Martin Luther King and freely nonviolent speech after Paris

By Simon Barrow
January 19, 2015

This year (2015), Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US falls on 19 January – the third Monday of the month. It is an observance which is gaining traction in other parts of the world, too, where the legacy of the civil rights campaigner and Baptist minister is an an iconic symbol of freedom for people of both religious and other belief the world over.

Nearly 52 years ago Martin Luther King spoke on the Washington Mall and declared that 'I Have a Dream' – "a speech that echoes still, brings chills to the spine, calls up dreams and reminds us that there is a yet a way to go", wrote the Rev Dr Ruth Gouldbourne, minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London, about that historic address, 18 months ago.

Bloomsbury Baptist Church is where Ekklesia has its office in London, thanks to the goodwill, partnership and generosity of the congregation and ministers there. The church has a fine tradition of speaking and acting with Christian conviction about peace, social justice and inclusion. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King preached at Bloomsbury, and there are people with connections to the church who still remember that occasion with humble pride.

In her August 2013 reflections on the Washington Mall address, Ruth Gouldbourne spoke of a kind of human speech that is nonviolent in both its intent and form. Her words are particularly poignant and relevant at the end of a week when discussion about 'free speech' is very much in the air, following the tragic and appalling murders at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris.

Maintaining freedom of speech is vital for an open society. But although it is wrong to criminalise ridicule, insult and dismissal, are these really the modes of communication we want to a address one another with? Are they the way that people of religious and non-religious beliefs can really start to build up the mutual understanding and common action that enables the whole human family to move beyond violent conflict?

These are serious questions, and MLK would no doubt have had much more to teach us, if his own life had not been cut short by an assassin's bullet – aimed at him not because he mocked or caricatured others, but because he spoke out for justice for everybody, irrespective of creed, class or status.

Ruth writes: "In Dr King’s speech, the commitment of the movement he spoke for was to non-violence without being acquiescent in the face of injustice. How easy it is to be violent in our speech without thinking carefully about the impact that that can have.

"It is not simply that it is all too easy to hurt somebody in the way that we speak, or by the language we use. It is very evident, for example, that a child who is consistently told that they are a disappointment or a failure will be hurt by that as they develop, and the violence done to their trust in their capacity or in the goodness of their existence will be deep.

"But I have been prompted also to think about the tone that we use in speaking to another – or the images that we use in speaking of another. The small diminishments of another’s worth, the habitual tone of dismissal or contempt, the easy assumption of superiority – all of these have at their heart a kind of violence that is deeply damaging of other people and of community.

"The power of Dr King’s words still to move, to inspire, to open up possibility, together with his deep and often-voiced commitment to nonviolence remains with us as a challenge to think about not only how we engage with structures of injustice and oppression, but also how we speak, and in particular speak to and of one another. The two cannot be separated.

"We cannot be committed to speaking truth to power, to challenging the presence of that which denies the kingdom [commonwealth] of God, or to being witnesses to the transforming and life-giving presence of Jesus in our wider world if we are living and speaking in ways that express violence, denigration or diminishment of another person.

"One of the hymns that emerges from the peace movement begins, 'Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me'. Without this depth of desire for transformation – of ourselves first, through our own repentance and conversion to the values of Jesus – then Dr King’s dream remains unrealised: all the words he spoke, and all our sense of being moved by them will remain air. Please God, we learn to embody them as he did."

These seem to me precisely the kind of sentiments we need to frame a genuinely vibrant and positive debate about what free speech means today – morally and spiritually, not just legally.

* Martin Luther King Day: http://www.thekingcenter.org/king-holiday

* The MLK Washington Mall speech: http://uspolitics.about.com/od/speeches/a/i_have_a_dream.htm

* Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church: http://bloomsbury.org.uk/

* More about Bloomsbury on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/bloomsburybaptistchurch

* More from Ekklesia on the Charlie Hebdo aftermath: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/charliehebdo

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and politics think tank, Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.