The Faith of Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King: Part II

Before Christmas I shared a post on the faith of Chicano civil rights icon Cesar Chavez and Rev. Martin Luther King:  In this new post I'd like to present part II...

This essay is an assignment I completed for Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena a few weeks ago. Although I'm a professor at UCLA, I recently went back to school on a part-time basis to fulfill a life-long dream of going to seminary. I'm loving it!

King and Chavez both believed that God was the source of justice for the poor and oppressed.  In the famous words of King, ““the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  In even more explicit words, Chavez asserted that Jesus Christ is the source of social justice:  “The only justice is Christ—God’s justice…ultimately, down the line, real justice comes.  It…comes from God’s hand” (Garcia 2007, 91).

Shaped by a related ideological genealogy, King and Chavez both embraced the strategy of non-violent resistance.   King and Chavez credit Gandhi as being a central influence in shaping their common approach.   In an “Experiment in Love,” King asserts that Christ supplied the inspiration for social change and Gandhi provided the method of nonviolence:

“Nonviolent resistance had emerged as the technique of the movement, while love stood as the regulating ideal. In other words, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method” (Washington 1986, 17).

Chavez also cited Christ and Gandhi as his chief examples of successful non-violent protest,

“Some great nonviolent successes have been achieved in history…Christ is also a beautiful example, as is the way Christians overcame tyranny…The most recent example is Gandhi. To me that’s the most beautiful one” (Garcia 2007, 66).

Echoing the sentiment of King and the teachings of Jesus, Chavez claimed that love of enemies was a central principal of non-violent resistance.   He was honest, however, in his assessment that this was a difficult goal for himself and the farm workers movement:

“Love is the most important ingredient in nonviolent work—love the opponent—but we really haven’t learned yet how to love the growers. I think we’ve learned how not to hate them, and maybe love comes in stages” (Garcia 2007, 116).

Although it is common knowledge that King and Chavez were influenced by the admirable work of Gandhi, it is also important to note that Gandhi’s strategy of non-violence was deeply shaped by his reading of Leo Tolstoy (Leon 2013, chapter 2, 47).   Leo Tolstoy’s ideas were in turn informed by Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.

In addition to Gandhi, King’s philosophy of non-violence was deeply influenced by Baptist minister Howard Thurman, and his famous book, Jesus and the Disinherited.  In fact, it is said that King carried a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited with him during the famous Montgomery bus strike.  In this work, Thurman argues that love of enemy, as taught by Jesus, provides the lynchpin of spiritual liberation for the disinherited peoples of the world (Thurman 1976, 100). Thurman’s ideas of non-violence were formed largely as part of a time of study with Quaker mystic Rufus Jones, who introduced him to Quaker theology.   It is important to mention Tolstoy, Thurman, and Jones because their Christian influence upon King is almost never mentioned in discussions of the civil rights movement.   In so far as Chavez looked to King as an example of non-violent protest, it is fair to say that he was unknowingly impacted by the teachings of Tolstoy, Thurman, and Jones as well.

As organic intellectuals grounded firmly in their ethnic cultures of origin, King and Chavez incorporated popular religious practices into their social justice movements.   As a black Baptist minister, King gave speeches which were more sermon than political rhetoric.  He drew directly and frequently from Christian Scripture, and communicated in the manner of an African American preacher.  The end result was speeches such as, “I Have a Dream,” “Our God is Marching On!,” and “I See the Promised Land,”  which rocked the historical conscience of America.  Corporate prayer and spirituals were also features of black popular religion which were successfully invoked by King in his movement.

Chavez drew from the rich well of popular Mexican Catholicism to lend spiritual power and meaning to the farm worker movement.   In fact, I would argue that he did this in an even more ingenious and nuanced way than King.   In spring of 1966, Chavez fashioned his famous march from the Central Valley to Sacramento as a penitential pilgrimage, or “peregrinacion” (Garcia 2007, 12).   Drawing from popular Mexican religious tradition, he called the march, “Penitence, Pilgrimage, and Revolution” (Garcia 2007, 16).   According to Catholic tradition, penitence is a spiritual practice by which participants atone for their post-baptismal sins.   Pilgrimage, moreover, is a spiritual practice through which pilgrims acquire merit before God.  Chavez viewed the Sacramento march in terms of this Mexican, Catholic spiritual tradition:

But throughout the Spanish speaking world there is another

tradition that touches the present march, that of the Lenten

penitential processions, where the penitentes would march through

the streets, often in sack cloth and ashes, some even carrying

crosses as a sign of penance for their sins, and as a plea for the

mercy of God. The penitential procession is also in the blood of the

Mexican-American, and the Delano march will therefore be one of

penance—public penance for the sins of the strikers, their own

personal sins as well their yielding perhaps to feelings of hatred

and revenge in the strike itself. They hope by the march to set

themselves at peace with the Lord, so that the justice of their cause

will be purified of all lesser motivation. (Leon 2013, chapter 3, 22).

In further religious significance, the penitential pilgrimage was led by a priest in full clerical garb and a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Leon 2013, chapter 3, 24).  Chavez and his followers arrived in Sacramento and concluded their pilgrimage on Easter (Garcia 2007, 95).

It is common in activist circles to engage in “hunger strikes.”  My own department at UCLA is the product of a hunger strike carried out by committed  activists who challenged the unjust dismantling of the historic Chicana/o Studies program at UCLA.   I am deeply grateful for the hunger strikers who were my colleagues at UCLA in the early 1990’s.  I would not be penning these words now were it not for their sincere, sacrificial efforts.

