An Interpersonal Voyage into a Bloodless Nonfiction
(A Study of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”)
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” is something believers of certain faiths should read, but still be critical about—as the context of the Philippines is quite different from the specific setting the essayist-minister lived in. The essay began with the optimism of liberalism and the pessimism of neo-orthodoxy on the nature of man. The former gives the individual too much freedom in justifying his “bad” acts and in overemphasizing the “power of reason” while the latter highlights the “hidden, unknown, wholly other” God, thus glorifying antirationalism and uncritical biblicism. Yet he still claimed that both held truths—partial truths.
Personally, I think King and other advocates of nonviolence do hold truths, which are partial as well, and so are those who believe in purely violent methods in initiating social change. Nonviolence is too optimistic of human nature, since King wrote: “it [nonviolence] so stirs the conscience of the opponent that reconciliation becomes a reality”—which is, I believe, too ideal. In our country, there are already different faces of death and suffering (from those who slowly die through starvation to those who are silenced by the bullets of the fascist state’s terrorism) despite the use of nonviolent means of expressing discontent in the status quo. These deaths, which also existed, I suppose, during King’s time but maybe more rampant in our setting, are evidences themselves that nonviolent means might only lead to deaths—deaths which may, in turn, agitate people and compel them to use violence.
Violence on the other hand, is too pessimistic of human nature since it somehow assumes that the entities the oppressed should inflict violence upon have no hope of being changed for the better. Upon analyzing the situation, and taking social classes into consideration, this hopelessness of “stirring the conscience of the opponent,” the opponent being the ruling class, may not be possible since they have their personal interests, which are, of course, rooted in the interest of their class--interests that are, more often than not, in conflict with that of the ruled.
The aforementioned criticisms regarding violence and nonviolence are somehow fallible as well and, of course, cannot be held true at all times. As King mentioned, he “would not wish to give the impression that nonviolence will accomplish miracles overnight.” And so do I. Both methods can never really achieve any grand social change in a snap. But I believe that both may be necessary in practicing the social responsibility of a Christian (and maybe other believers of certain divinities): nurturing the body and the soul. Since according to the writer-pastor, “gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but also his body, not only his spiritual well-being but also his material well-being.”
On the manner of writing the material, King divided the essay into three parts. The first dealt with –isms, as the first paragraph warned and began with: “In my senior year in theological seminary, I engaged in the exciting reading of various theological theories.” Beginning with such words creates the effect of credibility (and perhaps a caution sign of his name-dropping of different theologians and theories) since he implied that his credentials to discuss such subject matter makes him knowledgeable of such -isms. Though there are –isms and such, he explained it in a manner that the reader does not need to have a full grasp of these theories to comprehend the essay. Thus making the nonfiction argumentative but not too technical. This then creates a cerebral discourse with the reader since both are able to relate with each other—given that they somehow have similar language games.
The utilization of footnotes also helped, not just in understanding the text, but also in somehow introducing “suggested readings” or “recommended authors.” This then creates consistency in the use of language, as he authenticates his being well-versed with theories. The style then somehow creates an intellectual aura of discourse to follow, which in effect heightens the ascendancy of the writer (who is the authority to discuss such matters) over readers (who are not theologians) with terminologies the author used.
The next part discussed more interesting teachings of Rauschenbusch and of course, Gandhi. This furthermore showed how “unconservative” King is, as he used sources other than Christ and the Bible in pursuing his pilgrimage. And I quote: “This principle became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method.” This second segment of his essay also delved away from the heavy-laden terms in the previous segment. The manner of packaging is well-planned--as the third section shows the decrease in the usage of –isms, which further melts into the practice and experiences of the path to nonviolence that the author chose to pursue.
This method of organization is not like that of the purely spiritual approach of most Christians. King had the intellectual approach of theoretical discussions in the beginning, the mention of the Bible and Gandhi’s concepts in the next with application to the objective situation during the author’s times, the conclusion in the last part by the seemingly romanticized but well-grounded experiences of the writer-minister. Writing the other way around might drive atheists and intellectuals off. But placing the third part strategically in its place might persuade them into reading further—as intellectual discussions free of religious bias are more tolerable to scholars of different schools of thought.
The last part is quite interesting as well as he expressed his hesitation in writing it for the “fear of conveying the wrong impression.” As he implied, people somewhat showing off their hardships have symptoms of “martyr complex”—which is quite narcissistic since it is somewhat a conscious pursuit of sympathy, as King mentioned, it is self-centeredness concentrated on sacrifices one makes for others. Despite this reluctance, he still mentioned his experiences: the death threats, bombing, frustrated stabbing and other forms of persecution. This is the part when the tone quite changed from intellectual appeal to emotional appeal. Emotional yet still rational in the sense that it has ended, not merely in the utopia of the salvation of men’s soul in heaven or the Kingdom of God, but in the acknowledgement of the material conditions of his personal life and the existence of “a dark confused world” or perhaps world crisis.
