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MLK Was a Philosopher of Hope. He Reminds Us That Apathy Is a Dead End.

On MLK Day, the U.S. should painfully interrogate its monumental failure to address systemic injustice.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is pictured speaking in September, 1967.

As we honor the 38th celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I feel a deep burning sense of unspeakable sadness in my soul — at other times, horror. Not much feels right in the world. To be a person who truly longs for collective justice, universal peace, shared love and compassion, and the end of hatred, it is not possible to remain content with the status quo, to be indifferent to oppression wherever it raises its ugly head, to see the results of poverty and remain silent, to remain unresponsive to the murder of innocent children around the world, ethnic cleansing and the march toward fascistic rule, as we see here in the United States and abroad.

Dr. King’s dear friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with King and who also powerfully spoke against social evil with prophetic passion, reminds us: “The prophets’ great contribution to humanity was the discovery of the evil of indifference. One may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.”

MLK Day should not be reduced to a day of rest but should be lifted up as a day of active interrogation, a day where the U.S. finds itself in tears because of its monumental failure to address systemic injustice. As Dr. King said during his presidential address at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, “Let us be dissatisfied.” In other words, along with Rabbi Heschel, King was aware of just how being “pious” and “decent” can function to conceal the deeper realities of social, political and unethical stench. To be dissatisfied is to be ethically intolerant of the pervasive cruelty of this world. Dr. King knew that injustice was “like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up.” It “must be opened with all its ugliness … to the light of human conscience.”

To help galvanize our collective conscience, to nurture a form of dissatisfaction that demands justice and agape, and to better understand and appreciate the complex and radical work of Dr. King, I turned to eminent scholar Josiah Ulysses Young III, professor of systematic theology at Wesley Theological Seminary. It is Young’s clarity and courageous speech regarding the importance of Dr. King that we need in this moment. His scholarship critically engages theological implications of African American experience and spirituality, and his most recent book is entitled, Black Lives Matter and the Image of God: A Theo-Anthropological Study.

George Yancy: Most people are enamored by Martin Luther King Jr.’s emphasis on Agape love, which is a form of love that overflows and “makes no distinction between friend and enemy.” Each year this nation celebrates the King who had a dream. And while agape love is a fundamentally powerful concept in the face of anti-Blackness, and King’s dream spoke to an aspirational “post-racial” U.S., it is important to name the enduring ugly realities that have outlived King. He referred to them as “the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.”

Pulling from the work of philosopher Martin Buber, King understood that racism, materialism and militarism reduce relationships to an “I-It,” where human beings are reduced to things, where an “I-Thou” relationship ceases to flourish. King wasn’t just concerned with racial prejudices, as I have heard from many white liberals, but with deep forms of violent structural white power, white privilege and unconscious racism; he wasn’t concerned with valuing trinkets but with profound wealth inequality, where people in the U.S. languish in poverty despite the fact that the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world. He wasn’t just concerned with minor skirmishes but with military power that leaves thousands dead in its wake and where military might makes “right.”

Like Socrates (to whom King compared himself), King spoke with parrhesia/courageous speech and refused to allow ethical and epistemic mediocrity to dominate the polis. In fact, King was clear that what is most important is “restructuring the whole of American society.” That is radical! As we know, because of their radicality, Socrates was condemned to drink hemlock and King was murdered by an assassin’s bullet. Both were deemed threats to the status quo. I am interested in the fact that King was seen as a “threat.” The more that he passionately critiqued the perpetuation of injustices within the U.S. and abroad, the more King became a threat to those in power in the U.S. King could not be silent in the face of social evil, as he believed that “a time comes when silence is betrayal.” Moreover, his resistance had to be global, as he held that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Many have too quickly accepted a sanitized version of King. It is important to keep in mind that it was just before his death that, “public opinion polls showed 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of African Americans disapproved of his opposition to the [Vietnam] war and his campaign to eradicate poverty.” Given the continued existence of vicious racism, unrestrained materialism and brutal militarism in the U.S., we are in desperate need of King’s voice and vision. Yet there are so many who, as King would say, “do not know the world in which they live.” They don’t seem to be aware of the magnitude of the catastrophes under which we live. What is it about the radical King that people fail or refuse to understand or to accept, especially given this (neofascist) anti-democratically disastrous moment in U.S. history?

Josiah Ulysses Young III: I think some people repress the memory of the radical King because they can’t accept his truth and that of millions across the nation: The North American republic hasn’t been a citadel of fair play and equal opportunity. Instead, it’s been a dollar-driven republic that has cruelly enforced white privilege. People submerged in privilege might disagree. Dr. King, though, was a great-grandson of enslaved people on his mother’s and father’s side. He knew our republic was formed in injustice and had no intention of being just for the sake of the poor and oppressed unless made to. The poised and confident ways in which he carried himself publicly revealed that oppressed people, especially Black people, knew that a former enslaving republic in which white supremacy was still sacrosanct was neither free nor brave.

