"When Jesus says 'Love your enemies,' He is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world, that we must love our enemies - or else? The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation." -Martin Luther King, Jr.
It's ironic that the forty-second anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King should fall on Easter Sunday. The temptation to compare the the murder of Dr. King to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is almost irresistible. Like Jesus, King, particularly in the last year of his life, had become a prophet of peace. He had moved beyond the perimeters of American Civil Rights and had entered the lion's den of the international anti-war movement. And like Jesus, he incurred the wrath of a lot of powerful people.
One year before his death - forty-three years ago this past Sunday - he gave a sermon at the Riverside Church in New York City:
"A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom."
Well, what the hey! It appears to me that the good doctor was onto something there! In fact, we're way beyond "approaching spiritual doom", we're there, baby! Take a good look around you. This ain't your father's America. It's not even close. Paging Dr. King indeed.
Here's an even bigger irony: His assassin could have saved himself the inconvenience of a long prison sentence had he just bide his time. The sad fact of the matter is that by the spring of 1968, Dr. King was not long for this world. His autopsy revealed heart disease so advanced, it is doubtful he would have lived to see his mid-forties. His lifelong fondness for deep-fried southern cooking notwithstanding, the very fact of just being Martin Luther King must have been a burden that would have killed men a lot younger than he. Perhaps we should consider ourselves fortunate that he walked in our midst for as long as he did.
"If we assume that mankind has the right to exist, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In our day of space vehicles and guided ballistic missiles, the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence."
That's what I love about this guy! American history is littered with "Christian" religious leaders. Try as you might, you can't escape them. The thing that sets Reverend King apart from most of these guys is the fact that he wasn't a hypocrite. He never tried to twist the words of Jesus of Nazareth into anything other than what they were - a call to love one another and for kindness and gentleness. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton is another celebrated American Christian who took the gospel seriously. So was Dorothy Day. Please give me a day or two and I might be able to name more, but at the moment none come to mind. Both Merton and King died in 1968, Day in 1980. They're gone and they're not coming back.
There are a lot of people today doing what Dr. King did - in reverse. They are the Anti-Kings - or as I like to call them - the Martin Loony Kings. In his time on earth, King sought to appeal to the nation's conscience - to all that was good and (unfortunately at times) hidden in the American character. Today there are national spokespersons galore who would be happy to undo all the good work he did. Their stated purpose is to appeal to the darker demons of our nature. It's working. The number of people out there who seriously believe that our African American President is a "foreign born, Socialist Muslim" is growing by the day. The gullibility of so many Americans truly astounds. Would you like a little cyanide with your a cup of tea, ma'am?
"Through the vistas of time a voice still cries to every potential Peter, 'Put up your sword!' The shores of history are white with the bleached bones of nations and communities that failed to follow this command."
Give me some of that old time religion! You know - the stuff that Christ actually taught? Have you ever noticed that the right wing wants to have the Ten Commandments etched into the walls of American courthouses? And yet they never even mention the Sermon on the Mount. Why is that, you may ask? Because Christ's words in that sermon are anathema to the modern day Conservative movement. Read it sometime if you think I'm lying.
The aforementioned Dorothy Day once said that if you feed the hungry, they will call you a saint. If you ask why they are hungry, they'll call you a Communist. Martin Luther King was called a Communist (among many other things) during his all-too-short life. They would probably say the same thing about Jesus were He to return to earth on this Easter Sunday 2010. Those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" will suffer in their quest Heaven on earth - as did Christ; as did Dr. King.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
He was persecuted alright. J. Edgar Hoover once referred to him as "the most notorious liar in America". Somehow, this soft spoken, intellectual and introverted preacher was viewed as a hideous threat to all that was good and decent about America. Go figure. But wasn't that always the case? Think about it: the absolutely coolest people of the last century - Charlie Chaplin, John Lennon, Abbie Hoffman, Joan Baez, Eleanor Roosevelt - all of them had files in Hoover's FBI. Martin Luther King is in pretty good company.
"Men [and women, Doc!] of all races and nations are today challenges to be neighborly. The call for a worldwide good-neighbor policy is more than an ephemeral shibboleth; it is a call to a way of life which will transform our imminent cosmic elegy into a psalm of creative fulfillment."
So, here's to Dr. King! His legacy, although secure, is embedded in a shifting foundation that is subject to the whims of a body of halfwits posing as "responsible legislators". We're far away from the kind of country he envisioned, but we're still striving for the mountaintop. His dream did not end on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968 - forty-two years ago today. In fact it was only just beginning.
Happy Easter, everyone!
Tom Degan is a 51-year-old video artist who in 2006 became so thoroughly disgusted at the state of America's national political dialogue, he decided to take time off to become a freaking civics teacher.