Martin Luther King Jr.: The man behind the holiday
"The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment.Who doubts that this toughness is one of man's greatest needs? Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
(~ Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love,1963)
The single most irksome thing to me about Martin Luther King Jr. day and his portrayal by society is the blatant cover-up of the man and his ideas.
He is portrayed as this wonderful figure who was just "ahead of his time." Who met an untimely, tragic fate at the hands of evil men. But "we" love him. "We" would have joined him. Aside: it reminds me of Americans and the way they talk about the civil war. "We" won. "We" would have fought for the slaves. It was America vs. America; how did "we" win? And how do "we" know what side we would have been on?
I say this because not only should "we" not accept the watered down version of this brilliant man, but "we" don't like him, his beliefs or his causes. In fact, we hate him.
And I am ok with that. I am not advocating for his thoughts, actions or anything of the like. My aim is to merely reflect on his work and show the fractured view we hold.
- He was labeled by the FBI:
- "...the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country"
- Hoover, head of the FBI, said this:
- "...the most notorious liar in the country."
- He stood proud for non-violence as the way of our Lord in love:
- "I say to you today that I still stand by nonviolence. And I am still convinced that it is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for justice in this country. And the other thing is that I am concerned about a better world. I'm concerned about justice. I'm concerned about brotherhood. I'm concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about these, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer but you can't murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can't establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that."
- "It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence."
- He spoke out against war and Vietnam in particular, not as an isolated event which he thought his political leanings should be shared, but as one and the same cause, namely that non-violence be the only path to real victory:
- "Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."
- "Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves."
- "Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated."
- He spoke out against poverty and the system the produces and upholds it:
- "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
- "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
- He spoke out against America and asked Christians to have right understanding of their nationalism:
- "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."
- He criticized the church:
- "I must admit that I have gone through those moments when I was greatly disappointed with the church and what it has done in this period of social change. We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this."
- Not to mention his unswerving dedication to the racial issue plaguing America and the world...
I can't imagine many in the average evangelical church endorsing this type of person. Most Christians I know would not be comfortable around this guy. With his references to Socrates and Nietzsche. With his acceptance of science as an ally. With his 'extreme' stances and jail time.
But another rewriting of history plagues King's legacy. It is the single most important key to understanding King and it is being left out. Martin Luther King Jr. was a disciple of Christ Jesus and the scriptural commands left by him.
More than that, King had a Ph. D in Systematic Theology after receiving a Bachelor of Divinity. He was devout and committed Christian and Pastor; it was his source of thought and action.
Growing up I had known that King was a minister, but it was always presented in such a way that seemed inconsequential. Unlike Ghandi who always seemed to be linked to his religious underpinnings, King always seemed to be a civil rights leader and a Christian, and two never met in between.
And this, to me, is the great paradox of the man. We accept the side of him that we like the most. For Christians, it is his Christianity. For non-believers, it is his social action. When we choose portions, we miss the good stuff; we miss the prophet. We lose it all. We aren't forced to wrestle with King and his ideas, but turn him into grandpa. Dr. Cornel West calls this the "Santa Clausification" of King. He says, "We have to resist the ‘Santa Claus-ification’ of Martin Luther King. I don’t want to sanitize Martin Luther King. I don’t want to deodorize Dr. Martin Luther King. I don’t want to disinfect Dr. Martin Luther King, and we’re not gonna domesticate Dr. King.”
We have to wrestle with him. One side can't choose all his good works and hail him as a hero and discount the source of his crazy love and the other side can't discount his genius and thoughts rejoicing in the idea of his Christianity. Both sides betray him by fragmenting him.