Sunday, January 20, 2013

On Martin Luther King Jr

On this year's observance of Martin Luther King Day, Americans are still roiled with anger and sorrow over the deaths of innocent schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut. And, in an affront to America’s anguish, there are some who have chosen to host Gun Appreciation Day only weeks after that massacre. 

Today, our country is divided by partisan antagonism. Americans vent their bitterness and frustration on their fellow countrymen. They mistake their natural allies for enemies. Reverend King would have said to this, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.” 

We no longer have the luxury to content ourselves with ridiculing and ostracizing those who have different beliefs than our own. That is the path many of us have chosen: we sit behind a computer screen or television set and express our contempt toward our ideological adversaries. We talk past one another. Hate is nurtured by darkness and solitude, but love can only flourish if we step out into the light and listen to one another.  

“From time immemorial,” King said, “men have lived by the principle that 'self-preservation is the first law of life.' But this is a false assumption. I would say that other-preservation is the first law of life. It is the first law of life precisely because we cannot preserve self without being concerned about preserving other selves.” It is human nature to put one’s own interests first. And yet, paradoxically, when we retreat from society and set ourselves against society, we are making society that much more dangerous. The point will come when our society has become such a threat to individual life, liberty, and property that no single individual can build walls high enough, or purchase weapons powerful enough, to ensure his or her personal safety. “Nothing would be more disastrous and out of harmony with our self-interest,” the Reverend King said, “than … to travel a dead-end road of inordinate selfishness.”

The Reverend King reminded Americans, during the divided and traumatized decade of the 1960s, of the values that had originally created this country. King belongs to a tradition of dissenting preachers stretching back to the 1700’s. Christianity, according to one historian, “joined with Whig political views to give a resonant core of love of liberty and courageous resistance to tyranny and corruption to a great moral and political cause as the heartbeat of the American community (source).” This was not the kind of Christianity which leads to clannish, sectarian disputes. Instead, it was the purer Christianity which teaches that we are all brothers and sisters, the Christianity that has earned the respect and love of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and people who hold other faiths or no religious faith at all. 

To illustrate King’s place within this tradition, consider the similarities between his own beliefs and those of the 18th century preacher Reverend Richard Price. 

As most of the evils which have taken place in private life, and among individuals, have been occasioned by the desire of private interest overcoming the public affections; so most of the evils which have taken place among bodies of men have been occasioned by the desire of their own interest overcoming the principle of universal benevolence: and leading them to attack one another's territories, to encroach on one another's rights, and to endeavor to build their own advancement on the degradation of all within the reach of their power (source).
The Reverend Price is one of the forgotten Founders of this country. He was a personal friend of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Thomas Jefferson.  In a letter to Price, Jefferson said, “the American war seems first to have awakened the thinking part of this nation in general from the sleep of despotism in which they were sunk (source).”  

What is it that causes a people to ignore the loss of their freedom? And what is it that awakens a people and inspires action?

Nothing can be more friendly to the general rights of mankind; and were it duly regarded and practiced every man would consider every other man as his brother, and all the animosity that now takes place among contending nations would be abolished ... Why are the nations of the world so patient under despotism? Why do they crouch to tyrants, and submit to be treated as if they were a herd of cattle? Is it not because they are kept in darkness, and want knowledge? Enlighten them and you will elevate them. Show them they are men, and they will act like men. Give them just ideas of civil government, and let them know that it is an expedient for gaining protection against injury and defending their rights, and it will be impossible for them to submit to governments which, like most of those now in the world, are usurpations on the rights of men, and little better than contrivances for enabling the few to oppress the many (source).
An enlightened public, not widespread ownership of guns, is the surest protection against tyranny. But it is easier to build oneself a personal arsenal than to educate oneself, and give expression to one's convictions.
An ad from Remington.

The principle of other-preservation, of benevolence, of concern for the public good – this was central to the thinking of Reverend Price. And it was also the core of Reverend King’s philosophy. King used the term agap­e: taken from the Greek, the word refers to brotherly love, as distinct from erotic love or the affection one person has for another. King said, 

Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to sacrifice in the interest of mutuality. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community. It doesn't stop at the first mile, but it goes the second mile to restore community. It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community.
Speaking in Memphis, King said, “If a man does not have a job or income, at that moment you deprive him of life. You deprive him of liberty. And you deprive him of the pursuit of happiness." He described a “dangerous unselfishness” that will bring change to society if it inspires people to give up their frightened dependency on self-interest and begin to think about improving the lives of others. He spoke of the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Levite who saw the injured man by the side of the road and did not stop. King conjectured, “the first question that the Levite asked was, 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?'”

The day after he said this, a man with a gun took his life. 

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