The only real revolutionary, people say, is a man who has nothing to lose. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life. Beginning in the New Year, we will be recruiting three thousand of the poorest citizens from ten different urban and rural areas to initiate and lead a sustained, massive, direct-action movement in Washington. Those who choose to join this initial three thousand, this nonviolent army, this “freedom church” of the poor, will work with us for three months to develop nonviolent action skills. Then we will move on Washington …1Martin Luther King Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience, 62.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to nonviolence, like many of the more popular aspects of his legacy, has often been used as a platitude, as a way for the political police to condemn any political expressions outside of those prescribed by the Powers that Be — whether or not they are truly violent. Spontaneous property destruction, targeted direct action, and organized civil disobedience are often lumped together as “violent” actions that King would have condemned. In fact, King always argued that the violence of poverty and racism were worse than the so-called violence of property destruction, and that the urban riots analyzed by the Kerner Commission were understandable and predictable acts in the face of the widespread poverty, systemic racism, and militarism of contemporary American culture.
Even so, King was committed to the power and necessity of nonviolence for his vision of social change in America. The influence of Gandhi and his concept of satyagraha — “truth-force” or the power of nonviolent resistance — on King has been well-documented. A similar phrase, “soul force” or “soul power,” made its way onto many of the tents and murals of Resurrection City during the Poor People’s Campaign, as can be seen in some of Jill Freedman’s portraits of the tent city. Colleen Wessel-McCoy quotes Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spent more time in Resurrection City than many of the other SCLC executive staff during the Campaign, using the phrase “soul power” in a passage that describes the more unquantifiable victories of the Campaign in building a multi-racial moral movement:
We gained victory in the few concrete programs … But more importantly, our victory was bigger … Victory is the poor of all races coming together. Victory is to be ignored by the political power of the White House but to have the capacity to respond with the soul power of the black house. Victory is the new relationships created and the lessons learned.2Cited in Colleen Wessel-McCoy, “‘Freedom Church of the Poor’: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vision for a Poor People’s Campaign and Its Lessons for Today,” 217.
The quote at the top of this piece, one of the key passages in King’s call for a Poor People’s Campaign to move on Washington, D.C. in 1968, contains two of King’s most important images for the social movement he was helping to build in the Poor People’s Campaign — the “freedom church of the poor” and the “nonviolent army.” This “new and unsettling force” would come together to learn “nonviolent action skills” before moving on Washington.
But King’s citing of an “initial three thousand” as comprising the freedom church of the poor is also theologically significant. The number 3,000 directly references the 3,000 souls who were saved at Pentecost in the Book of Acts.3Wessel-McCoy, 238: “King compares the 3,000 souls saved at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) to the 3,000 poor people they planned to bring to Washington D.C. for the Resurrection City occupation”. King himself made this connection in his speech to the SCLC staff during a retreat at Ebenezer Baptist Church on January 17, 1968:
(Jesus called) a cursing sailor by the name of Peter. And old Peter vacillated. One day Jesus looked at him and said, in substance, ‘You are Simon now. Which meant that you are sand, but I’m expecting you to be like a rock.’ And it was that pull of expectation that caused Peter, on the day of Pentecost to go out fired up with that something he got from Jesus, and he preached until three thousand souls were converted. Aren’t we talking about three thousand? I’m expecting you to be like a rock. Now, we can do that, if we are fired up ourselves.4Martin Luther King Jr., “See You in Washington (January 1968),” 10; cited in Wessel-McCoy, 238-239.
The image of the “initial three thousand,” then, explicitly describes the freedom church of the poor as emerging from a movement of the Holy Spirit — a contemporary Pentecost moment that would be facilitated by the organizers of the Campaign if they themselves were “fired up” by the Holy Spirit as was the apostle Peter.
In the era of our new Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Barber often utilizes similar imagery in his call for a “moral revival” in our still-complacent national life, a call that requires what he describes as “a political Pentecost in America today.”5Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “HKonJ Seminar”; cited in Wessel-McCoy, 3. Forty days after the very first Easter, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and led to the conversion of 3,000 souls in a single day. The same Spirit of Struggle knit us together earlier this week for the start of another momentous and holy forty days: forty days of action to build a national social movement; a Spirit-driven “freedom church of the poor” that has taken up the unfinished work of Dr. King. On Monday, we gathered in Washington, D.C. and in over 30 state capitals around the country to declare that we will not be silent anymore about America’s war on the poor. Thousands rallied and hundreds were arrested in acts of nonviolent moral direct action, including Rev. Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.
