This I Believe


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January 25, 2006

I believe in non-violence, but perhaps not in the same way you might believe in non-violence. Most Americans think of the Reverend Martin Luther King when they think of non-violence, and rightfully so. He is the 'father' of the modern, American non-violence movement, but did we interpret King's vision correctly?

King studied non-violence at the famed Highlander Folk School in East Tennessee , and later in India under the followers of Mahatma Gandhi. He used these teachings to lead non-violent protests for African-American equality in the US . Gandhi, a Hindu, was heavily influenced by the Jain concept of Ahimsa. Mahavira, one of the founders of Jainism, told his followers that Ahimsa meant that they should not 'injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture or kill any creature or living being.' Hindus, Buddhists, and Yogis define non-violence similarly.

Americans, for the most part, view non-violence as not punching, stabbing, or shooting another person. The concept in the eastern philosophies goes much deeper, as you can see. Did Reverend King, a Baptist, see the non-violence of the east and decide he could only sell a stripped-down version here in the US , or has the totality of non-violence been misunderstood in the cross-cultural exchange of ideas?

The revealed religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have some version of 'do not kill' and 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' as central tenets of the faiths, but they have been implemented only in the context of human-to-human endeavors. Just to give you some idea of the eastern concept of non-violence, overeating and drug use are considered violence to self. In addition, screaming or talking ill of a political opponent is frowned upon. Vegetarianism is also encouraged as a means of being less violent to other living beings. The lives of insects, reptiles, and rodents are to be spared.

Pure non-violence cannot be achieved, of course. Our bodies naturally kill viruses every day. I just strive to achieve the idea of non-violence in the eastern sense. At this point, with nearly 3,100 dead US servicemembers, over 500 amputees and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and wounded, I'd be happy with the stripped-down 'Americanized' version of non-violence that the followers of Reverend King adopted.

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Joey King's picture
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Mr. King is a Tennessee activist and writer.