This post originally appeared here.
These last few days have been exciting, but not necessarily in a good way. On the one hand, we have had a celebration of Martin Luther King’s legacy, but on the other hand, the dogs of war are snarling again, this time for Syria. Our politicians are simultaneously celebrating one of Christianity’s greatest prophets, while also considering military action abroad (again). Considering this interesting coincidence, I think it can be helpful to consider what Martin Luther King would have thought about the current military actions of the United States.
There is an episode of The Boondocks called “Return of the King” that actually tackles this exact question. In this episode, instead of being killed, King slips into a coma after being shot, and he wakes up in the year 2000. King learns that not as much has changed as he would have wished, and he becomes greatly disillusioned. There is one part of the episode, however, that is really relevant to our current wars and our inevitable involvement in Syria.
After September 11th and the invasion of Afghanistan, King is invited onto Bill Maher’s old show Politically Incorrect. When asked about the attacks, King responds that, as a Christian, he believes in turning the other cheek. This comment in regards to loving enemies — including Al-Qaeda — gets King a lot of criticism. The American public and media — both “liberal” and “conservative” — deeply criticize and ostracize King for his remarks. Would King actually say something like this? I think he would, and that he actually did, but concerning Vietnam instead of Afghanistan.
In his sermon “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” King makes many statements that are critical of the American war machine, and I think many of these statements were just as valid in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. One statement is particularly powerful, and I recently shared it on Facebook when I saw people start talking about Syria:
And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”
During his life, King had a consistently anti-war ethic. Originally, he was not strictly a pacifist, but was against war, but over time, he came to adopt a fully pacifist position. It was this pacifist position that he felt was the most productive and Christian in the long term.
I think that King was right in this matter. Looking at the words attributed to Jesus by the gospel writers, it seems quite obvious that Jesus calls Christians (and humanity in general) to pacifism. However, pacifism should not be confused with what is called “passive-ism.” King was a pacifist; he actively sought peace and justice. The pacifism of King, and I would argue the pacifism of any genuine Christian, should be the same pacifism as described by Eberhard Arnold when he said:
We do not agree with a pacifism that ignores the root causes of war – property and capitalism – and tries to bring about peace in the midst of social injustice.
It is a pacifism that cares for actively seeking peace and justice at all levels of society.
I think King gives us a great response to the growing crisis in Syria, and I think his example is one all Christians should follow. Yes, we should be full of righteous anger for all of the evils that are currently taking place in the Syrian civil war, but we should not respond to that evil by advocating the United States military to practice that same evil against the Syrian people. It is morally inconsistent to condemn the use of weapons by the Syrian government on its citizens, and then turn around and call for the US government to use similar weapons on that same country. As King says, we are too arrogant, especially when we think we have some legitimate, divinely-justified monopoly on violence. As Christians, we should understand that violence is morally wrong, no matter what flags you use to soak up the blood afterwards.
How should a Christian respond to Syria? Nonviolently. But, it should not be the kind of “nonviolence” that lets violence continue unchallenged. It should be the kind of nonviolence that actively seeks peace and justice through alternative, long-term solutions, rather than with bombs.