The doctrine of nonviolence advocated by Martin Luther King is most commonly associated with the New Testament, specifically with Jesus' statement in the Sermon on the Mount: "Offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well" (Matthew 5:38-39).
Although one might think that the example cited by Jesus (being slapped by a violent person) is uncommon, in fact it occurs quite often. Many women, and a smaller number of men, are married to, or live with, a partner who slaps and beats them. Does one counsel such people to accept abuse, to offer the other cheek, or rather tell them to immediately leave the relationship, and perhaps file a criminal complaint? I believe that the latter course--which rejects Jesus' advice both to "resist not evil" and to offer the other cheek--is not only more effective but also more moral.
It's worth noting that Jesus speaks of offering your other cheek to one who slaps you--a painful but not normally life-threatening circumstance. It's not clear that he's also advocating that you allow yourself to be murdered rather than fight back.
Yet in the 20th century, people from Leo Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi interpreted Jesus' words to mean that one should be willing to die rather than fight back against a would-be killer. I find this reading of the New Testament to be troublesome. In any situation in which a would-be murderer confronts a potential victim, I believe that the world is a better place if the would-be murderer, rather than the intended victim, emerges dead from the encounter. As Thomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia and a great humanist, said in response to Tolstoy: "If someone attacks me with the intention of killing me, I shall defend myself, and if I cannot avoid it, I shall kill the attacker. If one of us must be killed, let the one be killed who has the bad intentions." His words are reminiscent of the Talmud's admonition: "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first" (Sanhedrin 72a).
While only a few Christian sects, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, accept Jesus' words as binding them to a position of total pacifism (during World War II, Jehovah's Witnesses in America refused to fight against Hitler, while those in Germany refused to fight for him), every nation with a large Christian population has at times chosen to disregard or reinterpret Jesus' words. Oddly enough, Jesus' foremost 20th-century disciple on absolute nonviolence was not a religious Christian but the devout Hindu--Gandhi.
Two years earlier, in the months before World War II began, Gandhi reacted to the outrage of the Nazi-inspired Kristalnacht (the national pogrom of November 9 to 10, 1938) by offering the following advice to German Jews for overcoming Nazi anti-Semitism: "I am as certain as I am dictating these words that the stoniest German heart will melt [if only the Jews] . adopt active nonviolence. Human nature ... unfailingly responds to the advances of love. I do not despair of his [Hitler's] responding to human suffering even though caused by him."
Needless to say, Jews were deeply pained by Gandhi's words, and the philosopher Martin Buber responded: "We did not proclaim, as did Jesus, the son of our people, and as you do, the teaching of nonviolence, because we believe that a man must sometimes use force to save himself or, even more, his children."
Having said all this, I too celebrate today the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a man I regard as one of the great figures of American history. But one should note that King's success in moving America away from anti-black policies had much to do with the fact that he lived at a time when an increasing number of Americans were beginning to understand that racism was evil. He also lived at a time when the increasing power of the federal government made it easier to stop individual states from breaking America's laws through blatant, and increasingly illegal, discrimination.
King's advocacy of nonviolence at such a time, which entailed his and his followers' willingness to submit to terrible physical degradations and attacks (such as having dogs set upon them by Bull Connor in Birmingham, Alabama), allowed for the extraordinary reconciliation that has occurred in the South between many blacks and whites. Indeed, who would have predicted in the 1950's and early '60's the transformation in the status of black people in the South? That transformation is due more to Martin Luther King Jr. and his tactics of nonviolent confrontation than to any other figure or organization.
Gandhi, however, did not. When his biographer, Louis Fischer, asked him in June 1946 if, in light of the Holocaust, he regretted the words he had addressed to Germany's Jews, Gandhi said: "Hitler killed five million [sic] Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs."
Fischer asked: "You mean that the Jews should have committed collective suicide?" Gandhi answered: "Yes, that would have been heroism."
An advocate of nonviolence and reconciliation, Martin Luther King Jr. left America a much greater legacy than mass suicide. His was one of love, reconciliation, and much more justice than this society previously had known.