In the midst of the American discussions of violence and civility in public discourse following the tragic shootings in Arizona, we would do well to remember a lesson that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. learned and taught: Nonviolence is a force more powerful than violence.
Dr. King, following Gandhi, believed that nonviolence, like electricity, is a powerful force, and that humans have only begun to tap into its potential. The more we experiment with using nonviolence, the more we will discover its power to transform conflict into mutual understanding, to transform injustice into justice. Violence, on the other hand, always leads to the same end: more violence and destruction.
Dr. King reminded us:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction -- the chain reaction of evil -- hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars -- must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.
Many have experimented with the power of nonviolence in international and national conflicts: Christian Peacemaker Teams stand between opposing forces in the world's hot spots, Polish Solidarity leaders brought freedom to Poland without firing a shot, Gandhi and his followers broke the power of British rule in India -- to name but a few. What we also need in America today are those who will risk experimenting with the power of nonviolence in our families, in our communities, in our nation. American culture has become a violent culture, and we need pioneers who will blaze a new trail. We need to be shown another way.
A few unsung ordinary heroes (and probably many more we don't know) have taken the first steps in blazing the trail. When New Yorker Julio Diaz followed the man who had taken his wallet at knifepoint and offered him his coat as well, leading to a transformative conversation and to his wallet being returned, he demonstrated the power of nonviolence in response to street violence. When Texas Rep. Al Green started his town hall meeting on health-care reform with questions for his audience about how the meeting should be conducted, resulting in the group creating a mutually agreed-upon contract, he demonstrated the power of mutual respect in a group to counter disruptive violent tactics. We need more people who will follow in the footsteps of these pioneers.
As we begin to experiment with nonviolence, we will come face-to-face not only with our actions, but with our hearts as well. In Dr. King's words:
Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.
Dr. King's words, addressing the international arena but just as true within a nation, ring true for Americans today:
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
May we choose to experiment with nonviolence in our families, our communities, and in our public discourse. If we take this experiment seriously, we will discover a force more powerful, a force powerful enough to transform our relationships on every level, powerful enough to transform our culture and to change the world.
Margaret Benefiel, Ph.D., author of Soul at Work and The Soul of a Leader, works with leaders in health care, business, churches, government, and nonprofits to help them stay true to their souls. Visit her Web site.