Rev. James Lawson (File photo)

On Jan. 21, 2023, in Monterey Park, California, a gunman opened fire and killed 11 people who were gathered in a dance hall to celebrate the beginning of the Lunar New Year. Nine more were wounded. Two days later, a gunman opened fire at a farm in Half Moon Bay, California, killing seven farmworkers as nearby children watched in terror.

The United States faces a moral reckoning. These mass killings have caused untold human suffering, personal chaos, and societal injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Violence promotes more violence. Hatred and fear destroy a sense of community and truth. The time is now to engage in a national dialogue on the necessity of nonviolence for the very survival of our society.

The New York Times has reported that there have been at least 39 mass killings in the U.S. since the beginning of 2023 — an average of more than one per day. There are more guns in the U.S. than there are people. And yet, every time there is a mass killing, more guns are sold. Mass deaths create corporate profits.

The U.S. is the most violent society known to human history. It stands alone in the world as a country that is continually plagued by mass killings through gun violence. Mass killings have occurred in workplaces, hospitals, and schools, and in churches, temples, and other places of worship. No community, no workplace, and no person is safe from the threat of gun violence.

Additionally, there is a growing threat of political violence within our society. The Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol and the elevated attacks on elected officials throughout the country represent a threat to our democracy. And that threat is now backed up by increasing numbers of people who are convinced that political violence is necessary, according to a recent survey from University of California, Davis researchers.

On Jan. 16, the nation celebrated the birth of my great colleague Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King dedicated his life to advancing racial and economic justice for all through the practice of nonviolence. His words and teachings are now more urgent than ever.

Nonviolent campaigns from 1953 to 1973 began the desegregation of the U.S. in practice, theory, law, and custom. Nonviolent movements challenged racism, sexism, and plantation capitalism for the first time. This led to the elimination of Jim Crow laws, the securing of voting rights, and the mobilization of millions of people in the 1950s and 1960s that brought out the best qualities of a new generation who, in the words of the late Congressman John Lewis, made “good trouble.”

In California, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta mobilized millions to embrace nonviolence for justice and dignity for farmworkers. Their work showed the power of boycotts, pilgrimages, and mass actions that promoted a vision of hope for the future.

Nonviolent movements historically challenged the U.S. war in Vietnam, U.S. wars in Central America, and U.S. support for apartheid in South Africa. Currently we have military bases that circle the globe, and we are the leading arms dealer in the world. Last year, Congress approved the largest military budget in U.S. history with no serious debate, and virtually no dissent. Our bloated military budget strips money from human services, health care, education, transportation, and housing. If we redirected our resources from waging war to promoting peace, we could eliminate homelessness and hunger today. Our nonviolent movements must mobilize for gun safety, for mental health services, and to eliminate structural violence and poverty.

The movement for Black lives represented the first major nonviolence movement of the 21st century. Millions mobilized throughout the country against police killings, for racial justice, and for comprehensive change that has challenged structural racism and white supremacy in institutions throughout the nation.

Nonviolence must be taught in our elementary and secondary schools, and in our colleges and universities. There are ROTC programs throughout the country that prepare our young people for war, and yet a scarcity of nonviolence classes that prepare our students for peace and justice, democracy, and for the beloved community. For the last two decades, I have taught a nonviolence course at UCLA, and seen students become engaged in nonviolent theory and its impact on social movements.

As we mourn the victims of yet another senseless mass killing, we must understand that we, the people, do not have to accept death and violence. Together, we can create a nation filled with beautiful illustrations of the beloved community. In the words of Dr. King, “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

The greatest power for personal and social transformation must be found in love and compassion. We have no other choice. Nonviolence is the solution.