The goals behind modern hunger strikes are quite noble—physical self-sacrifice aimed at pressuring those in power to implement meaningful social change.  Chavez’ famous fasts were radically different, however, in both philosophy and approach.  For Chavez, fasting was a spiritual exercise and a form of penance for his own sins as well as those of his supporters (Garcia 2007,103).   Through fasting, he sought God’s divine intervention in “la causa” (the cause) and sought to purify himself and the farm workers movement from sin and the temptation to appropriate violence.  Chavez’ most well known fast of 1968 spanned 25 days and took place as part of the first grape boycott.   This fast was aimed at reinforcing his commitment to nonviolence, and it marked a special turning point in the farm workers movement.  Speaking of the Christian underpinnings of his 1968 fast, Chavez stated:

“My fast is informed by my religious faith and by my deep roots in the Church. It is not intended as pressure on anyone but only is an expression of my own deep feelings and my own need to do penance and to be in prayer” (Garcia 2007, 110).

Chavez was misunderstood by many in his movement who viewed his fasting as heavenly “pie in the sky.”   According to Dolores Huerta, Chavez viewed prayer and fasting as the keys to the success of the grape strike and farm worker struggle:

“Poor Cesar! They just couldn’t accept it for what it was. I know it’s hard for people who are not Mexican to understand, but this is part of the Mexican culture—the penance, the whole idea of suffering for something…In fact, Cesar has often mentioned in speeches that we will not win through violence, we will win through fasting and prayer” (Garcia 2007, 109).

As a final spiritual parallel between King and Chavez, it is important to note that they both embraced the Christian notion of the “beloved community” which transcends  narrow racial categories and denominational differences.   For King, the beloved community was the goal of social justice and the civil rights movement (Lecture 5).    In fact, the idea of the diverse and ecumenical beloved community was the capstone of his social philosophy and praxis (Lee 2006, 90-91).  For King, the importance of the beloved community cannot be overstated because it represents the ultimate purpose of God in history, creation, and Christ’s redemption:

“The cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community.  The resurrection is a symbol of God’s triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history (Lecture 5).

Although Chavez is often cited as an icon of cultural nationalism in Chicana/o Studies, ironically, like King, he subscribed to a notion of community which transcended racial and denominational boundaries (Garcia 2007, 16).   In simple, poignant words, Chavez, asserted that the goal of his movement was to help all of humanity, regardless of racial affiliation:

“La Raza? Why be racist. Our belief is to help everyone, not just one race. Humanity is our belief” (Garcia 2007, 131).

Chavez opposed the extreme cultural nationalism which characterized some elements of the Chicano movement.  He rejected narrow nationalism as racist and divisive:

“[W]e oppose some of this La Raza business so much. We know what it does. When La Raza means or implies racism, we don’t support it. But if it means our struggle, our dignity, our cultural roots then we’re for it. I guess many times people don’t know what they mean by La Raza, but we can’t be against racism on the one hand and for it on the other” (Garcia 2007, 131).

It is also worth noting that Chavez, like King, embraced Christian ecumenism.  Chavez worked closely with both the Pentecostal community and the Protestant National Council of Churches (Garcia 2007, 135-136).  He even attended Protestant worship services.   Chavez redefined the Christian church in broad, ecumenical terms:

“[W]hen we refer to the Church we should define the word a little. We mean the whole Church, the Church as an ecumenical body spread around the world, and not just its particular form in a parish in a local community…That Church is one form of the Presence of God on earth, and so naturally it is powerful.  It is a powerful moral and spiritual force which cannot be ignored by any movement” (Garcia 2007, 46).

Contrary to the prophetic admonition and life example of Chavez, the contemporary civil rights movement has ignored the Church.  The discipline of Ethnic Studies has forgotten the spiritual roots of Chavez and King, and thereby forgotten the source of power of the civil rights movement from which it draws its inspiration.   In his own words, Martin Luther King was first and foremost an African American Baptist minister (Lecture 8).  Chavez, I think it is safe to say, would say that he was first and foremost a Mexican Catholic farm worker who viewed faith as the most powerful tool for social change.  Their profound spirituality not only stood at the center of their beings, but was also shaped primarily by their families and the popular religion and cultures in which they were raised.   Their faith was organic and cannot be simplistically dismissed as “the white man’s religion.”  Of special significance, their spirituality was shaped by strong women or “mujeres,” and grandmothers, or, “abuelitas.”   This should be of no surprise because, as reflected in many pages of sacred scripture, God often uses women to launch and lead powerful movements in history.

King and Chavez also believed that God and Jesus Christ were the ultimate source of social justice for the poor and oppressed.   Flowing from this belief, they practiced a philosophy and method of non-violence.  Their approach traces  historically to Howard Thurman, Rufus Jones, Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, George Fox, and, ultimately, Jesus.   For Chavez, Father Donald McDonnell, Pope Leo XIII, and the longstanding social teachings of the Catholic church must also be credited.

As organic intellectuals, King and Chavez incorporated popular cultural and religious practices into their pioneering social justice movements.   This, I believe, represented their uniqueness and genius.  If you strip away King’s black Baptist roots and practices from his praxis, you are left with nothing substantial; similarly with Chavez; if you take away his Mexican Roman Catholicism--the pilgrimages, fasting, prayer, and masses which informed his movement--you would also be left with little.   This is, however, what Ethnic Studies has done with King and Chavez—it has secularized them and thereby divested them of the genius and spiritual authority which empowered them to change civil rights history in the United States.  By stripping King and Chavez of their spirituality, moreover, Ethnic Studies also denies them their profound Christian witness.   As followers of Jesus, the success of their movements demonstrated to the world that God is a God of justice, and that Jesus cares about the suffering of the poor and racially marginalized more than we could ever hope for or imagine.

Robert Chao Romero @ProfeChaoRomero      FB:

P.S., be sure to download your FREE E-Book copy of Jesus for Revolutionaries, the book!