James Luther Adams, in his foundational “5 Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion” said that, as religious liberals,
We deny the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation.
This is a statement echoed by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr when he wrote,
Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
There have been plenty of chances to read what Dr. King had to say about violence and criminal behavior, and he was not at all ambiguous in saying that some laws may have to be broken for a person of principle to live up to their words. Plenty of pages have lists of quotes that, taken out of context, excuse violence on the part of rioters and looters and those who strike back in anger or frustration. Indeed, he made several statements to this effect:
It is incontestable and deplorable that Negroes have committed crimes; but they are derivative crimes. They are born of the greater crimes of the white society.
He did not condone the violence – ever, but he sought to place these actions in their rightful perspective. That is, he sought first to understand and then to change the course of future action. His stance on inaction is exactly the opposite: he made it clear that doing the wrong thing because you feel helpless is in fact preferable to doing nothing because you have the privilege to do so. Like Adams, MLK knew that goodness, from a human perspective, was not inherent in the Universe; we have to make it happen and live up to the mental faculties with which we have been blessed. We have to overcome the innate fear, distrust, and selfishness of our animal nature and live up to the spark of the divine so many of us claim to carry. For instance, in the Nobel lecture he gave upon receiving the peace prize, he said,
It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.
We must sacrifice. We must give and be willing to have privileges taken from us. We must be willing to have our rights violated alongside those who are already struggling under injustice. Calls for peace are calls for submission unless you, yourself, are willing to put in the work that needs to be done.
Inaction is not the same thing as nonviolent resistance. That was the core message of Dr. King’s lecture to the committee of the world’s most famous award for seeking peace. Peace, justice, and goodness only come through hard work on the part of those wise enough to seek them. We have to be willing to give of ourselves, to risk and even to throw away our privileged positions in society, if we truly want change. If you have an education, then you cannot claim to work for justice if you are not using it to speak for those who didn’t have the opportunity. You cannot be a force for goodness if you aren’t working to share your knowledge with the next generation. All of them. If you have money, you cannot claim to seek equality if you use it only to support institutions that benefit people like yourself. You cannot simply be a “good citizen” and still claim to be trying to improve the system; you have to stand against those practices and policies that oppress or disadvantage people unfairly.
So, let us be willing to live up to the Principles we have voted on as the mission for the UUA. Let us be willing to do what needs to be done to affirm and promote them. Let’s stop muddying the message that oppressed people need to be lifted up to equality by shouting that “All lives matter.” No one is downplaying the marginalization of the LGBTQA community. No one is saying that immigration reform isn’t still important. No one is saying that there aren’t hungry and homeless people of all races in the US. What we are saying is that there is a systemic problem in our government and corporate structures that disadvantages black people and makes them the victims of a disproportionate about of violence at the hands of those in authority. We have to lift up the black men and women, because they have been kept down for a very long time, and we must affirm that Black Lives Matter.
In one final quote from the Rev. Dr. King, as relevant today as it was 50 years ago, we highlight his admonishment of the religious folks of his day, especially the moderate white folks, for their inaction and for their criticism of the “Negros” who were fighting not only for equality and justice but in some cases for their lives. From the same jailhouse letter as the first quote (about the need for “tireless effort” against oppression), Dr. King warns all good, but privileged, people of faith:
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.