The higher level is mass civil disobedience. There must be more than a statement to the larger society; there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point. That interruption must not, however, be clandestine or surreptitious. It is not necessary to invest it with guerrilla romanticism. It must be open and, above all, conducted by large masses without violence. If the jails are filled to thwart it, its meaning will become even clearer. Boycotting buses in Montgomery, demonstrating in Birmingham, the citadel of segregation, and defying guns, dogs, and clubs in Selma, while maintaining disciplined nonviolence, totally confused the rulers of the South. If they let us march, they admitted their lie that the black man was content. If they shot us down, they told the world they were inhuman brutes. They tried to stop us by threats and fear, the tactic that had long worked so effectively. But nonviolence had muzzled their guns and Negro defiance had shaken their confidence. When they finally reached for clubs, dogs, and guns, they found the world was watching, and then the power of nonviolent protest became manifest. It dramatized the essential meaning of the conflict and in magnified strokes made clear who was the evildoer and who was the undeserving victim. The nation and the world were sickened and through national legislation wiped out a thousand Southern laws, ripping gaping holes in the edifice of segregation.
To question and rebel means to organize resistance. What we need now and what we will need in the coming years is a broad, comprehensive resistance movement against militarism, a movement that includes members of every political grouping from the center to the left. We have to take up the cause of peace, take sides with life, interfere nonviolently and illegally. I think we can learn the most for our purposes from the liberation struggles in the Third World. I have been given a leaflet from the resistance movement in Chile, a leaflet that can be distributed there only at the risk of one’s life. These Chileans are reflecting on their situation, on what it means to live under a dictatorship and what is happening to them as a result. I think we can adopt a great deal of what they say, for they say: ‘Rebel! Don’t cooperate with death! Choose life!’ They also say: ‘Don’t let them steal away your soul! Amen!’
There is nothing wrong with a traffic law which says you have to stop for a red light. But when a fire is raging, the fire truck goes right through that red light, and normal traffic had better get out of its way. Or, when a man is bleeding to death, the ambulance goes through those red lights at top speed . . . Disinherited people all over the world are bleeding to death from deep social and economic wounds. They need brigades of ambulance drivers who will have to ignore the red lights of the present system until the emergency is solved. Massive civil disobedience is a strategy for social change which is at least as forceful as an ambulance with its siren on full.
I intended to show that nonviolence will be effective, but not until it has achieved the massive dimensions, the disciplined planning, and the intense commitment of a sustained, direct-action movement of civil disobedience on the national scale. The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and black — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.
We struggle by rendering operative the force of love in the battle of liberation. Active nonviolence is a response, a step forward (whether the world realizes it or not) that is based on the gospel. Nonviolence is a way of answering evil and injustice with truth, and hate with love. For truth and love are the weapons of the spirit in the face of repression. Nonviolence is not passivity or conformism. It is a spirit and a method. It is a spirit of prophecy, for it denounces all sundering of a community of brothers and sisters and proclaims that this community can only be rebuilt through love. And it is a method — an organized set of ruptures in the civil order so as to disturb the system responsible for the injustices we see around us. Here we see the power of the dispossessed, the weapon of the poor. The struggle, then, will be the people’s struggle. Here is participation indeed. Here is no elitist contest, no partisan struggle. The means will include boycotts, strikes, noncooperation, civil disobedience, hunger strikes, and many other actions.
We in the West must bear in mind that the poor countries are poor primarily because we have exploited them through political or economic colonialism. Americans in particular must help their nation repent of her modern economic imperialism. But movements in our countries alone will not be enough. In Latin America, for example, national reform movements have almost despaired of nonviolent methods; many young men, even many priests, have joined guerrilla movements in the hills. So many of Latin America’s problems have roots in the United States of America that we need to form a solid, united movement, nonviolently conceived and carried through, so that pressure can be brought to bear on the capital and government power structures concerned, from both sides of the problem at once. I think that may be the only hope for a nonviolent solution in Latin America today; and one of the most powerful expressions of nonviolence may come out of that international coalition of socially aware forces, operating outside government frameworks.
This is intended as a call to resistance so that we can learn deliberate violation of the rules, nonviolent illegality, and civil disobedience together. It is possible to violate laws and regulations governing property without committing violence against human beings. Our imaginations in this area are underdeveloped. If we want to take part in liberation movements, then the militarism that dominates us is our main enemy.
The faith and courage of the members of our communities in the face of threats, misunderstandings, and persecution for justice’ sake are sustained and strengthened by the support each individual gives the others, by the support each community gives the others, by our very struggle and activity, by meditation on the word of God, and by the recollection of the witness given by those who have struggled for justice.
We regard ourselves as guilty for keeping silence in the face of the events agitating our country. In the face of repression, detentions, the economic crisis, the loss of jobs by so many workers, murders and tortures, we have kept silent as though we did not belong to that world. The cowardice that keeps silent in the face of the sufferings of the poor and that offers any number of adroit justifications represents an especially serious failure.
Christ asks us not to fear persecution, because — believe me, brothers and sisters — whoever has cast his or her lot with the poor will have to endure the same fate as the poor, and in El Salvador we know what the fate of the poor is: to disappear, to be tortured, to be a prisoner, to be found dead.