photo © 1963 The U.S. National Archives | more info(via: Wylio)In order to understand and honor King - just as in order to understand and honor Jesus - we need to go beyond what we learned in third grade social studies class. We need to read and study them and meditate on how to apply what they have to teach us into our modern days - rather than trying to force their legacies to fit our agendas*
King was not only concerned about the African-American in the segregated, Jim Crow South, but of the working class African American (he was assassinated in Memphis, where he came to support garbage workers in their strike), the displaced Americans in the segregated North (Chicago and Detroit, specifically), the impoverished young men who went to war for US means that didn't directly affect them, and increasingly, he was wary of an economic system that kept so many at the mercy of so few...^
Stretching beyond that, his concern was with all who suffered at the hands of oppression, including the oppressors. His primary focus was on the US (of course, he was much too bright to only concern himself with the doings of one country and saw a global pattern of yoking and yoke-breaking), though. And, as his popularity was waning, he spoke increasingly against the culture of violence that the US was promoting through its wars.**
One of his most famous latter-day speeches was given in New York City and addressed the oppression of the VietNam War. It was called "Beyond Vietnam - A Time to Break the Silence" and was inspired, in part, by the Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan. I am particularly indebted to this sermon because it reminds me what it takes to be a good neighbor.
While preparing for this post, I came across this video from an FB friend's wall. It's particularly relevant, I think, to the first paragraph of my introduction. This time, it's the military itself which is using King's legacy to confirm their pursuits...
Post-Note II: Jarrod McKenna of ABC's Religion & Ethics (and Dr. West and Stearns) is making the same points I was trying to make upstairs (via Scot McKnight):
Princeton University professor Cornel West insists that we "domesticate, disinfect, deodorise, sanitise, and make safe" the prophetic words and witness of King - a process he refers to as the "Santa-Claus-ification of Martin Luther King Jr," whereby we embrace a manageable, smiling, jolly fellow and abandon the man of history and his passionate call to a liberating love and a healing justice. We do to King, in other words, precisely what we have done to the radically nonviolent Christ of the New Testament.
So how can we take the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr seriously without making him in our own image? How can we, informed by his witness, confront problems he never faced without sanitising or co-opting the voice of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who described himself as "first and foremost a preacher of the Gospel"? How can we deconstruct the hagiographies of a super-saint or "Santa Claus figure" and truly hear from this exceptional follower of the way of the cross?
Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision United States, offers an extremely helpful model for engaging Dr King 's legacy. In his book The Hole in Our Gospel, Stearns bravely confesses how World Vision United States nearly abandoned the call "to defend the poor and the needy" because doing so wasn't popular. What prevented this disastrous move and encouraged him to be faithful was Stearns's sense of history and the witness of Martin Luther King. Stearns admits he felt chastened by what King said to the church of his day:The contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.As Stearns writes, "One of the disturbing things about Church history is the Church's appalling track record of being on the wrong side of the great social issues of the day." Though he could have been speaking about the issue of climate change, the issue Stearns was dealing with was the AIDS epidemic.
I wish I had thought to use Cornel's famous words on how we've domesticated and sanitized Dr. King. But I'm excited to see other Evangelicals - and ones so prominent as Stearn finding solace in King's true legacy. Please read the article and give me your thoughts on it...
*Knowing that you're asking the same thing about me, I've actually changed my politics based on deeper readings of Jesus and, subsequently, King. Although I am not a big fan of the Great Men theory of history, I do make exceptions for Jesus, being a Christian and all... As per King, he was in a truly unique point of history that, I argue, made him into a great person (but a person nonetheless, who failed in private matters and was in many other ways, well, only human).
**King notes in the speech that northern leftists and minorities - who were embracing violence as a means of protest - made a point in referencing violence as the language of resolution that the US employs. Of course, what's blowing up some people-less property compared to burning and murdering entire villages? The problem, from my point of view, is that these instances of violence (however small they may be in contrast to the thing they are protesting) is based more on frustration (which I could understand, certainly) than on coalition-building.
*** Judging by American churches acceptance and trumpeting of the War on Terror, I would venture it did not adequately.
^ Truth be told, I am a bit saddened that I see no evidence that King did not join the feminist movement of his time. If anybody can prove me wrong in this regard, please share. I'd love nothing more, because it seems to me a tragic missed opportunity and oversight, to say the least.