized that while self-purification should be the driving force in nonviolent actions, one should also consider the degree to which the method should be enforced so as to be heard (Dilks, Nonviolence: A Weapon for Peace).
The way in which Gandhi and King had expressed their convictions should also be taken into account as it reveals the differences in their style techniques that conquered the hearts of the people. King’s execution of passive resistance seemed more forceful in nature due to his passionate orations compared to Gandhi’s spiritual mind frame and mellow tonality, still both of them had one thing in mind which was to voice out the injustices within their society. Both Gandhi and King had sought to depict the social inequalities in their society.
Though this action did not go unopposed, their passive resistance to such conflict invigorated them to act in accordance with love for their oppressors. Gandhi had stated in his teachings that the intention of exposing such social injustices should not be focused on degrading the individuality of their oppressors as it were regarding the relationship between the Indians and the British, but to appeal to their sensibilities and the intrinsic understanding that as human beings, we are one, regardless of race and gender.
Gandhi believed that if an individual’s motives are untainted, truths will inevitable come out and justice will prevail. King held these views to heart as well which is why he had urged his fellow Black Americans to not retaliate by violent means but by a diplomatic engagement of passive resistance (Dilks, Nonviolence: A Weapon for Peace). Gandhi and King were known to be great social reformists who popularized the use of nonviolence as a means for social change.
Even though both men had maintained different focal points for the furtherance of their causes, their mission of employing nonviolent actions toward active opposing forces remained intact. The end result is a transformation in the existing relationship of the oppressed and the oppressor.
Dilks, Stephen, et al. Nonviolence: A Weapon for Peace? Cultural Conversations: The Presence of the Past. Bedford/St. Martin: New York, 2001.