Taming a Revolution

January 14th, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The thing about revolutions is that they never seem to happen at convenient times. This is because revolutions seek to change the way things are, and those who benefit from the way things are seek continuity. They also control the apparatus of power: both physical power and the power to shape social discourse. So, from their point of view, any challenge to their dominance is at best untimely, if not variously disloyal or treasonous, and they have the means to enforce their will.

It is seldom wise to try to crush a revolution with physical force, because history shows that ideas, the engines of revolution, thrive in persecution. The way to overcome an idea is to discredit it, or to replace it with one that seems more reasonable. There are a number of historical instances of the status quo taming a revolution by seeming compromise. The announced compromise takes the wind out of the revolutionaries, and in the end nothing really changes.

Take for example the case of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was a revolutionary in the most radical sense of the word. Yet I noticed the other day that within hours of his latest racist public defecation, the President signed a proclamation declaring January 15 a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King. The occurrence of the two almost coincident events reveals what has become of Dr. King’s revolution.

The text of the Proclamation repeats the myth the status quo would hope to be King’s legacy. It is very pious, non-threatening. It employs symbolic language linking King and the Civil Rights Movement to the American myth; words like justice, freedom, equal opportunity. They are very powerful words. They reveal a vision of America that doesn’t square with the President’s track record, but one that almost everyone can agree upon in principle. They inspire the human spirit. But they also represent qualities that have yet to be realized in the United States. Our national response to King and the Civil Rights Movement is a contented sigh: thank God we are free at last!

That a man who has engineered his personal rise to prominence on racism and division, who was endorsed by and continues to enjoy the support of the Ku Klux Klan, could publish such a proclamation suggests the revolution King fought is unfinished. In his lifetime King, and the Civil Rights Movement itself, was met with fear and derision. It challenged one of the most deeply held American traditions: that to be American meant to be white. After delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech King fell under surveillance by the FBI. He was labelled by a prominent FBI official, “the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation.” He was accused of being a communist at the height of the Cold War in spite of the fact, as he himself pointed out, that as a Baptist preacher his Christian calling was antithetical to communism. No matter. The establishment needed for him to be crushed, and would use any means, including the most foul and vicious, to do so.

When we remember the Civil Rights Movement we point to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ending legal segregation and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteeing free access to the ballot as the climax – a heroic triumph. But the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and segregation has morphed into less obvious but more pernicious forms. And of course the social divisions once characterized by segregation laws continue, not just between blacks and whites, but between toxic white nationalism and other traditionally less powerful groups: women, people of color, religious, ethnic and cultural minorities. In some ways we are worse off than we were. At least in the good old days racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice were proudly proclaimed by their devotees, and so they could be openly identified and opposed. Now, or at least until recently, those devotees have crawled under rocks, working their malice from the shadows.

And what of King’s revolution? What did he envision? One of the things that makes King’s dream so hard for modern secular Americans to imagine is that his vision grew out of his Christian calling. He became a public figure by his work in the Civil Rights arena, but his fight was not just for justice for blacks. He pronounced his dream,

when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! [emphasis mine][1]

This is not the American secular dream of a chicken in every pot and an iPhone X in every pocket. It is the Biblical vision of a creation redeemed from enmity with God. It is a return to Eden. It is Shalom – a state of being without conflict and without blemish and with the full enjoyment of intimacy with each other and with God.[2] It is a perfect life in a perfect world. It is a patently Christian vision. And it includes everyone.

Dr. King was never shy about pointing out that his concern wasn’t just for integration or Civil Rights. He employed the rhetoric of American mythology to relate what Americans could understand to what he was doing, but he would not have been content just to make the US a better, more equal place. His goal was the goal of Christian eschatology: God’s perfect reign on Earth. This became clearer when he began to openly oppose the War in Vietnam. He was criticized not only by white Americans but also by leaders of the Civil Rights Movement when in 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, he delivered a speech denouncing American militarism and materialism as “moral suicide,” and had the audacity to warn that America would continue to be on the wrong side until it underwent a “revolution of values:” from a thing-oriented to a people-oriented society.[3]

Martin Luther King was not an American hero in the mold of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. He was a prophet in the Biblical mold. I urge the reader to read or re-read his Letter From Birmingham City Jail. It will take about 20-30 minutes, but one cannot walk away from the reading without realizing that the social dilemma that racked the United States in 1963 still challenges us. The names have changed but the faces: of the oppressed, the oppressor, and the people caught in the winds of history, have remained the same.

Dr. King’s revolution has been derailed. But the revolution for Shalom continues. Let us not be content with myths and doublespeak mouthing inane non-sequitur. On this commemoration of the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us rededicate ourselves to his truly revolutionary vision, and be content with nothing less than perfection.

I enclose below a number of relevant quotes from Letter From Birmingham City Jail as well as links to pertinent sources.

Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

In the midst of blatant injustices … I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.


Letter From Birmingham City Jail

“I Have A Dream” speech

“Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence” speech

Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March

“The Other America” speech

Marsh, Charles. The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. New York: Basic Books, 2005.


[1] http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm

[2] “In the Bible, the word shalom is most commonly used to refer to a state of affairs, one of well‑being, tranquility, prosperity, and security, circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect. Shalom is a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace.” (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shalom/)

[3] http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

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