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When MLK Jr. Rejected “Obnoxious Peace”


As an organization with “Peace” in our name, we encounter a fair amount of misunderstanding about our political positions.

Some people insist that peace means “All Lives Matter,” rather than recognizing that slogan as a specious and evasive response to the rightful and powerful call for Black equality and freedom.

Some people believe (often with a self-assured, spiritually-glossed condescension) that peace always requires total pacifism, including abstaining from the “destruction of property,” or even any angry language.

Many of these definitions of “peace” do not make any room for living, complex conversations and decisions that include armed resistance and self-defense as legitimate options among oppressed communities. Instead, pre-emptive peace posits pacifism as a precondition for any respectable action.

What if, instead, we understood pacifism as a worthy, crucial, beautiful and sacred stream in the larger, ever-flowing, ever-shifting river of social movements for collective liberation?

And what if we spent more of our energy figuring out how to effectively counter the false forms of peace against which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke so passionately?

I love Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — and specifically the movement(s) to “Reclaim MLK” — because it gives us a chance to reflect on the radical, visionary, subversive King, not just the sanitized postage-stamp icon.

And in a context of Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I’m especially grateful to read what the Reverend had to say about a little something he called “Obnoxious Peace.”

I had a long talk the other day with a man about this bus situation. He discussed the peace being destroyed in the community, the destroying of good race relations. I agreed that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace.

Yes it is true that If the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace. But it would be an obnoxious peace. It would be a peace that boiled down to stagnant complacency, deadening passivity…

If peace means this, I don’t want peace.

If peace means accepting second class citizenship I don’t want it.

If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.

If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.

If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

In a passive, non-violent manner we must revolt against this peace. Jesus says in substance: I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love yes, the kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace. Peace is the presence of positive good.

Finally, never forget that there is an inner peace that comes as a result of doing God’s will.

That last line is important because “doing God’s will” (or, in a Buddhist sense, acting wholesomely, in alignment with the dharma), is King’s code for f*cking up the oppressive status quo, in order to make space for a truly transformative (r)evolution of humanity.

If we recognize that the status quo is saturated with normalized violence (or as David Loy puts it, the institutionalization of the Three Poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion), then making space for positive transformation will almost certainly entail some form of “disturbing the peace.” This can sometimes cause confusion and contestation of terms, as state forces appeal to peace, law and order in order to bludgeon, sedate, and contain progressive social movements.

At Buddhist Peace Fellowship, we train together in “disturbing the peace.”

Productively and compassionately, with joy and awakening in our hearts, we want to disturb and disrupt the hegemony of oppression, violence, and ecological destruction — moving instead toward collective liberation.

Whether you are throwing down for disability justice; advancing trans and women’s rights; opposing what King called the “three evils” of racism, poverty, and militarism; or making international connections — may you have a beautiful week of compassionate action in the spirit of the radical King!

May we reject obnoxious peace, and cultivate conditions for true inner and outer peace for all.

Three Buddhists We Love, on MLK, Jr.

kazu en route to standing rock

Kazu Haga with Tova Green at San Francisco Zen Center 

BPFer, Kingian nonviolence trainer, and founder of East Point Peace Academy Kazu Haga speaks on Buddha nature, mindfulness, and Six Principles of Kingian Nonviolence.


alan robes 2016Alan Senauke at Brooklyn Zen Center

Author of Heirs to Ambedkar: The Rebirth of Engaged Buddhism in India, Alan spoke this weekend at BZC on The Dharma of Martin Luther King, Jr. (I’m hoping the audio will be published soon — be on the lookout!)


zenju-slide3-smallZenju Earthlyn Manuel — “What Does Buddhism Have to Do with Black People?”

The always tremendous Zenju, author of The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender, references Martin Luther King, Jr. as possibly her first dharma teacher.


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Comments (4)

  • Avren Keating

    Thank you so much for this post. As the week draws closer to the inauguration, I am seeking refuge in this connotation of the word “peace” which, to me at least, makes the word more of a verb instead of a noun. Peace is a compassionate action, it is not one of idle complicity in violent structures like white supremacy.

  • Kristin Barker

    So good to see the prescient analysis of Dr. King, perhaps the most conscious and conscientious voice in American political history, radiated out again and again. The tendency of white supremacy to disort or co-opt and neutralize whatever threatens its continuation, e.g. notions of peace, is essential to our political understanding. Thank you!

    And, in order to fully honor his masterful insight and foresight, I wanted to clarify what I understand to be his proposition of the “three evils” that persist in our society and fundamentally undermine its integrity. These are racism, militarism, and *materialsm.* (The full speech in which theses are identified and explored is amazingly relevant to American politics exactly *to-day*!

    It is that last one that is often misquoted as “capitalism,” or as it is here, “poverty.” Dr. King provided gave us piercing and essential analysis of both of these phenomenon, yet they were not elevated to this core list. Perhaps he would say they derive there from. In any case, he insisted that we confront “materialsm” as a fundamental threat to the body politic. Yet we seem to have a tendency to leave it out.

    In my own view, it is our objectification of one another, whether people, our sibling creatures, and the earth herself, in the deluded interest of acquisition and comfort that may be the most difficult to disrupt. So confused we are about the causes of true happiness and our radical interdependence that we subtly but tenaciously resist freeing one another from the daily violence of the excess/deprevation economy while actively destroying the very basis for all of life.

    I’m finding that the need to hone our collective understanding of materialism and it’s dynamics, right alongside racism and militarism, is essential to responding to Dr. King’s moral call.

  • Bria

    As I continue to discover Buddhism, I questioned what role members of a community the promote peace and a non-violent lifestyle can play in resistance movements. I appreciate how this article framed peace and non-violence using MLKJ as an example. especially when he says “If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it” and “If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace”. It helped me to realize that the opposite of peace is not necessarily physical violence or actions, and that violence can take many forms, one of which being false peace that needs to be transformed to make room for real peace.

    Thank yu for sharing!

  • Yudron Wangmo

    I am generally opposed to property destruction and violence as a form of protest, because I find it much less effective than well-planned and organized non-violent protest and direct action. If that is not what you stand for, then can you direct me to a Buddhist group that embraces exclusively non-violent means? Thank you.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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