From the violence of dynamite to the recognition that nonviolence is our only path to peace – Rabbi David Chapman

Posted on March 28, 2024

One of the many travesties of justice we learned about on this trip were the bombings — bombings of homes, of Freedom Rider busses, and of Black churches, including the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 perpetrated by white supremacists that murdered four little girls. Their names were Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, may their memories be a blessing.  These bombings were so common here in the 1960s that Birmingham earned the nickname Bombingham.  

The explosive used in these bombings was often dynamite. Dynamite was invented by the Swedish engineer Alfred Nobel. I’m reminded of a story about Alfred Nobel that I shared over the High Holidays. Nobel was well-known in his lifetime as a wealthy industrialist, as was his brother. When his brother died, the newspaper accidentally ran Alfred’s obituary, offering him the unusual experience of seeing how he would be memorialized. And of course, the first line of the obituary read, “Alfred Nobel, who made a fortune by inventing dynamite…”.  Alfred Nobel knew he did not want his legacy to be about the role he played creating something that has harmed countless people. So he decided to bequeath his riches to the establishment of an award for making the world better — the Nobel Peace Prize. 

The story comes full circle. The year after the church bombing in Birmingham, Dr. Martin Luther King himself received the Nobel Peace Prize. In his Nobel acceptance speech, King referenced the bombings and brutality that continued to take place across the country in an attempt to thwart integration and civil rights. But then he made a powerful endorsement of nonviolence, his core moral principle:

… this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression. 

Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation… If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.

From the violence of dynamite to the recognition that nonviolence is our only path to peace… a bridge that compels all of us to consider what we want our own legacies to be, and how we can best use our blessings and gifts to build a better world.