Pious Irrelevancies and Sanctimonious Trivialities
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 the President of the United States, on record referring to African nations as “sh**hole countries” and advising lawmakers of color, all citizens, to go back to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” signed a proclamation declaring January 20 a federal holiday in honor of Dr. King. This reveals what has become of Dr. King’s revolution – it has been reduced to what King called “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
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! But the President of the United States, his goons, his mindless minions and even many sympathetic to King embody everything he struggled against.
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 that, as he himself pointed out, as a Baptist preacher his Christian calling was antithetical to communism: “…no Christian can be a communist because communism leaves out God.” 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. The social divisions once characterized by segregation laws continue, not just between blacks and whites, but between toxic white nationalists 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 confined to 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]
This is not the American 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. 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 nation where everyone had an equal opportunity to the pursuit of gluttonous materialism. 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.
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. His task was to further the ultimate vision of the Christian faith:
Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away. (Rev. 21:3-4 NABRE)
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 Shalom.
Ellis, Kate, and Stephen Smith. “King’s Last March.” APMReports (No publication date). https://features.apmreports.org/arw/king/d4.html.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [king, Jr.]” AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER – UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
____________________. “I Have a Dream.” Speech, Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.
____________________. “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence.” Speech, Riverside Church, New York, NY, April 4, 1967. https://americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm.
____________________. “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March.” Stanford: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. Accessed November 1, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/address-conclusion-selma-montgomery-march.
____________________. “The Other America.” Grosse Point Historical Society. Accessed November 1, 2018. http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/.
____________________. “Can a Christian Be a Communist?.” Sermon, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta Ga, September 30, 1962. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/can-christian-be-communist-sermon-delivered-ebenezer-baptist-church.
Marsh, Charles. The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
Ravitsky, Dr. Aveizer. “Shalom: Peace in Hebrew.” My Jewish Learning. Accessed January 19, 2020. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shalom/.
 Josh Dawson, “Trump Derides Protections for Immigrants from ‘shithole’ Countries,” Washington Post, January 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-attacks-protections-for-immigrants-from-shithole-countries-in-oval-office-meeting/2018/01/11/bfc0725c-f711-11e7-91af-31ac729add94_story.html.
 Bianca Quilantan David Cohen, “Trump Tells Dem Congresswomen: Go Back Where You Came From,” Politico, July 14, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/07/14/trump-congress-go-back-where-they-came-from-1415692.
 Proclamation on Martin Luther King, Jr., Federal Holiday, 2020, (January 17, 2020). https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-martin-luther-king-jr-federal-holiday-2020/
 Kate Ellis and Stephen Smith, “King’s Last March,” APMReports (No publication date), https://features.apmreports.org/arw/king/d4.html.
 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Can a Christian Be a Communist?” (sermon, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta Ga, September 30, 1962), https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/can-christian-be-communist-sermon-delivered-ebenezer-baptist-church.
 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” (speech, Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963), https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.
 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam – a Time to Break Silence” (speech, Riverside Church, New York, NY, April 4, 1967), https://americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm.