April 30, 2024

Jeffrey Mann, professor of religious studies Jeffrey Mann, professor of religious studiesThe Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is widely recognized as a prominent advocate for nonviolence. In a recent piece published in Dialog, A Journal of Theology, Jeffrey Mann, professor of religious studies at Susquehanna University, posits that King’s view of nonviolence was not as absolute as we might think.

In his article, Mann presents a careful analysis of King’s writings and speeches to uncover the civil rights leader’s more complex views on violence.

“The key to understanding King is to see his use of virtue ethics as the foundation for his moral philosophy,” Mann said. “With this insight, we see that his approach to the morality of violence has values that other moral theories lack.”

Mann examines much of King’s writings within the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, finding that King relied heavily on context and intention when making his arguments against the use of violence and his acknowledgement for when violence could be warranted. Echoing Gandhi, King explicitly condoned the right to use violence in self-defense, Mann points out.

“King recognized the essential difference in context between defending oneself and family on the one hand, and political demonstration on the other,” Mann said.

With the Vietnam War and the rise of nuclear weaponry weighing heavily on King’s mind toward the end of his life, his position on allowing for violence, or war, that may at one time have served a negative good by preventing the spread of evil, became less defined.

“His condemnation of all regional wars, where nuclear annihilation is not on the table, ignored how a localized good might be achieved,” Mann said. “What would he have made of Kuwait, Kosovo or Syria? King’s ethic of war should be regarded as less than fully developed.”

Mann’s exploration into King’s true beliefs on violence is not his first foray into the ethical questions around the use of force. In 2018, Mann published the book May I Kill, in which he used the ethics of nonviolence and just war theory to examine occasions for the use of violence from a moral perspective — whether between nations at war or in violent encounters in our own neighborhoods.

Though King has been gone for more than 50 years, his voice still speaks to the need for peaceful protest and the rights of national sovereignty, Mann said.

“Determining the use or rejection of violence in our various social contexts and moral landscapes is tremendously difficult. We can grow in wisdom when we observe the example of King, the inspiration of his words and his life,” Mann said. “He may not give us the answers to every situation. What he does provide, however, is the call for moral virtue that challenges us toward the cultivation of ourselves and the well-being of others. In the end, such an example will certainly lead us toward a less violent world.”