But there’s still the question of what it really means to be nonviolent — for King suggests that the Holy Spirit won’t bring together the “initial 3,000” for just any task, but specifically to be a movement which must commit to being “a new and unsettling force” of nonviolence, a “nonviolent army.” The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival follows in the original Campaign’s footsteps here. As the final fundamental principle of the Campaign states, “The Campaign and all its Participants and Endorsers embrace nonviolence. Violent tactics or actions will not be tolerated.”
The strategic importance of nonviolence can’t be ignored. Rev. Barber has sometimes explained the need for nonviolence in terms of the impossibility of revealing the immorality of our nation’s current policies while taking on those same policies’ worldview of violence. But the invocation of U.S. policies as constituting a cohesive, violent worldview also suggests a deeper spiritual meaning to nonviolence — peace and peacemaking as a counter-narrative to the distorted moral narrative of American culture.
One person who spent many years exploring both the spirituality and tactics of nonviolence was Daniel Berrigan, the poet, Jesuit priest, and war resister who died in 2016. Berrigan is most famous (or infamous), with his brother Philip, as a member of the Catonsville Nine. The action at Catonsville, Maryland, on May 17, 1968 — fifty years ago today, exactly contemporaneous with the Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City — in which the Berrigans and seven others removed draft cards from a Maryland draft board before burning them in the parking lot with homemade napalm, was, among other things, a decisive “no” to the United States’ endless war in Vietnam, and ultimately to the entire national edifice that would underwrite war, racism, and poverty (Dr. King’s ‘triplet of evils’), as well as to a Church that would sanctify the war as chaplain to American Empire.
In the poems and essays he wrote during the war years, Berrigan describes the tunnel-vision like lack of imagination and possibility that the Vietnam War created in Americans. In one piece, while describing the perpetrators of a gruesome rape and murder endorsed by their superior officer during the war, Berrigan asserts that, due to racism and poverty, there “is nothing for these men in ‘normal’ society … So they grab finally, or are grabbed by, the military, are washed clean in that baptism of the damned, are inducted, swear their oath to Caesar, are clothed in the new garment.”6Daniel Berrigan, America is Hard to Find, 26. Berrigan mirrors the Pauline language of baptism here, but in a perverse imperial inversion of its meaning. Morally deficient American society forges citizens devoid of imagination, of a sense of themselves and of their nation that might transcend warmaking, racial hatred, and poverty.
In the poet Berrigan’s writings, violence — whether it be the violence of war, poverty, or systemic racism — is in part a disease of the imagination, a lack of vision that fails to see any alternatives to our current ways of doing things. It is the sinful attempt by the fallen powers of this world — Berrigan would later coalesce these powers around the satanic symbol of “Lord Nuke” — to obliterate life itself, gaining the complicity of human beings through systematically destroying their ability to imagine a world of peace and love, a world of anything but violence. The baptism of the damned, of Caesar, forges instruments of death — both literally in the case of nuclear weapons and spiritually in the case of soldiers who could see rape and murder as anything but moral obscenities.
Yet Caesar does not only hold captive war criminals and corporations that profit from weapons of mass destruction. Berrigan was clear that “Lord Nuke” lies coiled in the heart of our nation, and that death can seep into the most mundane and everyday situations of human life in a society ruled by violence and greed. Following his theologian friend William Stringfellow, Berrigan saw death as the ultimate idol behind all the systemic evils of American society — the ruling principle of our morally sick nation. And, by worshipping death, death would be the end result of the way our society was going.
The Catonsville action and its aftermath were an attempt at something else, at a corrective to this American imperial cosmology. As Berrigan explains in No Bars to Manhood, “we wanted to find a new kind of spiritual geography out of which to operate,” one in contradistinction to the “imposition of death” that constituted current American policy.7Daniel Berrigan, No Bars to Manhood, 36. Berrigan describes the courtroom drama following the Catonsville action as a kind of liturgical event that was intended (even before the action itself) to be transformative for those present and for American society at large.
