In June I had the privilege to attend the 19th Annual International Nonviolence Summer Institute at the University of Rhode Island. The purpose of the institute is to train organizers, educators, activists, and other passionate people about the philosophy, tactics, and principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Dr. Bernard Lafayette spearheads the program. He worked as a leader in the Nashville Counter Sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the organizing in Selma, and the original Poor People’s Campaign. Words fail to describe how inspiring and humbling it was to study with this man for a week.
Dr. Lafayette tells all new students the same compelling story about why he worked to create this institute. He was with Dr. King on the morning on April 4th, 1968 in a motel room in Memphis. The two leaders were strategizing about the Poor People’s Campaign and the work that they needed to do. It was about time for Bernard to leave, he had to run to the airport to board a flight to DC. The plan was for Martin to finish his work in Memphis and then join the DC wing of the movement. As Bernard was leaving the motel, Dr. King. told him, “Lafayette, the next campaign has to be to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence.”
It was with those that Bernard Lafayette left Memphis. He arrived at the airport. As he was boarding the plane, he heard that Dr. King had been shot. Bernard says he wasn’t too worried when he heard the news. It wasn’t the first time that someone in the movement had been attacked. As the flight departed, he still felt hopeful. After the plane landed, Bernard learned the truth that Martin Luther King was dead. A heartbreaking moment. Those last words though continued to ring in his ears, “the next campaign has to be to institutionalize and internationalize nonviolence.” Dr. Lafayette took that as his call and final commission.
This program that I attended is one of many that Bernard Lafayette has started. All of these years later, he finds the time to travel the world teaching and training folks in nonviolence and organizing. The institute last month had around 50 different people from nearly 20 different countries that came together to do this work, study together, and celebrate each other’s company.
There are very few feelings in the world that compare to spending an entire week surrounded by a community that eats, sleeps, and breathes justice. Everyone from a different background, a different culture, and finding common purpose in a desire to build a better world. Once you consider the legacy you’re being invited into and charged to share, it is simply overwhelming.
At the core of the program, we are taught 6 principles of Kingian Nonviolence.
1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people
2. The Beloved Community is a framework for the future.
3. Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil
4. Accept suffering, without retaliation, for the sake of the cause, to further the goal
5. Resist internal violence of the spirit along with external physical violence
6. The Universe is on the side of justice
It is principle number 2 that I would like to consider today. The Beloved Community is a framework for the future. This month we have been talking about creative alternatives at WES. The second principle embodies the notion of living a nonviolent life as a creative alternative to the violent world that surrounds us.
It is interesting that the principle doesn’t state that the Beloved Community is the future, it is the framework for the future. This tells us that the Beloved Community, or something akin to it, is achievable today. The way we gather and interact in the world is our community, and we can choose to make it a loving one.
Dr. King taught that acts of violence would only further create a violent world. One common line at the institute was that “the ends are made manifest by our means.” If we want a nonviolent world, we have to begin by choosing the alternative to violence today. The goal of the Beloved Community is to create a society that is focused on love and reconciliation. To build that world, we have to practice loving and reconciliation in the here and now. The ways we interact lay the groundwork for the future we create.
This is not to say that the Beloved Community isn’t disruptive. At times it has be so. Systems of violence, racism, oppression, must be disrupted. Sometimes, even disrupted by extreme measures – boycotts, protests, mass mobilizations, and movements. Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were radicals and campaigned to overturn the status quo. They sought to hold their community accountable, they sought reconciliation, and to do so, they had to expose bitter injustices. Reconciliation was impossible if people could not face the truth of what had happened.
In our work to create alternatives, how do we embody that love in our actions? What truths do we need to face to make reconciliation possible? What is the framework that we want for our collective futures?
All the best,
Zeb Green, Sabbatical Clergy