Though he still stated his experiences of suffering, I think the option of mentioning those in the latter part of the essay—neither in the beginning, as if prioritizing, nor in the end, as if intending to be recalled—already showed that he does not want his sacrifices to be the lead of his entire essay. As with this essay, since I personally value the substance more than the form, I discussed the points of view and matters of the essay’s content first before delving into the form and his use of metaphors despite the religious yet still intellectual and rational feel of his article. Essays and essays on other essays may be avenues for “pilgrimages” or maybe cerebral excursions that could lead to the salvation—or doom—of both the souls and the bodies of people. As these crises, as King said has “its dangers and its opportunities.”
King cleverly used his opportunity of being educated of certain schools of thought to advance not just his faith, but also the struggles of the oppressed by properly packaging his essay—and not to simply “express himself” as other writers do. Apparently, the sense of scenes and sequencing or the storytelling process of King went from the academic discussions of theories to his poignant experiences as an advocate of nonviolent means of protest. He evidently considered his readers or his target audience in his writing in so doing this outline of his nonfiction. He did not merely express his belief in his god. He packaged and catalogued it from heavy, seemingly highfalutin and scholarly terms to light and emotional terms in a discourse that jumpstarted with academic terms and ended with his life experiences and the fate of the world and God’s kingdom during these dark times. This accordingly tells a story and not merely provides information, then qualifying this piece as a nonfiction that is creative. Creative since he “created” or perhaps reiterated and re-told another possible method to call for a better, humane society. A nonfiction indeed because of the reality it portrays: his worldview and the worldview of the ruled and the voiceless addressing the injustice in the current system.
The way he concluded the essay is somehow expansive as he leaves thoughts to ponder on regarding the violent and nonviolent means of airing grievances. An epiphany happens as well as the verisimilitude of the nonfiction shows the actual implications of his literary piece that then asserts its timeliness during his lifetime—or perhaps timelessness since discrimination exists until this point in time—and significance. Or, to be more specific, social relevance, i.e. not just for the sake of senseless, narcissistic self-expression, but for writing about the “reality” others are experiencing, that then leans on the marginalized bulk of the populace—marginalization and oppression that are not isolated cases, thus making such commentaries and the like, universal like Marxism.
In one way or another, by the clever organization of the parts, the reader should have been moved or challenged to re-think his un/consciously-selected ideology. “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” clearly speaks the purpose of writing for Marxists. To initiate and contribute changes to the prejudiced status quo, leaving the question of what methods are to be used.
Whatever our method maybe, the treatment of certain situations and utilizing them to improve the current state of human life and achieve the common good is up to us. An intrapersonal voyage is one. Interaction with the basic sectors to know their objective conditions is another, which is what we in the academe could do: To put theories into practice to test the truth-values of essays such as Martin Luther King Jr’s. And essays such as this, which claims that, in the midst of state fascism, economic crises and other evils that threaten both the soul and the body, violence and nonviolence, though contradicting, should go together to complement each other. Following the example of the minister-writer and other agents of social change who went out of their comfort zones, integration with the basic masses may be another pilgrimage we might be interested in pursuing—to know whether nonviolence, violence or both would spell the physical and spiritual salvation of the people.
(Comparative Analysis of “The Other Christ” and “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”)
“The Other Christ” is the third segment of the first chapter titled “The Popular Filipino Christ” in the book Christ in the Philippine Context by Douglas J. Elwood and Patricia L. Magdamo. This segment revealed an alternative reading of who Jesus is—a glimpse on another perspective of seeing how Christ lived his life. “The Spanish Christ” and “The Filipino Christ”, the first and second portions of the introductory chapter, tells of the popular image of Christ that limits the highlights of his ministry on Earth as the Santo Niño (Holy Child) and the Santo Entierro (Christ Interred)—discounting the emphasis on how he lived as an advocate of the common people.
This selection provided an introduction of what to expect in the rest of the book, thus somehow suspending the interest of the readers since various points of argument needs to be discussed in detail. Being an excerpt, this re-structuring of Christ’s image and re-imagining of Christians’ duties may not be as comprehensive as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.”
Through the first two segments, the chapter began asserting that portrayals and biographies of Christ are autobiographies of the authors. Therefore, the popular image of Christ is, more often than not, merely based on the biases of the artist—and perhaps the experiences of oppression, and the like, of certain cultures concerned. The discussion resumed to the roots of this Jesus that reflects the people’s anxiety, the “Christ of our own making”: the face-saving Christ (reiterated and termed in “The Other Christ”), who, according to the authors quoting Fr. Ruben Villote is “so meek that fighting back, even in the name of justice, would be to him unworthy of the dignity of a peace-loving man.”
On the contrary, preceding the section discussing the face-saving Christ is Dr. Jose Rizal’s perception of another Christ, Christ-man, being greater than Christ-god expressed when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This then reaffirms that Christ is not just a Son of God, as he is also tagged as Son of Man in the bible, thus re-asserting King’s claim in his essay—that Christians should not just deal with the concerns of the spirit, but of the body as well. The assertions regarding the face-saving Christ is a clear attack on apathy among religious people, or particularly the "neo orthodoxy" in King’s terms, who created their very own self-portrait caricature of a Christ that “avoids conflicts”, i.e. a dead Christ who “is not the Christ of the Gospels.” This Christ being “afraid of controversy” is a “projection of our own spiritual sterility and cowardice.” Perhaps created to justify submissiveness to the existing order or acceptance without a whimper of “everything from dirty politics to unpaid salaries—in the name of meekness, humility and peace.”
