Every year, around the King birthday celebration, I like to say something about the man who was my hero. This is the 2011 edition.
As President Obama reached across the aisle in the wake of the elections, many people, including myself, were baffled about what it all meant. I thought, at first, “what a generous thing to do — not politically astute, but maybe he really is a leader”. Later, when I heard Bernie Sanders’ arguments that the rich’s tax cuts were at least partially the cause of the deficit, I thought, “No, he’s right, that’s actual justice”.
It would be incredibly easy to say that America’s first Black president was the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s “Dream” and that Obama is “just like” King. It would also be a lie. It is quite possible that Obama is the embodiment of King’s dream, a president that I don’t know King could even have dreamed of — one who truly wants to “be judged, not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character”. While Obama might turn out to be a great leader (or not), he is not King. Here’s why: Obama is not a pacifist. He’s a “practical” man. He believes that sometimes you have to fight a war in order to correct a wrong or support democracy or defeat terrorism. And for all of his wisdom about the “practicality” of non-violence and how he knew it was the only thing that would ultimately work, King was — according to nearly everyone else, not a very practical man. He was an idealist who let his idealism lead him because he believed it was founded in the Spirit of God. King was a brave man, an extraordinary man, a prophet and leader. Obama is a nice guy, a believer in Democracy,and a believer in God, as well as a practical man. To the extent that he “dropped the gloves” and saw Republicans as human beings with a different agenda, he was very much like King. To the extent that he accepted the injustice that Bernie Sanders pointed out, he isn’t.
It is this difference that makes King worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize and embarrassed Obama when he received it. It is this difference that confuses people about King’s non-violence and pacifism and keeps alive the illusion that pacifism and non-violence are for idiots and wimps. Non-violent action as a form of civil disobedience is active and not passive. It looks like “selling out” to people who are radical, when in fact it is radical to people who sell out themselves in frustration and anger. Non-violence requires not giving in to our easiest, but short-lived path: anger, hatred and violence. It is easy to act angrily when we see the conditions around us. It is easy to act violently when we fear losing our “proper” place to “those people”. It is easy to hate when we don’t know each other.
As much as I speak of, and fantasize about righting wrongs with violence, as much as I hope to give voice to the voiceless in their expression of anger, I am aware that King was right — acting it out isn’t the right path. Does it suck to hold back? Yes, yes, it does. Does it cause stress and anguish internally? Yes, yes, it does. Does Jesus call us to do it? Yes, yes, I believe, he does.
The trick to non-violence — the challenge to it — is to both see injustice and be angry about it on an emotional level (ala Bernie Sanders) and not either give up (ala Obama) or give in to it (ala the guy who shot the senator in Arizona or the terrorists in Al-Quaeda). That is what makes King so incredible — he managed to do that. Sacrificial suffering even when we have the right to get vengeance according to everything we know and feel — is what we are called to do.
I know this is not going to seem patriotic to many people, but if our response to 9/11 were sacrificial suffering and an attempt to understand the anger of terrorists without resorting to the violence of war, there’d be a lot fewer dead Americans and a lot more money to keep our economy up — for social programs and — yes, Bob — to cut taxes. And to our credit as Americans, there were plenty of people who only grieved about 9/11 and didn’t call for death to people they couldn’t understand. Does this mean that I wouldn’t want to catch Osama Bib Laden? Not at all. I’d like the son-of-a-B to be caught and sent to prison for the rest of his life and the rest of eternity.
Hateful people win when we give into our own hate, or at least good people lose more when we do.
Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that, and refused to give an inch. While given plenty of chances, he never gave in to the temptation to “cut off his nose to spite his face”.
When Obama gave his speech at the memorial of the dead in Arizona, he was great as a Dad. The idea that he is a great father to his children came through loud-and-clear. I bet he genuinely would have liked the little girl who died, just as he likes his own daughters. But being a mature parent is more than liking your kids, it’s about saying no, it’s about setting limits, it requires getting angry at them at times and still loving them without acting just like they do. It’s about having a bigger vision than they do. King was that more mature parent, while Obama is the loving Dad. King often thanked God that he was called to “love” his enemies rather than “like” them. Both are better than an abusive parent — and I don’t believe Obama is that, by any means. He’s further ahead than I am in the “be nice” category than I am and further than some other presidents. And Obama will be remembered as a good president and an amazing person. Unless he’s willing to stand up to injustice more, though, he will not be remembered as a great president or an incredible leader. Unless he’s willing to be angrier, transform that anger into love, and stand his ground more, he will never be King. Unless he knows God more and draws strength from God more, it will be impossible to do the anger\transformation thing which King was able to do. Then again, neither will we.
But hey, that’s just me.
Wishing you Peace, true peace — injustice-free peace on this day we remember Martin Luther King, Jr —