It may be the temptation of every age to see one’s own time as uniquely haunted by the ghosts of the past or as disproportionately responsible for the shape of the future. It is a predictable form of generational vanity, I suppose. But even so, one could be forgiven for seeing our present days in just this way. I mean, honestly.
Almost everywhere one looks, indeed even if one tries not to look, life in the West seems to have fused its historic dysfunctions into something new; into a dark carnival of open racial hatred, unabated economic inequality, and cartoonish political theatre—each made more menacing by the very real threat of annihilating violence. Yes, one could be forgiven.
And yet in the midst of the unfamiliar strangeness of these days, one could also be consoled by the re-emergence of a familiar presence: that of Martin Luther King Jr. Almost everywhere one looks—again, even if one tries not to look—we see him: His face modelled on our murals, his words printed for our protests, his voice sampled in our songs. Donald Trump even has a bust of King in his office. Consider that for a moment.
But it is important to remember that this presence, apparently so familiar, is also strange. This is because in spite of how axiomatic King may seem to us now, he was not always so. Indeed, as early as 1965 (following the calamitous violence of Selma) King began a slow and widely publicized process of diminishment in which his vision of democratic brotherhood was slowly set aside. He himself felt this diminishment and grieved it—not only for what it implied about him, but also for what it portended for America.
This diminishment happened for many reasons. The rise of secularization made his religious sources seem provincial. The spectacle of state-sanctioned violence made his non-violent strategy seem naïve. The emancipation of black identity made his multiracial vision of “brotherhood” seem colonial. The emergence of a youthful and enduringly cool urban aesthetic made his preacherly affect seem embarrassing. And the self-righteousness of a liberalism luxuriating in the illusion that racism was a Southern problem made King’s insistence that it was, to the contrary, an American value seem treasonous.
But whatever the reasons, the outcome remained the same: Over the course of the past fifty years Martin Luther King Jr. was slowly transformed from a courageous man with an extraordinary vision of democracy into little more than a highly quotable civic abstraction, a figure that many revere, but that few really listen to. Don’t think so? Name three of his books.
In some very important respects, King’s reemergence could be promising. It could mean that we have come to see that identitarian anthropologies, so critical for guarding particular dignity, are also limited in their capacity to forge a society; that we still need King’s vision of brother- and sisterhood. It could mean that we have come to see that the discourse of power, so critical for exposing injustice, is nonetheless insufficient for making us just; that we still need King’s commitment to love. It could mean that we have come to see that the “pursuit of happiness”—so foundational to the promise of democratic life—can simply lead to the triumph of therapeutic selfishness, which is why we still need King’s willingness to suffer. That would be promising.
But it is not apparent that we have come to see any of these things. And because of this, King’s re-emergence seems not promising, but unsettling. Why? Because we all seem to assume not simply that we understand King but also that he agrees with us. To take it as a given that he is the obvious source of our work, and we are the equally obvious heirs of his. I suppose it’s possible. But if so, it raises a question that bears sustained reflection: How has it come to be that a man who, at the end of his life, was described as “the most hated man in America” is now assumed to be so warmly at home among us?
Maybe we have evolved. Maybe the American citizenry, once threatened by King’s vision, has come to see the error of its ways and, in a rare act of public contrition, has embraced him. Maybe the prophet garners hometown honour after all. Maybe. But from where I currently sit—which is literally fifty yards from where a young Charlottesville woman named Heather Heyer was murdered by the motorized rage of a white supremacist— it seems unlikely.
What seems more likely is that King simply remains an abstraction even to those who summon him, a talisman carried to assure us that we are faithful members of a righteous tradition and that the moral arc of the universe bends toward, well, ourselves. If this is true then we need to re-engage King not simply as an extension of the self, as a totem symbolizing what we already know, but as the “other” he always was, as a voice calling in a wilderness that remains largely unknown to us.
Imagine for a moment that we went out into this wilderness and listened to this voice. What would we hear? A great many things, to be sure. After all, King’s vocation of words—however brief—was one of the most prolific in American history. But even so, I am convinced that King’s voice, with all of its sonorous range, is most truly heard as a creative and contextual improvisation on one elemental theme. That theme? Love made flesh in the streets of this world. The public ministry of Martin Luther King Jr. was, from first to last, an act of prophetic friendship, a painful and devoted calling to see Love transform us—and our cities—into its shape.
But what did this entail? What does it entail now? If we could hear his voice, what would it say to us? In keeping with King’s preferred sermonic mode of discourse, I propose three things.
First, he calls us to see with the eyes of love. This, fundamentally, is a call to moral imagination. Specifically, to the sort of moral imagination that sees ourselves, our neighbours, and yes, even our enemies as creatures made both by and for love. For King, this meant many things. It meant seeing one another as bearers of an ineradicable glory, a glory that demands both honour and protection. It meant seeing one another’s pain, wounds that mark every dimension of our lives, wounds that bespeak both spiritual affliction and systemic assault. It means seeing one another’s possibility, refusing to reduce one another to our worst selves or consign one another to our bleakest eventuality, but—in the way of love—to hope all things. And it meant deliberately cultivating this way of seeing as the foundational element of a renewed social order.
Second, he calls us to take up the works of love. This is a call to civic vocation, to labour for the instantiation of love in the individual habits and institutional ecologies of the world. This bears elaboration. We have already seen that King was committed to bringing structural change. But it is critical to understand that King was not simply concerned that the structures change; he was equally concerned with how they changed. He wanted to build a new society, but he wanted to do so only through the works of love.
On one hand, King understood building a new society as the work of pushing forward. To the alarm of both the stewards of the status quo and the gradualists who placate them, King not only believed that the imperatives of love required the creation of new society but was also committed pushing the American people—on buses and in schools, in pulpits and in policies—until that new society had come to be. Why? Because sometimes love requires the work of pushing forward.
And yet on the other hand King understood building a new society as the work of pulling back. One of the most interesting features of King’s life is that even as he was resented by gradualists for pressing too hard, he was also resented by radicals for failing to press hard enough. His reason for this moderation was very simple: Love was not simply the end to which he pressed but also the means with which he did it. So even as he pushed forward there were things he refused to say, actions he refused to take, and visions he refused to embrace. Why? Because sometimes loves requires pulling back.
Third, he calls us to embrace the sufferings of love. This, inescapably, is a call to self-renunciation. One of the most painful contradictions of King’s life and work is that while he dreamed so much for America, he experienced so little of that dream for himself. This one who dreamed of a beloved community was broadly reviled. This one who dreamed of economic plenty died with little to his name. This one who dreamed of non-violence died from a gunshot to the face.
The dramatic nature of these discrepancies may tempt us to view King’s life as singular, to see his suffering as uniquely his own. And in a very important sense this is true. But it is also true that King viewed his suffering not as novel but as normal. He expected this suffering not only for himself but for everyone who walks in the ways of love. He knew that seeing others with the eyes of love did not mean that one would be seen in the same way. He knew that taking up the works of love for others did not mean that those same works would be taken up in return. He knew that, as he put it in his final speech, there were always “some difficult days ahead.” He knew, in other words, that the call to love our neighbours inevitably entailed the renunciation of ourselves.
Grasping both the centrality and the comprehensiveness of this call to love is essential not only for understanding King but also for understanding why he may not be as at home among us as we seem to imagine.
Consider his call to see one another through the eyes of love. For all of our presumptions of social evolution, a more than plausible case could be made that with respect to how we view both ourselves and one another, we are perhaps worse off now than in King’s own time. Not only do the old racial maladies linger, but we have nursed new maladies as well. Market anthropologies that reduce human beauty to commodities for exchange. Nationalist anthropologies that draw borders through the common scape of human pain. Identitarian anthropologies that fetishize a narcissistic form of otherness and view the prospect of sameness—however slight—as a threat. King would oppose these. And in opposing them would call us to a love-wrought moral imagination committed to seeing one another through the eyes of love.
So too with his call to take up the works of love. Here too the old patterns persist: The sanctimonious valorization of the status quo, with its willed blindness to both the human wickedness and human suffering embedded in the order it seeks to preserve. And the self-assured radicalism that can only abide a world made in its own image and mistakes its anger for vision, its impatience for calling, its discourtesy for courage, and its violence for strength. Each of these is on regular display on the screens in our homes and the streets of our cities. King would oppose them both. And in opposing them would call us to a civic vocation that cherishes love not only as the goal but also as the way.
And surely his call to embrace the suffering of love rings dissonant. The prospect of pain evokes dread in any age, as well it should. But in our own age, this is perhaps especially true. This is because ours is an age whose chief end is, arguably, the avoidance of pain. And while the goodness of much of this impulse seems to me to be beyond controversy, we would do well to consider its implications for civic life. For how can a people who are formed at every moment in the ways of entitled selfishness ever truly devote themselves to the work of self-enunciation? How will they every choose the well-being of their neighbours over their own? This was King’s question in his own day, and it would, no doubt, be his question in ours. But in each his answer would be the same: to become a people who seeks the thriving of their neighbours and who are prepared to embrace the suffering that this kind of love entails.
Viewed in this way, King’s prophetic voice is one that, rather than simply being appropriated by us is, in fact, addressed to us. So it’s important that when we paint King’s image on our buildings, print his words on our signs, and sample his speeches in our songs, we ask ourselves whether we really know what we are saying. And if so, whether we believe it. And if we do, whether we are prepared to embody it. But this will not be easy. For in asking these things and listening to King’s answer we will find this one who seems so familiar becoming strange. We will find him being not simply a friend, but a prophetic friend: one who struggles to see us transformed into the shape of love. And while this may not be the kind of friend we want, it is certainly the friend we need.