This post about Martin Luther King, Jr. comes a day after his birthday, which is celebrated as a national holiday in the USA. That makes it possibly more appropriate than anything you heard yesterday, because King was also a man out of his time. It is only in death that King could be widely iconified, because in life he was more hated than loved.
The dissonance between King’s present sainthood and past villainhood is especially seen in his commitment to Christian nonviolence. Nonviolence is generally thought to be the domain of dreamy-eyed idealists; the refuge of folks too soft to deal with the harsh, conflictual realities of the real world. This pervasive view of the world believes that violence can—and often must—be employed in fight against evil and injustice. It’s the logic of the reluctant superhero.
But to these people, Dr. King has the following to say:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. … Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Dr. King saw love and nonviolence as inextricably linked parts of a whole vision of human flourishing. This vision later led him down paths that seemed to many incongruous with his earlier activism against racial injustice, but King saw all that he did as growing out of his captivity to the radical love of God in Christ. It led him to campaign on behalf of poor people everywhere and to decry the systemic injustices of capitalism. It also led him to fierily oppose the Vietnam War, a move that cost him much of the support he had enjoyed during the more civil rights-focused years. If King had said the following today, he’d likely be called a terrorist:
Don’t let anybody make you think God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with justice and it seems I can hear God saying to America “you are too arrogant, and if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I will place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God. Men will beat their swords into plowshafts and their spears into pruning hooks, and nations shall not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore.” I don’t know about you, I ain’t going to study war anymore.
So, let’s call today Martin Luther King, Jr. day. Yesterday was the day of empty pieties; of endless 6 o’clock newsreel loops of “I have a dream” and vacuous assertions that King’s dream has successfully produced a post-racial era. Lets let today, and the 364 to follow, be the day that we take seriously King’s view that injustice against one is injustice against all. Let today be the day where we allow his statement that “I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live,” to penetrate our hearts and minds with its steadfast commitment to following Christ sacrificially. Let today be the day we’re are inspired by the whole vista that King saw just before he was assassinated:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like any man, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Amen brother King, amen.
Note: all quotes above can be found on Wikiquote.