Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nonviolent Lessons for the Synod

Today, the United States celebrates the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the renowned African American civil rights leader brutally assassinated in 1968 for speaking courageously and powerfully so every person might known justice and equality.

Dr. King’s fearlessness and honesty greatly advanced justice for Black people in the U.S., but his work has not been completed. Injustice and inequality thrive today, especially in the resurgence of white Christian Nationalism. This phenomenon is a reminder that all people must be eternally vigilant so that a majority cannot oppress marginalized groups.

Perhaps Dr. King’s lasting contribution to justice work is his commitment to nonviolence. Influenced by Gandhi, Bayard Rustin, a gay man, and others who recognized that, to achieve justice, we must do so in a just fashion. If we want a community of love, we must model that love, even with those who oppress us and who we may consider enemies. On one occasion, Dr. King said:

“Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”

LGBTQ+ Catholics can learn a lot from Dr. King. As I read the quotation above, I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of what Pope Francis has been teaching the church about synodality. I know that I have been guilty of expecting the Synod to simply push through much-needed changes for justice in the church. I’ve been less inclined to want to see the point of view of those who oppose equality, to hear what their questions are, to understand more clearly what their perceptions of LGBTQ+ people are. I am often reluctant to want to reconcile with them, and more often simply want to refute them.

Dr. King reminds me that just like any other quest for justice, the synodal process has to be less about conquering our opposition, and more about reconciling with them—and to do that by practicing nonviolent attitudes toward them. I need to keep an open mind to “learn and grow and profit” from the point of view from those who oppose LGBTQ+ people.

That’s not easy. Quite frankly, that feels almost impossible. But it can be possible if I take the attitude and approach of Dr. King, which is not flinching from principles yet being open to dialoguing with those who oppose them. Dr King teaches us that we don’t change people by hating them but by loving them.

As people who advocate for justice and equality for LGBTQ+ people, we must also today remember another important quotation from Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

This maxim should remind us that if we want justice in our church and in our world, we have to work for justice for everyone, not just for the groups to which we belong.  On this anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth, advocates for LGBTQ+ justice must also commit ourselves to work for justice for other groups who still have not achieved justice: people of color, migrants, women (especially in the church), and the economically disadvantaged.

If we don’t speak up for justice for other oppressed groups, any justice that we achieve will mean nothing. Dr. King offers some other pertinent advice, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

As we continue to walk the synodal path in our church, let us be sure that we are not silent about other injustices in the church and society. As we advocate for LGBTQ+ people, let’s remember that our voices will be hollow if we do not advocate for others, too. And to fully honor the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us work not just for justice but for reconciliation in a nonviolent way.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, January 15, 2024

3 replies
  1. Ryan Sattler
    Ryan Sattler says:

    I faithfully read BONDINGS every morning but seldom offer a comment. Today is different. Today’s blog is a powerful, non-violent statement that really touches who we are and how we must act in our work of social justice. Thank you for educating us just as Martin did and still does!!!

  2. Loretta Fitzgerald
    Loretta Fitzgerald says:

    Asking with the sincere intention of listening with heart and ears is both challenging and absolutely necessary. I sincerely appreciate being reminded by today’s reflection that those with whom we not only disagree but also, if I’m being honest, disdain because of their viewpoint, words and actions, that somewhere in the rubble, there are reasons for someone opposed to what I see as common sense justice. Fear is likely my first guess for opposing something, a people, or a person. But may fear come from a perceived threat. Maybe that is where the conversation begins. For example, why does blessing a gay couple create anger? What does a Black man as president conjure up fear? If that anger and angst is based on fear, then of what is one afraid? Maybe if I listen to how another candidly answers that question, and being allowed to ask of me the same, maybe, just maybe, conversation can lead to understanding even if not reconciliation which can lead to growth. Thanks for this reflection.


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