Tutu and King: Two Kinds of Nonviolence
January 16, 2017
January 16, 2017
This article written by Charles Krauthammer and originally appeared in his syndicated column on January 17, 1986, three days before the first national holiday honoring the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1987, Mr. Krauthammer won the Pulitzer prize for commentary and this was his winning entry.
The accepted wisdom in South Africa, Lionel Abrahams, a literary critic, told Joseph Lelyveld of The New York Times, has it that “nothing will do but that hard black men come to grips with hard white men, to which end the soft men between must clear out of the way.”
In revolution, the soft men between must always clear out of the way. Revolution is not for moderates. From Alexander Kerensky to Arturo Cruz, nothing changes: the man of qualms, of balance, of ambivalence is lost.
Bishop Desmond Tutu — Nobel Peace Prize winner, anti-apartheid activist and leading spokesman for nonviolence in South Africa — is not a hard man. “I am the marginal man between two forces, and possibly I will be crushed,” he admits. “But that is where God has placed me, and I have accepted the vocation.”
The miracle of Martin Luther King, Jr., what set him apart even from Desmond Tutu, was the militance of his moderation, the steel will with which he insisted not just on his ends but on his means.
In a revolution, unwavering pursuit of ends is no great distinction. Everyone has an idea about destination. But only great, hard men are sure exactly of the path. Men like Lenin, Mao and Ho Chi Minh. (The list is depressingly long.)
Or like Gandhi, who believed with religious certainty that satyagraha, truth-force, was the way to freedom. And like King, who never wavered in his commitment to nonviolence, and who understood that for the moderate to survive in revolutionary times he must stick as hard by his means as the hard men at the extremes do by theirs.
Tutu is also deeply personally committed to nonviolence, and has shown extraordinary personal courage in its service. At least twice he has risked his life to save a suspected informer from a murderous mob. Last August in Daveyton, he stood alone between black demonstrators and heavily armored South African troops and negotiated a solution that averted certain violence.
Tutu’s nonviolence, however, seems more a personal choice. “I wouldn’t, myself, carry guns or fight and kill. But I would be there to minister to people who thought they had no alternative.” Asked two days ago whether there is any justification for violence, he replied, “If I were young … I would have rejected Bishop Tutu long ago.”
Personal choices are not forced on others. Instead, says Tutu, tactics are not even his domain. “I am an idealist. It is unfair to ask an idealist how he will move toward a utopian goal.”
King was forever telling people how to move. His means were as inseparable a part of his being and his message as his ends. King made nonviolence the cornerstone of his philosophy of social action. Tutu’s two books, “Crying in the Wilderness” and “Hope and Suffering,” are a passionate, prophetic call for reconciliation and negotiation. But of the books’ 62 speeches, sermons and writings, not one is devoted to the theory and practice of nonviolence. For Tutu, nonviolence is a discipline, a matter of conscience. For King, it was that and more: a weapon, a matter of hard political strategy.
Tutu is King’s natural heir. On Monday, the first annual holiday commemorating King’s birth, that kinship receives ratification from King’s living memorial, the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change. It will award Tutu its 1986 Non-Violent Peace Prize.
To compare Tutu to King is therefore inevitable, though it is perhaps unfair. First, because King was a great political leader and Tutu does not pretend to be one at all. “I am just a religious leader standing in for the real leaders of our people who are in jail and exile,” he says. “If I am a leader it is only by default.”
But more important, because South Africa is not America. There is no Kennedy, no Johnson. No franchise. No white public ready to be galvanized to action by scenes of Southern violence. South Africa is all South, old South.
Tutu knows that well. “Nonviolence presupposes a minimum moral level. And when that minimum moral level does not operate, I don’t think nonviolence can succeed.” The oppressor society must be capable of “moral revulsion.” It happened in Gandhi’s Britain and King’s America. “I don’t see that happening here,” says Tutu.
The Pretoria regime won’t talk to him. And the young black militants want him out, says Tutu, so they can “get on with the revolution” without him. The hard men want the soft men to move.
King would not be moved. True, he was more fortunate than Tutu in his choice of birthplace. America had the capacity for shame that is the necessary condition for the success of nonviolence. But it is also a sufficient condition. The ground needs a figure. Nonviolent revolution needs a hard man to lead it. America was even luckier than King for his choice of birthplace. Monday, we give thanks for that good fortune.