There have been many political movements throughout history that were successful without being morally virtuous. What works and what’s right are often in opposition to one another. We are now living in a time when political success is directly related to how sleazy and manipulating a politician is willing to be (and how much money his/her supporters have). But Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday offers an opportunity to dream about a time when taking the higher moral ground resulted in political success. Even though Dr. King’s movement came to be known as the Civil Rights Movement, his agenda wasn’t primarily about rights; it was about reconciliation between enemies. I thought I would look at a couple of his quotes and ponder briefly what our political world would be like if we followed his example.
The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness. MLK, 1957
The method of nonviolence seeks not to humiliate and not to defeat the oppressor, but it seeks to win his friendship and his understanding. And thereby and therefore the aftermath of this method is reconciliation. MLK, 1956
Nowhere does King talk about making sure that white segregationists “pay the price” for the evil they did. His purpose was not to destroy them, but to “win their friendship and understanding” so they could come together into a single “beloved community.” Imagine how different our country would be if we shared King’s goal of reconciliation with our ideological opponents. What if we actually took an interest in winning our enemies’ friendship and understanding rather than looking for clever ways to zing them and defeat them? Political negotiations would look very different if the goal were to build trust and achieve reconciliation rather than sabotage the other side’s agenda for the purpose of defeating them electorally.
I think there are several factors in our information age that work against our willingness to embrace King’s vision of reconciliation. First of all, we do a whole lot of talking that isn’t true conversation particularly in the day of social networks. I’ve had ugly online exchanges before with people who were actually delightful to talk to when we sat down face to face. Secondly, the way to get attention in the information age is to express yourself as controversially as possible. If you’re not controversial, your blog or facebook page might as well not exist. There’s a whole industry built off of fanning the flames of political vitriol. I call it the outrage industrial complex (and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been a participant). Thirdly, our political discourse is happening in cyberspace rather than in the local barbershop or soda fountain or bar or another forum in which we sit face-to-face with others who have a different point of view. This contributes to a much more polarized political tribalism. We self-identify with our ideological constituencies rather than sharing multiple ideologies as a single community.
In any case, one of the best things about the congregation that I have the privilege of serving is that we are a very ideologically diverse, “purple” community. I imagine that there are fewer and fewer places like us around. It has been excellent training for me in learning how to find the truth within multiple perspectives. I am trying to follow the example of Dr. King in how I interact with others. What I want is to win them for Christ (as opposed to winning them over to my views) and hopefully be won for Christ by them at the same time. I screw this up all the time, but God is teaching me and my church has been gracious to me. I want to close with a powerful Biblical passage that my friend Laurie shared tonight that speaks to the kind of attitude we need to have if we are to follow King’s example of reconciliation: