I recently read an admonition from a spiritual teacher who basically wanted people in our society to stop using what he called "rough speech". He advocated kind speech, only. It occurred to me that this polarization between "rough speech" and "kind speech" leaves out a very important balance: Speech that is non-violent but which stands for justice. I
think in particular of Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from the
Birmingham City Jail" (as many other of his speeches). In that letter
in particular, written to some of the city's more liberal clergy who
were really trying to calm a city on the bring of self-destruction, King
responds to their message of "wait, now is not the right time". His
basic response was firm and direct:
"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily
given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I
have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in
the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of
segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the
ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost
always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished
jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
In early paragraphs of this letter, King directly labels Birmingham's
recently defeated mayor and it's recently elected mayor both as
segregationists. He says that groups of people are frequently more
immoral than individuals. He highlights the history of how black people
have been told "to wait".
And there is this rather smoldering indictment of what he calls "the
moderate white" who likely include the clergy who have written the
"I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish
brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been
gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the
regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his
stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku
Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order"
than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of
tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who
constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot
agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically
believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives
by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to
wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people
of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from
people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than
Throughout this lengthy letter, King does an incredible job of using
language that is non-violent and at the same time does not soften his
message of justice at any point. Many were incensed at this letter, and
in some respects, this letter made the fires burn brighter in the
horrible oppression of black people in this country. But these things
that King said were true, and had to be said. The moderate white had to
be confronted in the name of justice and compassion. One of the things
we learn from the civil rights movement is that the oppressor eventually
suffers as much as those who are oppressed. It is the Buddhist
principle of non-duality.
King's letter could easily be written today, with only minor changes, to
those religious folks who oppose full rights for gay people including
marriage, and it would put the finger of justice squarely in the eyes of
those in the large majority who simply want their status quo.
I agree that too often too many in our culture simply appeal to
strong language in violent ways. It only deepens and broadens the cycle
of violence. There is a place, though, in non-violent thought, for
words that are exact, to the point, and at times confronting.
Interestingly, in this letter of King's, one of the early paragraphs
outlines all of the principles of non-violence that he and his movement
If you've never read King's "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail", you can find it here. It is masterful.