Christ the troublemaker is later introduced by the authors. This disturbing Christ challenges the status quo. As Villote puts it, trouble and doubt of their established beliefs stirs the intellectuals and the religious when this Christ talks. He was under surveillance by the Pharisees and the Scribes. The Sanhedrin was watchful of his every word perhaps finding a way to file a lawsuit against him. Quoting Villote: “His troublemaking was part of his trouble-shooting. He disturbed the comfortable consciences of the untouchables, assaulted the Establishment, and chided the slavish faiths of the Jews. This man Jesus, indeed, was a “sign of contradiction” (Lk. 2:34), a troublemaker.” A disturber indeed. Just as Martin Luther King, in the authors’ words, “disturb the social conscience of America.”
This is then followed by the assertion of demonstrations being a “kind of prophetic voice crying for social change and reform,” in the words of Father Vitaliano Gorospe in his essay “Morality of Demonstrations” thus supporting the nonviolent means of revolution King endorsed. These “disturbances” during rallies for social change and reform initiated by groups like the Student Christian Movement are manifestations of living the life of the other Christ, who is, according to Miguel de Unamuno, Christ the revolutionary Leader of Men—in contrast to the distorted image of Christ as a mere “keeper” of peace contradicting the essence of what was actually said in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers” which could be translated to “Happy are those who work for peace.” Christians laboring for ending wars should then be peacemakers. Before they can “comfort the disturbed” they should “disturb the comfortable” since “a situation in which only the minority enjoys peace is no peace at all.” Thus the Christian movement with, needless to say, Christ as the mass leader is indeed revolutionary—as the authors and King both imply.
As of this portion of the book, the means of attaining social change is not blatantly proposed as either the violent or nonviolent methods or both, but later, Gandhi would be mentioned as quite like Jesus in advocating nonviolence. As manifested in this first chapter of the book, Christ uses words to expose the flaws of the status quo. But in a latter chapter, it would be reaffirmed that Jesus is a man of contradictions as he makes seemingly contradicting messages or “complete reversals” such as: “He who takes up the sword shall perish by the sword” and “I came not to bring peace but sword”. “Man shall not live by bread alone” and “Give us today the food we need”. “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” and “The Sabbath day was made for the good of man; man was not made for Sabbath.” Lastly “I came not to destroy the tradition but to bring fulfillment” yet, according to the authors, Jesus “warned in a parable that you cannot put ‘new wine’ (referring to his own teaching) into ‘old wineskins’ (meaning the Establishments) without bursting them open.” This then shows that Christian teaching may be open to ideas purportedly stated in the Scriptures, maybe opening the possibility of nonviolence and violence working hand in hand—since some commandments in the bible were violated at certain times depending on the context and the need.
In terms of writing, “The Other Christ” used a more familiar language with perhaps the common people as the audience despite its choice of English as medium, as compared to the theoretical terms (-isms) employed in “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” The former is written with the subheadings “The Christ who is Jesus”, “The face-saving Christ”, “A genuine revolutionary” and “The universal and particular Christ” while the latter is divided into subplots by three roman numerals. Elwood and Magdamo began the segment being discussed by mentioning an alternative Christ and the enumeration of individuals who subscribed and developed images of another Christ thus achieving credibility (with an added factor of exposing how the established belief responds to progressive and alternative viewpoints regarding the Messiah and salvation) of discussion just as King mentioned theoreticians he encountered in his "pilgrimage."
This local version of advocating nonviolence is, of course, contextually more relevant to our situation as throughout the book, the image imbibed by the Filipinos from Spanish colonization up to the contemporary times is somehow considered. However, the promotion of nonviolence is not that explicit and strict, and if it would be, I would still stand on the claim that violence and nonviolence could perhaps work hand in hand. The local selection focused more on the alternative reading of who Christ is and the revolutionary values he teaches. Unlike King, who rather focused on the theories and its application in the rampant discrimination and injustices during his time. Elwood and Magdamo began the book in a chapter that redefines Christ, being culture-bound, as a socially and politically active individual that looked like us—as described in the last subheading, which is the only real-life application (as of the first chapter) of the other Christ. Then support statements from sources written by scholars and religious people and direct citations from the Scriptures followed.
Being a portion of a book, “The Other Christ” is understandably less thorough than “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence.” But both imply the need for social change through the teachings of Christ, which are interpreted in different manners, depending on the social context. As Elwood and Magdamo had written “Real peace includes freedom and justice for all. The real peacemaker knows that true peace is not cheap.” Thus recognizing the dangers the disciples of Christ are facing in times of social action. These "troublemakers" being believers of the other Christ, whether they are into violent or nonviolent methods of criticizing the status quo, remain in trouble as they wield a placard, a pen, a brush, a guitar, a megaphone, a video camera or a gun--under this fascist regime.