On the third Monday of every January, the United States marks Martin Luther King Day. The national holiday celebrates the birth and life of the civil rights activist and Baptist minister, whose Christian convictions about justice and the Gospel led him to a path of non-violence and peacemaking.
But in 2007 MLK Day also falls on the week in which a new wave of troops begins to arrive in Iraq amidst protests and opposition around the world. Indeed, one of the continual frustrations of peace campaigners is that whilst political leaders pay tribute to King, they appear far less ready to buy into the methods that he successfully employed.
In Iraq, the agenda has usually been set with only two alternatives ‚Äì fight or flight. With the choice to invade, to the decision to send more troops, the argument has been mounted that either we (the West) must wash our hands of the situation or intervene militarily. An evil dictator and his weapons of mass destruction must be left alone, or violence used to depose him. Troops must be withdrawn or employed in greater numbers to create stability.
But as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, those who ended the Marcos regime in the Philippines or ended the Apartheid era in South Africa have demonstrated, these aren't the only options. Injustice can be challenged, regimes changed, and peace and stability created in ways that go beyond the simple choice between arms and acquiescence.
This is a point that was put by church leaders in the run up to the Iraq invasion. Having been refused an audience with the US president, the heads of mainline Christian denominations and organizations from America met with Tony Blair at
Downing Street ‚Äì and also urged the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to speak out. He now says he wishes he had responded more.
The US Christians urged the pursuit of a long-term strategy of non-violent regime change. In the same tradition, Christian Peacemakers in Iraq, whose ability to cross barriers requires their refusal to carry weapons, have facilitated Muslim Peacemaker Teams in Baghdad, and in some cases have succeeded in bringing together Shia and Sunni Muslims in a way that soldiers will always be unable to do.
As in Christianity, the much neglected non-violent tradition is being rediscovered in Islam. Together they are working on projects to foster a culture of peace, with for example, Shi'as travelling to Sunni-dominated Fallujah to clean up rubble after the US assault. But if they are to have any chance of success, such ideas require a new commitment and investment from others on all sides. Biblical theologians might call it a 'metanoia', a fundamental change of approach.
Dr King believed that Jesus' injunction to 'turn the other cheek' did not mean passivity. It was a way of breaking a cycle of violence. It meant challenging the dehumanisation of the other. The dehumanisation that is necessary when oppressing a population, waging a war, or committing other acts of terror.
Jesus singles out the right cheek. A right handed person would have struck it with the back of the hand, implying an enemies' inferiority. With the left cheek turned, the assailant would now have to hit with an open hand, confounding him- or herself by acknowledging the opponent's humanity and equality.
Of course nonviolent options are far from easy. And just like violent attempts to deal with conflict, they involve risk-taking. But there is little political resolve to explore them, or to invest in their development. University departments are often devoted to the study of war, but rarely to non-violence (the Bradford University School of Peace Studies is one ground-breaking exception).
At the moment Britain has 180,000 personnel in our armed forces, but not even a unit of
unarmed peacemakers. There is a Ministry of Defence but no Ministry of
Forty years ago, Martin Luther King, delivered a sermon expressing his opposition to the war in Vietnam. He ended by quoting the words of an old African-American Spiritual: "I don't know about you, I ain't gonna study war no more" he said.
It would be a tragedy if another 40 years passed without truly honouring King's memory by following his advice.
This article was developed and expanded from a BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, which you can read here or listen to here.