[What follows is a guest column I wrote for The Crescent News (Defiance, OH). It was published on Jan. 18, 2016.]
While many celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., his complexity has been largely erased from our memories. He has been sentimentalized to such an extent that the radical nature of his message has been lost. Even worse, some dismiss King since he did always not live up to his own ethical standards.
But moral complexity does not diminish his legacy. Yes, King was fallible. All of us fall short of our desire to live and be in the world. We all love and fail in our love. We all desire life and joy and yet find ourselves too often leading lonely lives of quiet desperation.
“Jesus wept” when his friend, Lazarus, died. We too might weep in times like these–for King, yes, but also for so many others who have been buried, figuratively or literally, by inattentive human eyes. But Jesus did not let Lazarus remain buried.
Standing before the tomb, Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth.” And he came forth. Jesus brought he who had been buried back into the light and into community.
Properly speaking that is what this special day, January 18, should be concerned with: It should resurrect King–the mortal man, but also the human being touched with divinity whose soaring rhetoric helped his attentive audience to soar as well, above racism, or sexism, or ableism, or any other “ism” that humans have chosen to construct between themselves and others.
Did King not call us out of ourselves and into communion? In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, he wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Holding onto this mutuality has never been easy. It is endlessly buried by our need to feed and clothe ourselves, our egos (all too fragile), our inability to let go of the past, our fear of change, our racial-sexual-class privilege.
No, it ain’t easy.
But it is a necessity if we want to live lives that are meaningful–lives that we can look back on with satisfaction and thanksgiving because our brief human time was not wasted in the pursuit of money or ego, but in love and mutuality.
It is all important to find a way to hold onto this mutuality. King described our lack of mutual connection as sin. Anything that separates humans is sinful, and while the secular among us cringe at this word, sin, it remains a useful word describing the alienation that spurs on so much oppression.
But racial segregation, the issue that King was protesting in Birmingham in 1963, is just one form of separation. And toward the end of his foreshortened life, it is clear that King was turning his own attentive eye to other, interrelated issues.
Today, we need a “love ethic” that does not, as bell hooks–a follower of King–has argued, focus merely on one issue. To choose one issue to address tends to be self-serving, fixing as it does the one issue that matters to the self, while erasing from sight a whole constellation of related issues.
What we need instead is a new culture, a “collective transformation,” as bell hooks terms it, which deeply embeds love at all levels. Such a culture would not cherry pick this or that political issue; such a culture would see all forms of separation as problematic.
If on this day we would like to honor King, I cannot think of a better way to do so than to investigate the walls in each of our lives and utter, as someone else once did, “Lazarus (insert your own name of choice), come forth!” Only by actively reconnecting with all of those we have buried will we do justice to the human that was Martin Luther King, Jr.
Todd Comer is Professor of English at Defiance College.