The question raised by the Catonsville trial was: “Who are we as a people?” More starkly put, “Can we distinguish the weight of human life from the weight of paper?” Berrigan and his codefendants hoped that through their action and its aftermath, they could provide one answer, a vision of what America could be, and thus help to knit a new, peaceable imagination in those touched by the events: “We wanted to say, quite simply and clearly, at Catonsville, in the court, and in the prison that undoubtedly will follow, that something radically different is still possible, that we ourselves wished to offer a possibility of achieving that difference.”8Ibid., 35. As we saw in Jesse Jackson’s reflection above, a similar vision was present in the concept of the Poor People’s Campaign, particularly in its dramatization of the ‘triplet of evils’ through direct action and through the symbol of Resurrection City.
Nonviolent action, then, is not only a practical method of resistance — it is also an aesthetic, an attempt at forging a new way of being, a new culture in the midst of a culture of death. Berrigan writes that the Catonsville Nine “hoped our experiences would urge others to discover alternatives to the imposition of death, to the socializing of death, to the technologizing of death. We saw our action as a social method of achieving a future for man.”9Ibid.
“Something radically different is still possible” — this is the Christian hope of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the hope of leaving the chrysalis-tomb behind in favor of Pentecost’s new creation in the Spirit. Or as Berrigan puts it in “Peacemaking is Hard,”
a man walks on his nails
as ash like dew, a sweat
smelling of death and life.
Our evil Friday fled,
the blind face gently turned
another way, toward life
a man walks in his shroud
Berrigan’s lifelong attempts to imitate Christ in his nonviolent direct action constituted a kind of imitatio Christi, an attempt to hammer out his life into the aesthetic of the suffering servant. Like Dr. King’s exhortation to the SCLC staff, he felt “that pull of expectation” that Peter must have felt. In experiencing a conversion from being a mild-mannered poet and academic to someone who would spend much of his adult life in jail for civil disobedience, Berrigan serves as one example of what it might mean to be “fired up” by the Spirit of Pentecost.
The hope and conviction that grace really does lie at the heart of the world, and that coiled death cannot overcome it — that all Christians and people of good will must move toward the world in love rather than retreat from the world and its horrors — remained with both Berrigan and King throughout their lives, giving aesthetic shape and joy to what would otherwise be a long slog through a napalmed valley.
The nonviolent moral direct action that both figures espoused should thus be viewed through the lens of eschatological hope, as attempts to hammer out a new creation according to the aesthetic of God’s grace. A transformed imagination is required to see in this way, for only an imagination freed from the “baptism of the damned” can see the world and its moral agents as “bathed in the light of the resurrection.”10Daniel Berrigan, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, 95. It requires a new vision of what America could be — a new culture that will only be born by first dramatizing the immorality of the old through decisive action.
Both Berrigan and King suggested that nonviolence, beyond its strategic considerations, offers a way of transfiguration, especially for the imagination. As Dan concludes in his message to the actors in his dramatic version of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine: “I cannot imagine an actor entering such a furnace of moral resolve as Catonsville was for us, without changes of a rather serious order occurring within those taking part and those witnessing the act.” Nonviolent direct action ultimately provides an aesthetic style, a soul force, a dramatic form for a new culture “bathed in the light of the resurrection.” This form is still available for us today.
|1.||Martin Luther King Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience, 62.|
|2.||Cited in Colleen Wessel-McCoy, “‘Freedom Church of the Poor’: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Vision for a Poor People’s Campaign and Its Lessons for Today,” 217.|
|3.||Wessel-McCoy, 238: “King compares the 3,000 souls saved at Pentecost (Acts 2:41) to the 3,000 poor people they planned to bring to Washington D.C. for the Resurrection City occupation”.|
|4.||Martin Luther King Jr., “See You in Washington (January 1968),” 10; cited in Wessel-McCoy, 238-239.|
|5.||Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, “HKonJ Seminar”; cited in Wessel-McCoy, 3.|
|6.||Daniel Berrigan, America is Hard to Find, 26.|
|7.||Daniel Berrigan, No Bars to Manhood, 36.|
|10.||Daniel Berrigan, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, 95.|