This land — I say this as a Native son — is built on crimes against humanity. Denial of that is cowardice that bans books that tell the truth objectively. People who think they are above reproach don’t like to see the truth on display, in print or on the streets. They pigeonhole the truth as “anti-American.” They can’t, or won’t, admit that Black people and other nonwhites are not what they think we are. Consequently, they don’t know themselves (to allude to James Baldwin). But those “gifted with second sight in this American world” (isn’t that what Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois said?) know who’s who.

The outrage King received because he condemned the Vietnam War unveiled a worldview as old as pre-Civil War days: White men call the shots! Stay in your place, or else. That’s what Donald Trump stands for. That’s what January 6, 2021, was about. The MAGA movement is an eminently U.S. illusion. Venality and lawlessness are goodness and lawful if they uphold white supremacy and the capitalist power that makes it go. People who feel that way despise reality. They have even used Dr. King’s words to hide their hypocrisy. They can’t, or won’t, deal with the truth.

I would describe King as a social philosopher of hope. King was, it seems to me, not hopeless. However, he didn’t hesitate to point out just how bleak the future could be. As philosopher and civil rights activist Cornel West reminds us, “On April 4, 1968, in Memphis — the last day of his life — Martin Luther King, Jr., phoned Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta with the title of his Sunday sermon: ‘Why America May Go to Hell.’ If he had preached this sermon, the radical King would be well known.” Counterfactually, I have also wondered what impact King’s sermon would have had on those hearing it and heeding his prophetic advice. Notice that the title is conditional — “May Go to Hell.” So even on the last day of his life, King had not given up hope or succumbed to a defeating nihilism.

I have often felt the powerful sting of nihilism, especially during moments when the U.S. (indeed, the world) seems to be going to hell, to use King’s discourse. Of course, for me there is also a sense of cosmic alienation, a sense of possibly being alone in a hellishly meaningless universe in which there is absolutely nothing of deep metaphysical meaning.

Can you talk about King’s understanding of Christian theology (not the predominantly white kind of Christianity practiced by MAGA followers) and how it personally sustained him in a world filled with so much hatred, brutality and moral ineptitude. Also, in our contemporary moment, what would King identify as theologically indispensable not just for the moral sickness within the U.S. but for the world?

“Liberal” thinkers like Benjamin E. Mays, Walter Rauschenbusch and Edgar S. Brightman helped form Dr. King’s theology. He was thus closer to Friedrich Schleiermacher than Karl Barth, whom he called an “anti-rationalist.” Dr. King thus set no stock in the virgin birth, the resurrection and the rapture, doctrines many Trump-supporting evangelicals uphold with the same enthusiasm that they uphold white privilege.

When King said the U.S. might go to hell, he was warning us that this republic could become even more dystopian if its leaders didn’t realize that all humans bear God’s image. Hell, therefore, wasn’t for him some Godforsaken place in a hidden dimension Lucifer controlled. Instead, this world, with its death camps and annihilating bombs, was on its way to chaos because men and women love power more than humaneness. Dr. King thought that the fiery darkness of nuclear annihilation would descend on us if we failed to embrace every person’s sacredness. The person reflects the absolute Person, the Creator, who, King claims, endows us with self-consciousness and self-direction. Self-consciousness indicates our innate ability to recognize our likeness to God, while self-direction suggests our ability to live the agapic, nonviolent life Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi did. One often defines agape as disinterested love, but that’s somewhat misleading. Agapic love is interested in the well-being of others more than oneself.

King’s denunciation of the Vietnam War and waxing interest in democratic socialism brought down the ire of the status quo, but he didn’t back down. As the recent documentary King in the Wilderness points out, he was sure that an assassin’s scope had his name on it, but he was determined to sacrifice himself for poor sanitation workers. That’s the love he was talking and writing about. That’s what agape meant to him. That’s why he lost his life in his 39th year. Maybe his efforts to abolish poverty and “redeem the soul” of this nation were quixotic, but his Poor People’s Campaign was the way, the truth and the life for him. If most people were willing to lay it on the line so that others might lead unoppressed lives, they would understand what sustained Dr. King and was theologically indispensable for him. Faith in a personal God and service to the least of us were imperative for Dr. King.

It seems to me that we can’t separate the moral and political King from the theological King. These aspects of his identity seem to be inextricably linked. King’s moral, social and political views are linked to his philosophy of nonviolence, which is linked to his understanding that we are all created in the image of God (the Imago Dei). Yet, it is hard at times to believe, along with King, that we are created in the image of God. All of us, I’m sure, have exhibited behaviors that belie such a Christian framework. What I’m interested in is King’s optimism in the face of so much evil and injustice and how that optimism is fundamentally linked to his understanding of love and nonviolent resistance. For example, in a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” King said:

“Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force…. We will not only win our freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”

There is much to be said about the power of loving one’s enemies. My sense is that King was more concerned with hating evil systems as opposed to hating human beings. I see Trump and other predominantly far right extremists not only as “bitter opponents” but as threats to my life, your life, the life of this fragile democratic experiment. Trump and his minions don’t seem to have a heart and conscience that can be won through soul force or what Gandhi called satyagraha.

