War, Human Rights and the Politics of Personalism

There is a familiar aphorism that says “violence begets violence”;
from the origin of one destructive act stems more and different forms of brutality,
provoking an unremitting cycle of suffering. The phrase is rooted in biblical
scripture – the Gospel of Matthew, to be more specific – but has seen contemporary
adoption by renowned humanists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His message of
nonviolence and compassion inspired the philosophical underpinnings of the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 and ended segregation in the United States.

“The ultimate weakness of violence,” he said, “is that it is a
descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing
evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot
murder the lie, nor establish the truth.”

Though the Civil Rights Movement was punctuated by violence, it
was shaped by an understanding of shared history and brotherhood, tolerance
and compassion. King may have been a pious man, but he was a trained philosopher
and humanist first. He advocated the separation of church and state, and denounced
organized religion for its support of war. Inevitably, he thought, the cycle
of racial violence in America could by broken only by an acceptance of love – that
enduring feature which pulls us together as a common species.

The intellectual and philosophical framework of King was greatly
influenced by his study of personalism at
Boston University. He rejected a materialistic view of man who placed money
and property above people. Personalists believe human beings, their experience,
reality and dignity, should be the starting point of any philosophical inquiry.
In the words of Warren Steinkraus, King
believed “abstract laws, the state, property, and other institutions are all
to be judged in light of their effect on persons.”

Indeed, King recognized that “person-centered” thinking could reorder the set
of values used to justify racism, poverty and militarism in Western society.
He maintained the government must depend more on its moral than military power.
Violent action against one group on behalf of another, therefore, perpetuates
a culture of violence and wanton retribution. Destructive means cannot bring
about constructive ends; humanity and justice are indivisible.


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