Today America celebrates “Martin Luther King Jr.” day. In my opinion his social vision is one not only one to be celebrated, but to be experimented with and practiced. Indeed, I do believe Martin Luther King Jr. should be honored. But more often than not when the Empire honors someone it only means that his message has become emasculated and his memory shaped to fit it in with the agenda of the state. In other words, the figure and his message are betrayed by the state that now claims to honor him. His message has become watered down enough to be heralded by a power that once feared the repurcussion of its practice.
Behold the expensive stained glass window of Jesus in a multi-million dollar Cathedral and what is the message that you hear? Initially, it seems rather obvious that Jesus is being honored. However, on closer inspection it seems ludicrous that a community that claims to follow the poor Rabbi has funneled so much money into building a stain glassed window of someone who preferred the company of tramps over attending religious observance inside of sacred buidlings. No doubt Jesus could be better served by his followers giving time and resources to connect with the poor and marginalized in the community. No doubt he would rather be recognized in “the least of these” rather than in an artistic representation of himself in a stained glass window. Hopefully, you see my point.
The social vision of Martin Luther King Jr. continued to grow as he did. This is a unique and special thing. He became well known for his leadership and participation in the civil rights movement. In fact, the bulk of what is celebrated and talked about on “Martin Luther King” day are civil rights issues. And this is fine. But Martin Luther King had a wholistic view of man, the community, and the nature of the answer to systemic evil. The evils of society could not be isolated from each other. They were all connected. I would even postulate that the last great evil he began to address and fight is the root cause of the other intial evils of racism and war that he first confronted.
He began by confronting the evil of racism, went on to tackle the immorality and futility of war, and was killed while addressing the issue of poverty, economic disparity, and the struggle of labor against capital. He was not killed while marching for civil rights. He was not killed for speaking out against the war in Vietnam. He was murdered while standing with African American sanitation workers- union workers- who were striking for better wages and working conditions. Think about that for a moment. He came to see that much of what undergirds racism and war are the pursuit of profit, the treatment of people as mere machines to produce, and a dog-eat-dog economic system that benefits from working people- poor people- being divided.
Martin Luther King did not abandon civil rights to stand against war. It was a natural progression. If we are for equality between the black and white person in America, how can we fight against the yellow person in Vietnam? Why should young black men go and fight for a country that doesn’t even recognize them to be human beings worthy of dignity and respect? He saw that war was not for the protection of the people but for the interests of capital and of the state (and that these two interests are severly intertwined).
And from addressing the issue of war he went on to tackle the issue of poverty. It makes sense to keep poor black and poor whites divided. Because as long as they fight each other they will be powerless to recongize, let alone fight against, the power of the rich who oppress them and keep them in poverty. Martin Luther King began to call for a dramatic redistribution of wealth in this country. He dared to tackle a problem that few were willing to recongize let alone address. And he dared to offer solutions that butted heads with “orthodox” American ideology, especially in the midst of the cold war.
I would like to point out one final thing about MLK. He was able to tackle political issues without becoming entrenched in the political system. This is a rare, and needful, thing. He refused to become a politician or a legislator. Instead, he opted for organizing the people and for direct action. And though he shunned entrance into the political system, he did not shun political issues. Politics are simply that which pertains to the governing of our community. Christians of our day seem to gravitate to one of two camps: they either become politicians or become devoted to a political party/ideology, or they bury their heads in the sand and opt out of relevant conversation and struggle.
King did something unique. He entered the conversation and affected it far more than either politician or spiritual guru. He spoke to power as one with authority. Most either try to speak to power by becoming part of the power, or they ignore the power and keep quiet. King did neither. He spoke as one outside of the system but deeply entrenched in the community of fellow human beings. This, among other things, reminds me of that ancient Galilean Rabbi who threw money changers out of the temple and vehemently corrected the political, economic and religious powers of his day, while still asserting that his kingdom was not of this world.