Saturday, April 5, 2008

Remembering Martin, Remembering Jesus

This year’s commemoration of Martin Luther King has brought with it some outstanding articles on King’s legacy. Two that have particularly stood out for me are Jeff Cohen’s “40 Years Later, Martin Luther King Is Still Silenced” (see and Marian Wright Edelman’s “Honoring King Is Not Enough” (see

In 1989, I had the privilege of spending a research semester on fellowship at the Center for Humanities at Oregon State University, studying the writings of Dr. King against the backdrop of liberation theology. In that semester of reading and reflection, I became convinced that the real threat King posed to the powers that be—the reason he was ultimately silenced—was not precisely his call for racial justice in American society. It was King’s call for solidarity between poor Americans of all racial complexions, and his critique of how the military-industrial establishment pits minority group against minority group and mercilessly exploits those at the bottom of the American power structure, that led to his murder.

In digging to the roots of racism—in pointing to the interest groups who profit most by keeping racial tension alive between poor whites and African Americans—King posed a much more radical threat to the military-industrial complex than he did merely by urging racial justice. This threat was intolerable. Listening to King’s prophetic appeal for a justice that reorders how we do business at a fundamental level in the declining American empire would mean that we would have to entertain social changes far more profound than the abolition of segregation alone. The Poor People’s March on Washington signaled a possibility that the power brokers of American society simply could not tolerate: the possibility of building a coalition of oppressed groups of all kinds, which would effect systemic change going far beyond racial change.

And so it remains today. As Jeff Cohen’s article notes, our memories of Dr. King and all that he stood for are curiously denatured. We speak now as if he were some mild-mannered milquetoast whose platitudes about loving one another deserve simpering remembrance at least one day a year: can’t we all just get along? As Marian Wright Edelman notes, “Too many of us would rather celebrate than follow Dr. King.”

We remember Martin Luther King in the same way we remember Jesus. The pious platitudes, the gospels stripped of all historical memories of the wandering rabbi who announced that the poor are first and the rich last, are far easier to celebrate than the hard sayings. The call to love one another in some disembodied saccharine spiritualized way is far easier than the call to love justly, to do justice along with love, to love in a practical way that enacts justice in our surroundings and lives.

The power brokers of American society have no problem at all with followers of Christ who preach brotherly or sisterly love. They do have problems with those who want to take the message of love and break it down into practical steps that demand action for justice.

The school in which I began my ill-fated teaching career in New Orleans in 1972 was in a Catholic parish whose members were all white. After taking a position as a religion and English teacher at this parish school, I learned that parishioners had kept the parish and school all white by enforcing a neighborhood covenant that forbade anyone living in the area to sell a house to a black family.

When the priest in the parish church preached about brotherly love, no one ever protested. When he specified that loving one’s brother meant working to end segregation, parishioners responded by dropping tiny chocolate babies into the collection basket on Sunday. They withheld financial contributions to protest the message that brotherly love enacted means ending segregation.

Anyone who tries to spell out the implications of the world’s great religious traditions, with their message of practical love as the goal of religious observance, in the context of American society today will meet such opposition. King was mercilessly hounded by the F.B.I. As a teen whose social conscience about racism was beginning to awaken during the Civil Rights struggle, I heard dark rumors about King’s sexual activities. These were never spelled out, because anything having to do with sex was not discussed openly with “the young” in the social context in which I grew up.

I now realize that rumors about King’s purported free-wheeling sex life were everywhere in the white society in which I grew up. They were used to disqualify King from having any prophetic voice. These rumors could only have come from those within the government who were spying on King on a routine basis.

I thought of that spying today when I read Adam Cohen’s article “The Already Big Thing on the Internet: Spying on Users” in the New York Times (see Cohen notes that an unanticipated consequence of the Internet, which initially promised such remarkable free flow of information around the world when it was first developed, is now the ability of power brokers to spy on those of us who use the Internet. Cohen thinks that spying on Internet users is now routine.

An open question of reports such as Cohen’s is to what end our own government may use information about the Internet habits of each of us, when it has ready access to this information. It seems entirely conceivable to me that what happened to Dr. King could happen to anyone today who calls for justice enacted in love to be the center of the vision of political life in the U.S. Those who want to resist that message could quite easily use slanderous information obtained through spying to try to blacken the reputation of someone calling for a renegotiation of our fundamental priorities in political discussions today.

I bring this up to point to one of the shortcomings of American political discourse, as we approach another presidential election: we Americans have become fatally attracted to the banal and shallow, when we discuss political options. We are far more titillated by spicy details about candidates’ sex lives (or purported sex lives) than about their views regarding economic justice.

We are virtually tone-deaf to discussions that go beyond the surface. We have allowed ourselves—all of us, as a people—to be enmeshed in such a dense fabric of systemic lies and distortions, many of these originating in the government sector and the sector that controls our corporate life, that we cannot discern plain truth from slanderous insinuation, as we make political choices.

I am becoming exasperated at the level of political discussion in my own local context—which is where all political discussion begins. Polls, and what I hear being said, show that my fellow Arkansans who, like me, believe that electing a Democratic candidate in the coming election is imperative for the future of the nation, are easily exercised by racial slurs. If we who profess to be progressive can be twisted and turned by racial insinuations, imagine how we might be twisted and turned by the kind of powerful sexual insinuations that have been all too readily used in the past to disqualify leaders in our society.

We need to move beyond such a politics of slur and insinuation, of whose macho voice can shout louder and coarser than anyone else’s, to a politics of serious discussion. That political discourse will do all it can to tease out and combat the constant lies used to pit oppressed group against oppressed group, to derail serious political analysis, and to try to stop churches from allying themselves with movements for progressive social change. We who hope for change in our nation’s political, social, and economic life (and I am beginning to wonder if this hope is now misplaced, if anything is even possible in a culture so susceptible to systemic distortion of plain truth that makes a difference) need to be like Dr. King, in Edelman’s remembrance of him:

“His greatness lay in his willingness to struggle to hear and see the truth; to not give in to fear, uncertainty and despair; to continue to grow and to never lose hope, despite every discouragement from his government and even his closest friends and advisers.”

No comments: