David Goldman/Associated Press
David Goldman/Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – While the nation struggles to agree on how to curb gun violence, followers of a man gunned down nearly 45 years ago think his wisdom offers an answer.
The words of Martin Luther King Jr. and the role he set for churches in leading a nonviolent response to civil injustice are as applicable today as they were in the 1960s, say his younger daughter and other followers.
Bernice King, chief executive of the King Center in Atlanta, recalls a sobering statement from her father: “The choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence, but nonviolence and nonexistence.”
King’s lessons take on new urgency after one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, when a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month, killing 20 children and six adults.
Some faith leaders and others say the Newtown shooting and others justify re-examining the principles King used decades ago to bring about social justice and seeing how they could curtail pervasive violence today.
As a Baptist minister, King derived many of his principles from Jesus Christ, particularly from his Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus discussed embodying peace.
Bernice King, who also is a minister, said clergy and faith leaders may not realize it, but they have a role in curbing violence from the pulpit.
“I think churches are very critical to this,” King said. “I think we need to do a better job of developing people in the body of Christ to become instruments of peace.”
She said the King Center is developing a curriculum that incorporates the principles of King for teaching to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. It also plans to make a curriculum for college students.
One principle taught by King is that to attack someone, or injure someone, amounts to self-injury.
“We have to change people’s mindset ... their way of knowing how to address conflict and anger and things of that nature,” Bernice King said. “We can’t just confine it to gun control.”
Pastor Richard W. Sibert believes teaching nonviolence at an early age affects future behavior. After the shootings in Connecticut, the community activist had a program at his Walnut Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, where young members tolled a bell and read the name of each child killed. He said he wanted the youths to understand the pain that violence can cause.
“They have to realize they just can’t strike out at people,” said Sibert, adding that parents, or guardians, need to instill the same doctrine at home. “Violence is not the way.”
Lewis Baldwin, a professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University, said ministers also have a voice outside of the church that they don’t fully use. For example, he said religious leaders haven’t been vocal enough about the issue of gun control.
“We need to use our influence ... to influence Congress,” he said. “Churches have been pretty much silent when it comes to challenging the NRA and challenging people in the halls of government to take serious stands against the easy accessibility of guns.”
Tennessee Sen. Stacey Campfield is among a number of lawmakers across the country sponsoring legislation that would allow trained teachers with handgun permits to carry weapons in school.
The Knoxville Republican said he supports the idea of nonviolence, but believes people should be able to prevent themselves from becoming victims of violence.
“If someone is trying to defend their lives or the lives of innocent people, they should have the ability to defend those lives,” Campfield said.
Robbie Morganfield, pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Laurel, Md., said faith leaders should broaden their focus beyond guns and create what he calls a “partnership initiative” with other entities to improve mental-health care, as well as address violence in entertainment and video games. Such issues currently are being targeted in proposals by President Barack Obama.
“There’s definitely a need for a renewed discussion about violence in our society,” said Morganfield, who also is an adjunct instructor of communications. “I just think there needs to be a multipronged approach to it.”
Morganfield added that faith leaders also should emulate the boldness King showed during the civil-rights era.
“I think on some level, that was the genius of Martin Luther King,” he said. “The courage and the audacity he had to challenge people at a time when it really wasn’t popular to do it, and it wasn’t safe to do it.”
This last summer, Martin Luther King’s principles of nonviolence were once again heard when a recorded interview with him from 1960 was discovered in a Chattanooga attic.
During part of the interview, King defines nonviolence and justifies its practice.
“I would ... say that it is a method which seeks to secure a moral end through moral means,” he said. “And it grows out of the whole concept of love, because if one is truly nonviolent, that person has a loving spirit, he refuses to inflict injury upon the opponent because he loves the opponent.”
An excerpt of the audio released on the Internet went viral, evoking emotions from many who said they were moved by hearing King once again talk about nonviolence.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King, said the civil rights icon’s basic principles “remain just as strong today as ever.”
“I can’t think of anything better to try,” Lowery said. “What we’re doing now is not working. We’ve got more guns than we’ve ever had, and more ammunition to go with it. And yet, the situation worsens.”
Others who heard the King recording were spurred to action. Magician David Copperfield purchased the recording and donated it to the National Civil Rights Museum, saying he wanted to promote King’s message of nonviolence.
After the recent shootings in Connecticut, Copperfield said King’s practice should lead the debate on curtailing violence.
“If we stop focusing on who to blame, or what to blame, we can instead use that energy to teach our children that when we find a wrong to make right, we can reach the result peacefully,” he said.