The Critique of Nonviolence
Martin Luther King, Jr., and Philosophy
Mark Christian Thompson


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Ontology and Nonviolence
chapter abstract

The introduction establishes the book's basic arguments, assumptions, critical methods, and procedures. It begins with King's views on Black Power, and his own definition of the term. Avoiding racial essentialism while remaining within the Black radical tradition, King mediates Black power with universal love. The introduction then places this insight within the context of African American philosophy, suggesting that King presents a unique and previously unexamined anti-essentialist racial ontology. Using elements of Heidegger's philosophy and Paul Tillich's existentialism, King posits beloved community in relation to yet ultimately beyond racial difference.

1 Being and Nonviolence
chapter abstract

Chapter One examines King's interest and training in modern philosophy, paying particular attention to his interest in existentialism and Heidegger's ontology. Specifically, the chapter is interested in how their thought converges around anti-humanism, discussing King's own avowed anti-humanism as the point at which he connects Heidegger's philosophy with antiracist social ontology. The chapter then briefly sketches out the how racism in Heidegger has been viewed, and how King dealt with it philosophically. Next, the chapter looks at King's social gospel and materialist philosophies in his thought. The chapter ends with King's description of nonviolence as a unique form of antiracist fundamental ontology informed by social realism and historical materialism.

2 Nonbeing and Nonviolence
chapter abstract

Chapter Two takes a closer look at King's appropriation of Heidegger's philosophy through his engagement with Paul Tillich's systematic theology. The chapter then engages in an extended reading of King's dissertation on Tillich as the general conceptual framework for nonviolence as a "basic truth" of human being. It situates King's doctoral work within the German philosophical tradition by linking it through Tillich's systematic theology to Heidegger's fundamental ontology. The chapter closes by showing how King's training in German thought informs his anti-essentialist view of civil rights.

3 Black Power as Nonviolence
chapter abstract

Chapter Three considers King's form of Black power. It discusses how King rejects, philosophically, Malcolm X's and Stokely Carmichael's views, and those of the Black Panther Party, as racial essentialism. The chapter then examines Huey P. Newton's racial Platonism, which Newton adapts from his extensive readings of the Republic as a form of revolutionary love, or eros. To differentiate his own Platonic understanding of agape from a form of racial essentialism, King rejects any racially motivated preference for eros as the drive to separate and conquer. The chapter then discusses in depth King's dialectical reliance on Platonic eros to define agape in relation to nonviolence and beloved community.

4 Gnosticism and Nonviolence
chapter abstract

Following on King's ultimately ontotheological presentation of nonviolence, Chapter Four considers political theology in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). It suggests King exploits the Gnosticism and eschatology present in fundamental ontology to theorize justice as divine nonviolence. The chapter thus demonstrates that King's "Letter" can be read productively through interwar debates in German philosophy and theology about Gnosticism and eschatology. In so doing, the chapter shows that King's Gnosticism presents a theory of democratic political theology as the justification for civil disobedience.

5 Divine Nonviolence
chapter abstract

Against this philosophical backdrop, Chapter Five connects King's thought on violence and sovereignty with Walter Benjamin's in his "Critique of Violence" (1921). Specifically, Benjamin's concept of divine violence offers a way to think of American anti-Black police violence as illegitimate within the political theological paradigm King proposes. Through its comparative reading of King and Benjamin, the chapter concludes, with King, that police violence in America is the illegitimate use of lawmaking sovereignty.

Conclusion: Eros as Nonviolence
chapter abstract

The conclusion traces how the critical theoretical reception of King's nonviolence misunderstood or ignored his use of eros, from Herbert Marcuse's initial reaction to Martha Nussbaum's more recent misreading. The book closes with bell hooks's recuperation of eros in King's philosophy as a return to the revolutionary praxis of Black love.