Martin Luther King offers several important lessons for American democracy today:
MLK assumed all persons were created equally in God’s image and so merited dignity and equal treatment. God is no respecter of persons, regarding the lowly no different from the high born. This divine attitude supersedes any earthly law. Even when earthly laws and attitudes ignore the divine law, they who are disrespected may be confident of their intrinsic worth. And they are empowered as divine image bearers to work for their betterment. MLK like the black church tradition that shaped him was inspired by the Hebrews’ escape from bondage under Pharaoh in Egypt and their long journey to the Promised Land. In contrast, much of today’s America is captive to identity politics, tribalism and extreme polarization. The God of the Bible who inspired MLK is the Creator of all people who are all of one flesh. Tribalism’s claims of special privilege or moral superiority were anathema to MLK.
MLK believed in America’s founding charters, especially the Declaration of Independence, whose affirmation of human equality was the “promissory note” for all who were denied that equality. He knew that America was a country uniquely founded on creeds and that its historic destiny was to pursue their enactment. America was called to be a beacon to the world and would lose its soul if it abandoned pursuit of its original highest ideals. He knew that exceptionalism was not a claim of superiority but an attitude toward constant self-reflection and improvement. Nations like persons stand under divine judgment. They may suffer for their sins but they also can seek divine mercy and redemption. Like the Puritans of old, he imagined a national covenant with the Almighty in which America could never be smugly satisfied but must always strive for better.
Slavery persisted 76 years after the Constitution, and legal segregation persisted for much of the subsequent century. Yet MLK relied on the black church tradition of hope and long suffering, which rejected despair. Constant defeat could not permanently discourage but was a spur to greater patience, sacrifice and action. Maybe the goals of justice would not be attained with the current generation but the grandchildren may see progress. God was refining His people through these long trials. This long term perspective and acceptance of sacrifice are alien to today’s often reckless impatience. Every election or political defeat is portrayed as apocalyptic. Defeat is unacceptable because it can never be surmounted. Justice and fairness if not attained immediately are feared to be impossible or lost forever. MLK knew that all important struggles are multigenerational and require fortitude. Defeat in the pursuit of what is right is never permanent. Instead, every defeat is a chance to learn, recalibrate and plan for victory.
MLK famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He knew God is sovereign and no evil will persist forever. Labors for social uplift will bear fruit if sustained with faith, forbearance and wisdom. There is reason to grieve but there’s no justification for despondency. Where is that confidence today? Even many Christians, who supposedly believe in divine sovereignty, are more often fearful that any misstep will result in cataclysm from which no recovery is ever possible. They live in perpetual anxiety and mistakenly believe that the conclusion depends on their own merits and efforts. No. MLK did not imagine that civil rights depended on him nor did he doubt its ultimate victory.
MLK was a fan of Reinhold Niebuhr and St Augustine. He sought God’s Kingdom but knew human sin and frailty were constant obstacles to fully realizing the divine will on earth. He knew that great court rulings and legislation, however magnificent, would not perfect the fallen human condition. He also knew that friends and allies were sinners no less than opponents. He realized his own many sins. Yet how many today will reflect on their own faults instead of demonizing opponents? How many today fully understand the world is fallen and our own challenges are not completely unique? How many realize that every generation has its own evils it must endure and surmount, after which there will be new evils?
Although MLK had plenty of reasons to hate and fear the adversaries who persecuted and sometimes sought to kill him and his colleagues, he insisted there could be no victory without love. He measured but did not exaggerate the strength of his opposition. He did not rely on conspiracy theories or resort to demagoguery and fantasy. He assumed that the American people even at their worst still had a conscience to which he and his followers could appeal. This assumption seemed naive to many but was vindicated. How many Americans today are seeking to love their enemies? How many are confident about appeals to the nation’s conscience? How many believe God can work with and through the tribes we oppose? MLK was confident that determined love was always more powerful than disdain and apprehension. And of course he rejected violence and all coercion, which he knew would only provoke more hate and resistance.
MLK critiqued and believed in America. He saw all of America as ideally one community pursuing common goals of justice and liberty. He faced greater obstacles and more dangers than does anyone in today’s America. His lessons are instructive and are validated by his accomplishments. Does America today, particularly its Christians, have the wisdom to listen and the courage to follow?