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Holding the Tension
Holding the Tension

The Tension of Nonviolence

Monday, January 15, 2024

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Peace activist John Dear recalls how Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) used nonviolence to bring long-ignored racial tension and injustice to global awareness:

One of Dr. King’s greatest examples of creative nonviolence was his 1963 direct action campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. Thousands of African Americans, mainly teenagers, were arrested by white police officers for marching against segregation. They kept coming forward, even marching into the face of the fire hoses, and one day, a miracle happened—the white firemen put down their fire hoses and let them march. When that happened, segregation fell. King himself spent Easter week behind bars where he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” perhaps the greatest document in U.S. history. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he wrote in his jail cell. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” [1]

In his letter, King illustrated how a nonviolent stance both creates and “holds the tension” of conflict, opening opportunities for transformation:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister…. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.… So the purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation….

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. [2]

Dear describes the creative and healing outcome of Jesus’ nonviolent life:

If we engage in active nonviolence as the nature of God … as Jesus did, then we will discover that nonviolence is infinitely creative. There are vastly more creative alternatives with nonviolent resistance to evil and injustice than with violent resistance….

From the perspective of creative nonviolence, the Gospels present a new image of what it means to be human. In the life of Jesus, we discover that to be human is to be nonviolent, to be nonviolent is to become, like Jesus, fully human…. Nonviolence leads us to the fullest possibilities of humanity—to becoming people of universal love, universal compassion, universal solidarity, universal peace, indeed, total nonviolence. [3]


[1] John Dear, The Gospel of Peace: A Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke from the Perspective of Nonviolence (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2024), xviii–xix.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1986), 290, 291–292, 295.

[3] Dear, The Gospel of Peace, xxii, xxiii.

Image credit: Oliver Hotakainen, Untitled (detail), Finland, 2021, photograph, public domain. Click here to enlarge image.

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