Monday, January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Day Reflection

It is easy from the distance of history to sanitize Martin Luther King, to treat his words as platitudes and his legacy as something that happened years ago—rather than something that continues to challenge us today. It is easy to stand on the smug side of history, to focus only on those parts of King’s message and mission that were controversial in his day, and to ignore those parts that remain controversial today.

Today, most of us look back at segregation and agree that it was an injustice, an objective wrong perpetrated systemically against a class of people. We look back at the Civil Rights Movement and nod in approval, projecting ourselves onto the side of those who took a courageous and principled stand against the social forces that marginalized, disempowered, and disenfranchised. We forget that in every society and every generation, there are social forces that perpetuate injustice. And just as there were many supporters of Jim Crow—some who just took it for granted, others who passionately defended it as right and just—so too are there defenders of the forces that perpetuate injustice today.

It doesn’t take courage to look into the past and side vicariously with the heroes who fought against what, in today’s mainstream, everyone agrees was unjust. It doesn’t take vision to agree with the mainstream view of justice. What King and the civil rights activists did, however, was courageous and visionary—because at the time they had the courage to stand up (or sit down) and say no to practices that were vigorously defended as right and good. They had the vision to discern the moral truth behind the controversy, and the eloquence to express with prophetic clarity this truth.

When we consider King’s legacy, we honor him the most by striving to emulate in our own lives some part of the courage, vision, and eloquence that he embodied. In other words, rather than pronounce sagely that Jim Crow was wrong and declare King a hero for standing up to it, we should turn our attention to our own time, our own communities, and strive to discern what is being done now that is unjust, what social forces today perpetuate human marginalization, disempowerment, and disenfranchisement. We should strive to have the courage to stand up (or sit down) in support of those today whose dignity has been battered, whose life prospects have been diminished, by the patterns and systems that define our own age. And we should know that in so doing, many will sincerely declare that we are wrong, that we are the ones who are threatening what is right and good, that we are the villains of the story and not the heroes.

Towards the end of his too-short life, King was focused not on segregation but on what he took to be another systemic problem: poverty. The Poor People’s Campaign was born out of the conviction that economic realities undermine human dignity and welfare as surely as segregation. And King believed that poverty was not the result of individual failings that could therefore be solved by individual generosity. He saw poverty as a systemic problem, that is, as a consequence of our economic and social arrangements. While he clearly distanced himself from communism, he was not afraid to stress what he took to be right about socialist and communist ideas. In so doing, he found himself confronting a struggle far more difficult, in many ways, than his battle against segregation.

Unlike segregation, in which the defenders have faded into obscurity, the controversy over the meaning of poverty, its causes, and the scope of our collective obligation to alleviate it, remains as divisive and unsettled today as it was in King’s day. But it is clear that honoring King’s legacy requires that we wrestle with these kinds of unsettled controversies, in which our own embeddedness in the system can obscure the clarity we often enjoy from the vantage point of history, in which taking a stand isn’t easy because there will be many—neighbors, friends, and family—who are as convinced that they are right and we are wrong as we are convinced of the reverse.

It was King’s awareness of this feature of social conflict and social change that helped confirm his commitment to nonviolence, to loving the opponent, to holding fast to the idea that the opponent is just as sincere in their beliefs, just as motivated by a sense of moral purpose. King knew that in social conflict, the enemy was injustice, not the persons whose activities and convictions perpetuate it. And so, like Gandhi who helped to inspire him, King held fast to the idea that the civil rights movement should rely on means of social change that would only ultimately succeed to the extent that truth was on the movement’s side—means of change that would be responsive to truths that might be embodied in the opposition.

This is the notion that President Obama was advocating in his speech last week, as he reflected on the horrible tragedy in Arizona. In Obama’s words, “But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do—it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

This is a message—a message worthy of King—that forces me to reflect on my own choices, on my own ways of struggling for what I believe is right and just. I hope that all of us, on this Martin Luther King Day, will treat King not merely as a cherished relic from the past but as a living challenge—a challenge to cultivate courage and vision, to pursue our sincere understanding of what is best with an openness and responsiveness to the humanity of our opponents and the truths which they might speak.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Eric: I have a hard time navigating the difficult path between full-throated advocacy of what I believe to be true and demonizing the people who disagree. I believe that our system is increasingly unjust economically. I believe that the US version of capitalism promotes a degree of unequal outcomes that makes impossible the ideal of equal opportunity. And while I don't claim God as a co-sponsor of my political opinions, I DO think that Jesus as he is quoted in Matthew 25 gives us a yardstick by which we can gauge our economic and social systems--by how well we treat the least of these our siblings. So it is altogether difficult for me NOT to scream and the TV when I hear about the latest proposal from the incoming Republican Congress and such. I need the example of MLK to remind me what Jesus teaches me: take care of the giant log in my own eye before I worry about the tiny splinter in my brother's eye. None of this requires me to keep my mouth shut about policy differences, but just as I personally see no way to love my enemy while killing him in war, I should remind myself that it is equally difficult to love my enemy while calling him an a-hole. Working on it.