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Raising the Tension: Nonviolent Action to Cultivate Beloved Community

The Beloved Community is a community not only in which all are included and all are at peace with one another, but also one in which each being in the community is connected to every other being. In places where the Industrial Revolution and the associated economies have created the conditions for hyper-individualism, it can be hard to grasp what an interconnected world is like. For King, it meant that each part of the whole, and the whole itself, suffers when even the smallest, seemingly most insignificant part suffers. The [Letter from a Birmingham Jail] is an early statement of King’s belief in the interconnectedness of life: 

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned by what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere in this country.

The conscious recognition of life’s interconnectedness is central to how the Beloved Community is defined. It would be fair to say that closing the gap between reality (the interconnectedness of all being) and how we commonly live (as if there are beings so far below one in status that they can be used, as natural resources are used) is fundamental to the letter. You could say that the interconnected world is the original state of the world, its Edenic, primal origin. The great world religions have all, ideally, affirmed this interconnectedness, though in the modern era not all religions see other species and Earth itself as sharing in this blessed quality of interconnectedness. Reconciliation, King wrote again and again, is the path (along with nonviolence) to the Beloved Community. In his letter, King is attempting to bring a group of white ministers “across the gap,” to help them be reconciled. 

King addressed the letter to seven members of the clergy, six Christian and one Jewish. The immediate reason he wrote these particular men is that they themselves (along with an eighth man) had issued their own letter in the weeks before King was jailed, in which they urged Blacks in Birmingham to reject King’s leadership, painting him as an outsider and, even more fundamentally, asking that Birmingham residents turn away from nonviolent protest and patiently wait for promised reforms to take place. The clergy’s position—reform is needed, but now is not the time—has been labeled “gradualism,” and King’s letter exposes its hollowness, showing how promise after promise of reform had been broken. 

There is a deeper reason that King addresses his letter to these seven men, though, a reason bound up with the reality of the Beloved Community and the work of reconciliation. King writes to them as faith leaders in the Judeo-Christian heritage. And he writes to them as one of them, a Christian minister, but as a Black man, and from a jail cell. 

These ministers had all formally, by their ordinations in their respective religions and denominations, pledged themselves to justice. The great world religions, by embracing justice and peace, all point beyond themselves to the Beloved Community, and the behavior of these clergy constituted a betrayal of their deepest religious commitments. When King writes to these clergy and names himself as one of them, he is asking them to reconsider behavior that erected a false barrier between them and him; he is asking them to be reconciled with him and, through him; with the people he represents, their Black fellow citizens. 

One of the most intriguing and instructive parts of the letter has to do with a nonviolent strategy of “raising the tension.” Raising the tension is the opposite of “can’t we just get along” or an appeal based on the idea that we are all people of good will. Instead, the nonviolent practice of raising the tension seeks to make people uncomfortable, to prod them out of their easy, comforting ways. To raise the tension is to put matters into stark relief. Raising the tension is acting like a horsefly, inflicting painful bites in order to wake the somnolent animal up. King credits the Greek philosopher Socrates both with the tactic of raising the tension and the vivid metaphor of being a pesky gadfly. 

In Plato’s Apology of Socrates, Socrates is defending himself before a jury composed of Athenian citizens (all men), chosen by lot, in a trial for his life. We might expect the philosopher, if we didn’t know him better, to throw himself on the good graces of his peers, men he knows well, but he does not. Instead, Socrates is deliberately insolent and boldly critical. He is, he tells them, their last best chance at being a better society. He compares Athens to a lazy horse and says that he is the horsefly appointed—by the gods!—to afflict them into wakefulness:

Now therefore, my fellow Athenians, far from making a defense on my own behalf, as one might suppose, I must make it on your behalf to prevent you from making a mistake regarding the gift the god has given you, by condemning me. For if you put me to death, you won’t easily find another like me, literally, even if it’s rather comical to say so, attached by the god to the city as if to a horse that, while it’s large and of good stock, nevertheless is rather sluggish because of its size and needing waking up by some horsefly, just as such, it seems to me, the god has attached me to the city—the kind of person who wakes you up, prevails upon you and reproaches each one of you and never stops landing on you all day long all over the place.10

In his letter, King makes reference to that passage from Plato:

I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that is was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. So the purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. 

Direct action is the way King tells the clergymen that he and his collaborators will be raising the tension in Birmingham, but, whether the seven addressees realized it or not, he was also raising the tension among them, by means of the letter itself. Apart from his promise of direct action, King is turning up the moral heat by making the letter an open letter, not just a private communication delivered to the seven by the U.S. Postal Service. 

The letter was reported on in newspapers all over the country. And with an open letter published for all to read, the spotlight is on these white clergymen: how will they respond in the face of this heightened tension? History lets us see that the letter had a deep and lasting effect on at least one of the addressees, Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph A. Durick. Positively inspired by the message of Pope John XXIII in his Vatican II messages, and now called out by King in his letter, Durick became an outspoken advocate for Black civil rights in the segregated South. Durick’s reputation changed from that of a genial clergyman who had been called the “happy priest” to a late-sixties bishop whose public appearances were boycotted by conservative Catholics. Among the seven clergymen, raising the tension worked on this small, but enormously important scale, but it worked on a much larger scale to wake up the horse of the United States, when paired with direct action.

This is an excerpt from Marc Andrus’ Brothers in the Beloved Community (Parallax Press, 2021).

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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