One of the most important books I read as a young adult was Martin Luther King Jr.'s Stride Toward Freedom. The book introduced me to nonviolent resistance—the commitment to change social evils while rejecting the temptation to use violence.

When Montgomery, Alabama's African Americans began their protests, they didn't call their approach by its philosophical names, nonviolent or passive resistance. "The phrase most often heard," wrote King, "was 'Christian Love.' It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance, that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action. It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love."

Christian love is an interesting label for nonviolent resistance, because it forces the protester to seek not only the well-being of one's own family and clan, but also the well-being of those whose policies have—wittingly or unwittingly—created unjust hardship.

As a basis for social protest, Christian love does not seek to deprive the depriver of anything. Rather, it tries to show a group that robs others of some social good that they are indeed depriving themselves. For example, by segregation, white Southerners kept their hearts wrapped in indifference and their lives divorced from encountering the realities of life in the black community, and thus from the opportunity to treat African Americans fairly.

The Only Option

Nonviolent action isn't just a historical curiosity. Lately Palestinians have shown increased interest in nonviolent action—and Christians have played a crucial role in persuading fellow Palestinians to turn from violence.

This brief column is not the place to assess blame for the ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Past Imperfect Columns:
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