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O My America: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Human Possibility
Jewish Currents magazine published this editorial eleven years ago. It is astounding, and appalling, how relevant it remains today, with only slight tweaks. — Lawrence Bush
“WHEN WE COME to the collective life of man, we see a strange badness,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1961 before the interracial Fellowship of the Concerned in Atlanta. As we approach the Nobel Peace Laureate’s 86th birthday, that ‘strange badness’ is overwhelmingly evident in our world. War and even genocide are commonplace. The willingness of human beings to destroy each other based on ethnic, religious, or racial differences is creating chaos in impoverished lands from Sudan and Congo to Syria and Palestine. The use of mass violence as a tool of state policy is endangering democracy from the U.S. to Russia. The resort to terrorism is creating fear and contempt for Islam throughout the non-Islamic world. Women remain virtually enslaved to their fathers, husbands, and other men across much of the globe. And the peculiar insensitivity of the human race towards posterity is producing environmental strangulation. From where shall our help come?
Dr. King’s stature is based foremost upon his courageous life of action, but his legacy is not confined to the accomplishments of the American civil rights movement, profoundly transformative as those were. He also articulated a perception about the interdependence of humanity and expressed a fundamental faith in the capacity of human beings to overcome our ‘strange badness.’ These teachings made Martin Luther King, Jr. a world prophet whose words remain among the best inspiration we have for building a sane and decent future.
An internationalist in the very best sense of the word, Dr. King taught that “every nation is an heir of a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead of all nations have contributed.... We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women” from all around the world. As a result, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.... This is the way our world is made” (quoted from The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., 1983).
Whether we derive this reality principle, as Dr. King did, from Christianity’s “beloved community;” or from Judaism’s concept of b’tselem elohim (made in the divine image); or from scientific evidence about DNA and evolution; or from a Marxist idea of “species being;” or from a simple, secular feeling of brotherhood/sisterhood; the recognition of the reality of human interdependence is a starting point for any progressive, compassionate politics — and its denial is a starting point on the road to violence and political reaction.
YET OUR COMMON HUMANITY can be difficult to recognize in the face of worldwide horror. Both victims and victimizers can seem less than peers, even less than human, in our eyes: the skeletal Somalian whose humanity has been dulled by starvation; the American white racist whose humanity has been narrowed by hatred; the ISIS terrorist whose humanity has been compromised by ideology; the Israeli Jewish settler whose humanity has been distorted by chauvinism; the Thai prostitute whose humanity has been commodified by sexual exploitation. What Dr. King reminded us is that the condition of each — even of the evil-doers — is based less on his or her inferiority or personal failing than on some historical social injustice, usually enforced with violence, that continues to shape the present. “Justice so long deferred,” he taught, “has accumulated interest and its cost for... society will be substantial.” Unless those costs get paid, “time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of... social destruction.”
Notwithstanding these words, Dr. King also believed in the redeemability of all human beings from these “primitive forces.” This belief was the foundation of his philosophy of disciplined, nonviolent resistance. “The nonviolent approach,” he said, “... first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had.” After that, it “awaken(s) a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation... while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” Such faith in the capacity of nonviolent resistance to reach the conscience (as well as the pocketbook!) of the oppressor was no naive expression of hope, but a strategy tested throughout the civil rights struggle.
Today, these beliefs in the interconnection and redeemability of human beings are hardly in play in world politics. Greed, ethnic chauvinism, nationalism, sexism, religious triumphalism — these are the divisive forces that rule instead, continually misshaping our humanity. Unfortunately, our own government, for all of its rhetoric about “spreading freedom” through the world, is far more a part of the problem than a solution. Our militarism and easy resort to violence, in particular, are helping to push the world further along the path to hell.
IT IS PAST TIME to revivify the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Jewish community might do its part to renew the power of that relationship by continuing to embrace the annual observance of Dr. King’s birthday as a Jewish day of commemoration, rededication, and outreach to our neighbors. Beyond the holiday, Jewish organizations should reinvolve themselves with bread-and-butter issues that continue to confront African Americans. The Black Lives Matter movement, the living wage movement, the movement against mass incarceration — these are movements, involved with issues of racism, violence, and poverty, that are of key importance to the Black community. Jews, as Jews, should be rolling up their sleeves and getting involved.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.