Posts Tagged 'nonviolence'

Spiritual Foundations of Racial Justice

Howard Thurman. Photo Credit: Fourandsixty

At this time of bitter political division around the world, in this time of rising racial tensions, I find myself asking, “Who will bring healing to us? Who will bring us together?” As we have recently celebrated Martin Luther King Day and as we approach Black History Month in the U.S., I wonder, “Where did Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. find his strength? Where did he get support? How would he guide us in these times?”

Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown recently reminded me that Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman served as a spiritual guide to King.  Thurman helped King stay spiritually grounded in the midst of his struggles for racial justice.  King carried a copy of Thurman’s groundbreaking book, Jesus and the Disinherited, wherever he went.

Moreover, Thurman served as a spiritual guide for many others in the Civil Rights Movement.  He advised James Farmer, Sherwood Eddy, Pauli Murray, and A.J. Muste.  He reminded leaders that, like a tree, their strength and reach went only as far as the depth of their roots.

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida. He experienced God in nature and was profoundly influenced by his grandmother, a former slave and a person of deep faith.  After graduating from Morehouse College as valedictorian of his class, he was ordained a Baptist minister and went on to study at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Eventually, he became Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and then Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.

In 1935, Thurman traveled to India, where he met Gandhi.  The two conversed widely and deeply and Gandhi questioned Thurman closely about racial injustice in the U.S.  Gandhi opined, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman viewed his calling as being a spiritual support to the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and as helping them learn a nonviolent approach to working for racial justice.  He knew that the success of the movement depended upon its spiritual foundation.  He prayed deeply and worked tirelessly to build that foundation and nurture the leaders.

If we could ask Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King how to face the challenges of our time, I’m convinced he would point us to God.  He would remind us that we need to draw on our spiritual foundations to face the challenges of these times.  Racial justice will come only through deep spiritual transformation.  The healing of our political divisions, likewise, requires spiritual grounding.  King would urge us to seek wise leaders like Thurman to guide us in developing our spiritual foundation.  May we draw on the inspiration of King and Thurman and deepen our spiritual roots to face the challenges of our time.


(An earlier version of this blog first appeared in January 2017.)

A Force More Powerful: Aung San Suu Kyi

Photo Credit: Claude TRUONG-NGOC (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Claude TRUONG-NGOC (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Nobel laureate and human rights advocate, Aung San Suu Kyi, entered the Myanmar Parliament this week, shortly after her party, the National League for Democracy, won the first free election in 25 years. Since the 1990 election, which the NLD also won, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent a total of 15 years without her freedom, having been placed under house arrest by the ruling military government, which ignored the results of the election.

Since 1988 Ms. Suu Kyi has led the opposition, by using nonviolent tactics, to the military government. Last week’s landslide election results, which took the ruling generals by surprise, demonstrate once again that nonviolence is a force more powerful than violence.

Aung San Suu Kyi learned about the nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi during her education at Oxford. In 1988, when she returned to Burma to take care of her ill mother, she began to participate in the plight of the Burmese people by initiating a nonviolent movement. She toured the country, speaking about peaceful reform and using her knowledge of the nonviolent methods of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi to build up those in the movement.  Her message evoked a huge response, and the National League for Democracy was born.

Prospects looked bleak for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD for many years. Ms. Suu Kyi suffered under house arrest from 1989 to 1995 and from 2000 to 2002. Then a little more than a year later she was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest again, from which she was released in 2010.

All the while Ms. Suu Kyi lived under house arrest, she persisted in her commitment to nonviolence and her commitment to the freedom of the Burmese people. While it was always difficult and at times impossible to communicate from her home prison, Aung San Suu Kyi maintained her leadership. Millions of Burmese continued to look to her as their leader. Ms. Suu Kyi, while exposing governmental corruption and injustice, at the same time refused to fuel hate toward the ruling generals. She maintained her nonviolent approach throughout.

At this delicate time of transition (the new government won’t take effect until the new year), Aung San Suu Kyi has taken a conciliatory approach. She exhorted her followers not to “gloat” over the election results. She has stated her desire to work with the ruling generals, both in the transition and in the new government. Under the constitution written by the military government, 25% of the seats in the Parliament belong to the military, so Ms. Suu Kyi will need to learn to work with the generals.

Nonviolence has proved its strength in the election results in Myanmar. Now, the world is watching Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the NLD to see how a nonviolent approach can navigate a tricky transition, and even more importantly how nonviolence can work in a coalition government of NLD members and military generals. Ms. Suu Kyi has always found her way forward with grace and wisdom. May this time be no exception.