The Black writer and poet Claude McKay’s poem, “If We Must Die,” was published in 1919 during pervasive anti-Black violence perpetrated by white people in the U.S. The last line of that poem reads, “Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” I don’t think that McKay had nonviolence in mind. In fact, the 11th line down he writes, “And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!” Josiah, I don’t advocate wanton violence. Yet, I’m not as optimistic as King. While not unique to the present moment in U.S. history, anti-democratic voices in the U.S. and white far right extremists don’t give a damn about my life or my children’s lives. Nonviolence is a central tenet of King’s. What is the relevance of King’s vision for our contemporary moment as we face what I see as political forces of evil?

I don’t consign King’s nonviolent praxis to the trash heap of history. And I don’t hold that we should take it on the chin no matter what. McKay’s “If We Must Die” has its place. I’ve memorized it since my teenage years, especially these lines:

“O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

What though before us lies the open grave?”

Death is inevitable, but why die with yellow streaks down our backs when facing “the mad and hungry dogs”? Minister Malcolm X displayed one kind of courage, and Dr. King displayed another. Whether one is passionate about self-defense or Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa (no harm), the main thing is to live a liberated life, which is impossible if the fear of death frightens us into submission. There’s no if about it. We must die, and we will, but why settle for an unfree life while we are alive? Why not make the liberation of Black consciousness our “ultimate concern” (to allude to the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich)? Minister Malcolm’s “by any means necessary” mantra doesn’t mean we must draw blood indiscriminately. He does remind us, however, that cold-blooded murder had been the modus operandi across the Southland. It may be necessary, therefore, to defend ourselves from the “monsters we defy,” but there’s no one way to do that.

Fannie Lou Hamer kept her shotgun close by after attempts to kill her; Medgar Evers considered undertaking guerrilla-like tactics in Mississippi before he was shot in the back; Bob Moses of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee took the nonviolent approach, but he didn’t reject those who were strapped as they navigated Mississippi’s dangerous night roads. The great Ella Baker reminds us that the freedom struggle doesn’t preclude armed self-defense. We who believe in freedom must know when to take up arms and when to turn the other cheek. Dr. King’s hope to establish a Roycean Beloved Community may be unattainable. The notion that we can take on the powers that be mano-a-mano seems suicidal. As folklorist Sterling A. Brown has put it, they got the

judges

They got the lawyers

They got the jury-rolls

They got the law

They don’t come by ones.”

Dr. King’s nonviolent praxis is the wisest way forward if you ask me, but I doubt humankind can live that way to the last man and woman. When the chips are down, one shouldn’t be a sitting-duck. Self-defense has its place, especially when our children’s lives are at stake. The days when monsters can take our children into the bloody night while we wring our hands are gone. Remember Emmet Till?

I do indeed remember Emmet Till.

What is it about King’s vision that has the potential not only to create and sustain “a genuine revolution of values” but will usher in a revolutionary transformation of the U.S. as such, or do you think I’ve become seduced by too much optimism?

The key word here, George, is potential, meaning possibility. What’s possible isn’t guaranteed, but we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand either. I’m not optimistic that people will bury the hatchet and build the Beloved Community. But I hope the radical King’s humane convictions will enlighten more and more folk. Optimism is often Pollyannish, but hope swims against the stream. Hope forbids despair, not because we’ll “win,” but because few things make life more meaningful than facing the truth: The future is bleak if we don’t change our ways.

Hopefully, more people will see that the MAGA approach to life and the weapons of mass destruction unleashed in the southern Levant constitute a dead end. If our species becomes wise, we’ll realize King is correct, “A genuine revolution of values means our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must … develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole … to preserve the best in their … societies.” Charity begins at home. White privilege and its specious ideologies must give way to agapic interaction if there’s to be a revolutionary transformation in this country.

Reparations could be a start, though I doubt they’ll ever transpire. A certain Afropessimism runs too deep. According to Frank B. Wilderson III, Afropessimism signifies “the libidinal economy that positions the Black imago as a phobogenic object.” According to him, this dread inundates “the collective unconscious” and drives it, posing “a meta-aporia for political thought and action.” That’s why Blacks still catch hell, as Minster Malcolm X put it. Reparations for African Americans (and Indigenous peoples) would acknowledge their humanity and the vicious history that has tried to strip them of it, a history we’re still trying to overcome. If white Americans dread such an acknowledgment, they can’t embrace the humanity of other people worldwide (or their humanity, for that matter). That would foreshadow disaster.

Whether the microbes will inherit the Earth after nuclear devastation is up to us. To paraphrase King’s statement, we’ll die as clowns if we don’t live as siblings. I’m not optimistic, brother, but I’m hopeful. Hopelessness breeds apathy. I don’t want to go out like that.

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