This year Martin Luther King Day feels different to me, more serious and alive, but also more complicated. On the one hand my thoughts keep drifting back to Tucson, worrying that we may be re-entering a tragic chapter of our history in which a generation of leaders was taken from us all too soon. This is not the 60s, but I can’t help but worry about where we are headed. I worry about our leaders and the hateful rhetoric hurled at them, and I pray that God will keep them safe.
Martin Luther King would want us to take it a step further: to heed God’s call to boldly confront hate, to take creative action. The problem is that this doesn’t feel like the time for marches or boycotts or protests. It feels like the time for unity, prayers, and talk of how we can work together. In this time we need to hear from King the pastor, the one who cared for souls, both in his congregation and in the larger civil rights struggle. This is the King who preached funerals for the movement’s martyrs. In wake of Tucson, one thinks of the eulogy he delivered for the four young girls murdered by the bomber of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. There the stakes were clear and dramatic, and King was direct in urging those gathered to avoid bitterness: “So in spite of the darkness of this hour we must not despair. We must not become bitter; nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence.”
In Tucson President Obama seemed to be channeling King, calling us to rise above the seething resentments of our politics. “The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better,” Obama said, and then recalling Christina Taylor Green, “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -– we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.”
Tucson is not Birmingham. In Birmingham King faced a well-organized terrorist movement committed to racist ideology in service to a Caucasian identity. In Tucson the victims were shot by a crazed gunman whose motivations are still being determined.
In both cases, however, the attacks were felt more widely and they served to prompt the question of how to respond to the attacks, both personally and politically. This is where we most need to hear King’s wisdom that the greatest weapon against violence is not hate, but love.
King’s idea of love is a long way from contemporary notions celebrating love as an attraction that may come or go. He thought of love not simply as a feeling but as a virtue that depended not on the recipient’s appeal, but on the giver’s settled disposition. This word, giver, gets at King’s idea of love with its deep roots in the biblical notion of agape. The key to this form of love, as demonstrated by Jesus and Gandhi, is its strength, its stubborn refusal to yield to hate, indifference, or any of the other vices that would separate us from one another. While racism is bound up with the urge to segregate, King understood love to be devoted to the creation of the beloved community in which all members are cherished as children of God.
In the aftermath of Tucson many of us feel a deep longing for some hint that together we might build something more than the fractious, hurried, and brutal society we fear we are becoming. King’s inspiring life and heroic death remind us that aspirations are not actions and that dreams are worth little unless they inspire a new reality. King offers us more, much more, than calls for a kinder and gentler society. I do not mean to criticize civility, far from it, but civility on its own is not enough. The duty of self-restraint is no match for the passion of politics. If civility is to endure for more than a season, it must be wedded to the virtue of love. As King said so many times, love can heal the broken; it can even transform enemies into friends.
In our time of 24-hour news cycles and professional provocateurs, we may think this naive, but neither the smallness nor meanness of our politics can defeat agape any more than Bull Connor could defeat King and his army of children. It is those martyrs we remember today (not Connor), and it they who remind us that we are called to be witnesses to a love stronger than hate.