I wonder why I’ve never been assigned to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and speeches and letters.
I’ve spent some time today reading a few of them, and I’m embarrassed at never having done so before.
I was reading King’s now-historically titled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” because I went looking for some quotes from Dr. King that are lesser-known to the masses. (I do this every year because I shamefully do little else in recognition of his influence and the sacrifice of his life, and I feel like I can at least take some time to reflect, since that’s much of what he was asking us to do all those years ago.) I had found one such quote, and sought its source for context. In part, the reason I went looking for the source was because the quote, in juxtaposition with present-day electoral politics, seemed to have gained new life.
This is where I stop to think of whether it is fair to apply more universally a sentiment about the struggle to end the oppression of black people. In doing so, do I diminish the call that is unique to that people? Do I, essentially, usurp “black lives matter” in favor of “all lives matter”? Do I, as one does when espousing all lives, blunt the power of the voices raised for the 400th year against oppression of one people that still has not seen justice fully realized? Do I imply that the injustices their people have suffered are equal to injustices done to me?
I’m going to risk it with the clear implication that it is not my intention to detract, but to recognize that Dr. King, I think, would have raised his voice a lot in the last year or two to support others who are struggling for freedom and understanding.
“…The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
~Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
One of the greatest things about this country is that we’re free to say whatever we want about its government and its people, but there is now an abuse of that freedom that makes some of us think it’s right to stand in our insistence and shout that dissenters are more than wrong, that they’re idiots, devils, communists, socialists, lunatics and trolls. This nation’s freedoms of speech and expression have been twisted into a compulsion to berate without conscience, and to spread it in unprecedentedly broad swaths with a keystroke. We’ve been fostered in our misguided belief that freedom of speech equates with encouragement to spout opinion at every opportunity. In the old rally cry that warns, “Don’t tread on me,” we have become the snake that eats itself.
There are no saints in a culture that champions schadenfreude.
Nowhere has this seemed more obvious than in the presidential race we are currently enduring. I am struck by how tired the spectators have been made by the marathon. We have a field of Republican candidates so pushed to extremes by its perception of a shifting base that those who were dismissed from some circles years ago for their own extremism now seem perfectly reasonable and measured. We have a field of Democratic candidates who bore us in debate because there is a less belabored circus, even while no opportunity is missed to fling bile on absent dissenters.
It is tempting, and has always been, to hate politicians for the way they spar, for the way they turn what we profess to love as a governing system into an intractable mess of complexly woven and codependent governance by spite. It is, at worst, a spiral into hell that destroys democracies. At best, it is a horror show. It’s a show of extremism and rancor directed at all who are “other.”
But what has dawned on me more and more as we watch it all unfold is that the actors take the stage for us. We have settled into the certainty that we deserve to stand firm in our thoughts with ears closed to disagreement rather than open to understanding, and hands clenched into fists rather than clasped in handshakes. We have acquired some misguided sense of having been persecuted for our perspectives, when we have suffered no indignity approaching what we inflict on others in our intransigence.
This is where I believe Dr. King’s voice would have been raised. Whether it’s those who disagree with sentiment or those who seek asylum on our shores, those who haven’t followed whatever path we presume to prescribe or those who don’t fit a 200-year-old perception of the Judeo-Christian mold, those who are criminalized for believing in a different creed or those who are hated in general for the most tangential association with the evil deeds of a most specific group, we have once again proven ourselves a nation consumed by refusal to hear and understand, so that we may preserve a status quo because to do otherwise would force us to question our self-assurance.
Politicians, after all, seek the votes of those who agree.
This election is not about politicians or politics. It is about Americans. It is about for what this nation truly stands.
And isn’t that the most terrifying thing of all?