Part 4—Community rather than tribe: Dr. King was 28 when he wrote Stride Toward Freedom.
(Five years later, he published the embarrassingly titled book, Strength to Love.)
Stride Toward Freedom plainly wasn’t an eighth grade graduation address. Its author was a fully grown man who’d already had a wealth of experience. These experiences had helped him test his views.
At age 27, Dr. King’s home had been firebombed, in the night, with his wife and baby daughter inside. In response, Dr. King had made one of the most unusual public statements in American history.
That incident is described in chapter 8 of Stride Toward Freedom. In chapter 6 of that book, Dr. King described the “intellectual quest” which led him to the belief that “the love ethic of Jesus” was “a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.”
The views outlined by Dr. King are very much unlike our own. If you visit Our Own Cable Nerdland of a languorous weekend morning, you’ll hear a bit of humble-bragging and a fair amount of guff. But you’re likely to hear few reflections of Dr. King’s unusual views, which the Charleston families reflected when they spoke about love and forgiveness.
Within the modern context, Dr. King’s views aren’t cable-ready. Consider his peculiar ideas about concerning those who would do evil in the world.
Midway through his chapter 6, Dr. King continued to speak about Gandhi’s approach to the other. He described an outlook which seems familiar in modern-day Charleston, while being largely foreign, unknown, in the rest of our world.
“Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister,” Dr. King wrote, “but he resisted with love instead of hate.” Dr. King then described a peculiar idea—“the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe.”
It should be remembered that Dr. King was describing a world in which actual violence was frequently visited on non-violent protesters. Writing from within that world, he voiced a peculiar set of concerns—his concern about the amount of bitterness in the universe; his concern that his own actions in the pursuit of justice might add to that amount.
What was this gentleman talking about?
In the following passage, Dr. King described the “social philosophy” he finally assembled during his years of graduate study. He said those ideas had been tested during the Montgomery bus boycott, during which time his own home was firebombed:
DR. KING (page 101): In 1954 I ended my formal training with all of these relatively divergent intellectual forces converging into a positive social philosophy. One of the main tenets of this philosophy was the conviction that nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice. At the time, however, I had merely an intellectual understanding and appreciation of the position, with no firm determination to organize it in a socially effective situation.Again—in their talk about love and forgiveness, the families in Charleston were speaking the language of Dr. King, who believed in the Sermon on the Mount “with its sublime teachings on love.”
When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman. When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. As the days unfolded, I came to see the power of nonviolence more and more. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually regarding nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.
Outside the Carolina low country, with its highly unusual cadences, is there any room at this time for Dr. King’s views on these matters? We ask that question because Dr. King went on to express some unusual views about the meaning of love and nonviolent resistance, views which are rarely reflected in our poisonous discourse.
Read the rest of Dr. King’s chapter only ye who dare! As he continues, he describes some very unusual views about the requirements brought on him by his belief in the power and goodness of love—of “the love ethic of Jesus” as expressed through Gandhian nonviolent resistance.
Weirdly, Dr. King says this: Nonviolence “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent.”
“The end is redemption and reconciliation,” he weirdly says. “The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.”
Dr. King goes further in this discussion, insisting that the nonviolent resister must direct his attack “against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil.” The protester must even be willing to “accept blows from the opponent without striking back.”
(He quotes Gandhi at this point: “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.”)
In the modern progressive context, of course, no one is suggesting violent action—at least, no one is doing so yet. For that reason, it may seem that Dr. King’s high-minded proscriptions don’t apply to us.
That thought would be mistaken. We regret to inform yo0u that Dr. King went on to say things like this:
DR. KING (page 103): A fifth point concerning nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns.Say what? We can’t even indulge in hate campaigns? At this point, Dr. King’s peculiar views start coming a bit too close.
By now, we’ll assume that one point is clear. In the conduct which occasioned pushback form our intellectual leaders, the Charleston families were speaking directly from the moral and intellectual traditions of Dr. King.
No one is required to affirm these traditions. But in our view, it was appalling to see our useless journalists and professors rolling their eyes at the low-country folk who were, in fact, speaking from an intellectual tradition much deeper and richer than their own crabbed set of views and reactions.
Cable culture tends to be like that; so does the New York Times. No one has to agree with the views those families expressed, of course. But we thought it was rich to see our floundering, unhelpful “elites” condescend to the Charleston families in the way they did.
We’ll make one more point as we close:
Dr. King speaks directly to our world in the passage we’ve just quoted. It isn’t that we can’t shoot our opponents, he says. We also can’t revile them!
Continuing directly, he starts explaining why. Within the impoverished modern context, these are crazy ideas:
“To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”
Dr. King would be out of step with modern times. The liberal world which has emerged in the years since the war in Iraq is heavily built around otherization. If you doubt that, just click here.
The ethic of love hasn’t been projected to the center of our lives, at least not in the sense Dr. King meant. Our world is built around the tribe; his concept of the world was centered on “the beloved community.”
We have to help the others, he said, even if they want to harm us. Eventually, he offered this, employing a Greek term for “disinterested love:”
DR. KING (page 105): Agape is not a weak, passive love. Agape is love seeking to preserve and extend community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it...Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community.To Dr. King, the love ethic requires “insistence on community even when one seeks to break it”—even when someone like Dylann Roof seeks to break it.
“He who works against community is working again the whole of creation,” Dr. King goes on to say. “...I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.”
When Dr. King’s home was bombed, angry supporters, some with guns, assembled there. He told them to take their weapons home, then seems to have made an embarrassing statement.
Slightly different accounts exist of what he actually said. In Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, Taylor Branch records him saying this:
“If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the word will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”
David Garrow quotes Dr. King adding a bit of advice: “I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.”
In Stride toward Freedom, Dr. King recalls his own words slightly differently. In chapter 8, The Violence of Desperate Men, he recalls himself saying this:
“We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo through the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.”
Dr. King’s ideas and reactions are far removed from the modern context. He lived for community—for what he called the beloved community. We’re deeply in thrall to the tribe.
A lot of money is being made by teaching us that manner of thinking. For ourselves, we think Dr. King’s views about social progress were almost surely right.
What sorts of behavior produce good results? More on this problem tomorrow in yet another breaking report from the forgotten land we might even call the low country.
Tomorrow: Reactions from several observers