What do Arab Spring revolutionaries and Martin Luther King Jr. have in common? It turns out, a lot more than I thought.
According to my friend, Zainab Al-Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress, King’s “Montgomery Method” became the mass-distributed playbook for young activists throughout the Middle East and North Africa and has been credited for sparking nonviolent activism during the Arab Spring.
The techniques outlined in the Montgomery Method were originally disseminated through a comic book during a campaign to end racial segregation on buses in that city in 1958.
So what did these Arab youth learn from the late Baptist minister?
- “God loves your enemy, too, and that makes him important to you.”
- “To see your enemy as a human being, you have to stop seeing him as your enemy. Even when he does cruel, heartless things to you, he is a child of God. He is your brother, even when he hurts you.”
- “Hardest of all, you have to help your enemy to see you as a human being.”
- “It will be easier for him to see you this way if you act like a brother. So, even when he tries to hurt you, you must not strike back… you must go on loving him.”
- “If you show him love… you start to take away the reason for his fear and you make it harder for him to go on hating you.”
- “For when the going gets hardest, if you remain true to Christian love, you’ll find God waiting [in jail] for you, holding you and supporting you, giving you a victory far beyond what you had hoped.”
More than 50 years after the Montgomery bus boycotts, would King have been surprised that his teachings and methods would still be in use and in places as distant as the Arab World?
In reading King’s classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, written in response to eight white clergymen who criticized his nonviolent protest movement, I was struck by four elements of the type of visionary leader who could conceivably foresee such a wide-reaching impact across long stretches of time and geography.
#1. A vision that inspires both urgency and patience
King’s missive begins by saying, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” Segregation laws created an inhumane environment for African-Americans in the southern United States. In defending his call for urgent action, King states:
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…”
His pressing agenda was to disrupt the power structures — first through the removal of unjust laws — that denied a minority group their God-given dignity.
His larger purpose, however, was to “create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.” King evoked a dream that he sensed he would not live to see fulfilled. Thus, he would need to create a legacy that would propel this vision well beyond his direct involvement.
#2. A comprehensive plan of action that orchestrates all the necessary pieces
King may not have been well-versed in grantmaker jargon like “theory of change,” but he was an attentive practitioner of its core principles.
He chose carefully both the location of his campaigns and the types of intervention. Birmingham in the 1950s was a city whose “ugly record of brutality is widely known.” He first attempted to negotiate with city leaders in good faith to remove from stores humiliating racial signs and pursued direct action only when promises were repeatedly broken. He tested and refined his model of nonviolent demonstrations, confirmed the resolve of the participants to stay true to its core principles, and saw its ability to sway hearts and minds of the local and national community. The purpose of the demonstrations was to “create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
Even the decision to write the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and the “Montgomery Story”, I imagine, were forward-looking steps to ensure that the movement would outlive him as its leader.
#3. Preparing his people to sacrifice for a just cause
King knew that a competing movement advocating violence was growing within the African-American community, and that it would not only lead to much bloodshed, but would ultimately set back the larger dreams of a more just, humane, and peaceful society.
For his movement to ultimately prevail, its participants needed to believe in the “more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.” As King states:
We would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”
No doubt the success of the civil rights movement in the United States owes much to those who suffered “jeering and hostile mobs”, “filthy, roach-infested jails”, “the abuse and brutality of policemen”, and even, as was the case for King, martyrdom.
#4. Loving the Church despite her failings
King had hoped that his fellow churchmen would be among his strongest allies. All too often throughout that era, however, white churches and its leadership did not stand up against racial injustice. Some remained silent; others were outright opponents. King writes to his fellow ministers:
In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church… Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
“There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.
Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed… the Christians pressed on… called to obey God rather than man… By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.”
King himself was a complex public figure, not without his flaws. Perhaps it was his own awareness of the lavish grace he had received from God that enabled such steadfast commitment to and optimism for a church that, at times, had failed him so immensely.
Many of you echo Martin Luther King’s observation that “injustice is here” in the countries where you live and work (this blog’s readership now spans 109 nations, including some of the poorest and least free countries of the world).
Many of you have committed your lives to fighting those injustices in your context — from the ravages of long-running racial and ethnic conflicts to the terrible plight of the orphan and the widow to deplorable persecution of religious minorities to the tragic injustice of unequal access to our precious gospel. Some of you have tried to engage a church whose theology is truncated, leading her to be silent or oppositional.
I grieve your wounds and empathize with your anger. I pray, however, that King’s example will encourage you. Love the Bride of Christ despite her blemishes and scars. Call her to be the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. Not only do you need her… you are her. And she needs you. Be that prophetic voice that calls her to a more Godward vision.
May your visions captivate a wide circle of support, may your plans succeed, and may God grant you grace and mercy for whatever may come against you.
I pray that by your faith-inspired efforts…
radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over [your] great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”