Martin Luther King, Jr's convictions about the cross of Jesus were "the source of his absolute commitment to nonviolence," explains theologian James H. Cone, in this excerpt from his superb study, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare, first published twenty years ago:
Justice, love and hope -- these three themes shaped the heart of King's faith and theology. Each theme must be interpreted in the light of the other two, and all three must be defined in the light of Jesus' suffering and death on the cross. The centraility of the cross for King's faith was what separated him from liberal theology and placed him solidly in the heart of the black religious tradition....For him the cross of Jesus was not primarily a religious idea to be explicated in a theological text or proclaimed in a sermon, or even something one summoned in Sunday worship so as "to get right with God." "The cross is an eternal expression of the length to which God is willing to go to restore broken communities," King proclaimed in a sermon at Dexter Baptist Church....
...While King's emphases on the themes of justice, love and hope shifted throughout his ministry, with one achieving dominance at a given time, the cross, in contrast, remained constant at the center of his faith, always defining his interpretation of the other faith claims. "The cross is something that you bear," he told is SCLC staff, "and ultimately that you die on." For King, the cross was the essence of the Christian faith, emphasizing that suffering was an inherent part of the Christian life in the freedom struggle.
King's theological claim about the cross and the suffering of Jesus was the source of his absolute commitment to nonviolence. Many persons have misunderstood his commitment to nonviolence because they separated it from his faith in God. It was true that he encouraged persons without his faith to endorse nonviolence for the practical reason that blacks did not have the military weapons to wage a violent fight for freedom. But King's personal commitment to nonviolence was derived from his faith in a loving and just God who created us for each other and for eternity. He did not believe that one could participate with God in the creation of the beloved community and at the same time use violent methods. In his view physical violence was an irreconciliable contradiction of the faith that we live in a world that is under the control of a God whose power is disclosed in Jesus' suffering love. Christians who claim to believe in the God revealed in Jesus' cross, must, like Jesus, be willing to suffer for the cause of freedom....Why? Because "the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear. To be a Christian one must take up his cross, with all of its difficulties and agonizing and tension-packed content and carry it until that very cross leaves its marks upon us and redeems us to that more excellent way that comes only through suffering." King deeply believed and frequently proclaimed that "unmerited suffering is redemptive," because God will not allow evil to triumph over good. "At the center of the faith of Christians is the fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ -- our reminder that though evil may triumph on Good Friday, it must ultimately give way to the triumph of Easter," King told an assembly of the National Council of Churches. "Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name."
Nothing was more central to King's religious convictions than the idea that oppressed people must use moral means to achieve just ends....
But much more important than the success of nonviolence in India or Ghana or even the civil rights movement was King's faith in a God of justice, love and hope -- a faith centered on the cross of Jesus Christ. Violence is derived form hate, and hate contradicts God. People who use violence have lost faith in the God of love and thus have lost faith that the beloved community can be created. King's faith and theology enabled him to reject violence absolutely, while at the same time granting him the conviction that freedom for the poor will be achieved. His affirmation of nonviolence was derived from his deep conviction that the cross of Jesus revealed a personal, creative, divine power in the world establishing freedom in and through the nonviolent actions of the poor and their supporters.
From James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 127-129.