In 1963, while imprisoned for staging nonviolent protests, Dr. King Martin Luther King Jr. wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail in which he delivered a blistering public response to local clergymen for suggesting his nonviolent political agitation was “unwise and untimely.”
In a key passage of this letter, King articulates his moral philosophy of nonviolent direct action:
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such a creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…
“I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
In this talk, I reflect on a passage from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, and how practice, itself, generates an internal creative tension that is necessary for growth and transformation.
At the level of the heart-mind, I suggest that practice is a creative tension between “the way things are” and the mind’s agenda for the way things could, or should, or ought to be. In the laboratory of practice, the practitioner sits with the koan-like question, “Confronted by this creative tension, how do I act?”