You know the ritual. Every year on this day, the preachers and pundits all whip up their own versions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., each one making him say whatever they want him to say. That's OK. It puts him up there with Jefferson, Lincoln, and Jesus Christ himself. Like all the greats, he has become a screen for projecting endless reinterpretations, like an inkblot in a Rohrshach test.
I don't claim to know anything about the "real" meaning of King's life and the words and deeds he left for us to ponder. I can only say what I see as I ponder.
Since I'm rather obsessed with understanding the way Americans talk about national security -- and the insecurity that lies just below the surface of their words -- my version of Dr. King was similarly obsessed. In the last years of his life, he moved beyond the civil rights movement to confront the trap that ensnares all Americans: Our political culture prizes national security as its most cherished goal, yet we find ourselves every day with less and less security. He asks how that trap was created and what we might do to escape it.
To answer those questions, my King went back to the lessons he learned in the civil rights struggle. Southern whites were willing to kill (or more often stand by silently while others killed) to protect their racist system. He responded not with blind anger but with a crucial first step in any nonviolent campaign: "to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves."
He understood that whites went to such atrocious lengths to defend their system because it gave them an illusion of security. More than money and power, white privilege gave a reassuring image of a color line that could never be crossed, forever dividing the world into "us" against "them," promising that "us" would always be in control of "them."
To maintain their illusion of security, white racists had to have a threatening other to dominate. But they could never be sure the domination would last. So they had to live permanently among people they feared. They had to sacrifice the possibility that they would ever know the all-embracing harmony that is the only source of genuine security. The whole white community was ensnared in the insecurity it had created.
Southern blacks broke the back of racism because so many accepted the physical and psychological insecurity created by the tempests of the civil rights movement, not knowing whom the white racists might attack next. They were able to transform themselves, and the nation, because they found a new kind of security.
How did they do it? Dr. King left us one valuable clue in the last public words he spoke, the night before he died. He made it clear that he saw death coming, but then he proclaimed: "I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
The coming of the Lord; the day of salvation. King called it "the beloved community," a community where all oppositions and differences are respected yet somehow reconciled in an overarching unity. In the beloved community everyone understands and acts on King's famous maxim: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." Since everyone knows they are all wrapped together in the same single garment, and everyone feels responsible for everyone else, there is no threatening other to fear. So the social structure does not breed insecurity.
King learned, and taught others, that we need not wait for some distant miraculous day to live in the true security of the beloved community. We can make it present at any moment, here and now, by acts of nonviolence resistance. King reached that understanding by combining the lessons of two great teachers.
He learned from the theologian Paul Tillich that evil arises only when there is separation, when the universal harmony that is supposed to prevail in the cosmos is broken. History is the process of uniting, gradually and painfully, that which has been split apart. All spiritual life is participation in that process of mending the torn seams in society and in nature.
Nonviolence is a uniquely powerful spiritual path, because nonviolence resistors treat their opponents as if all were already tied together in a network of mutual love and understanding. "We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself," King said. And only a community at peace with itself can know real security. But the end is achieved in the here and now. The security of the beloved community becomes real whenever people act to reunite, however slightly, those who have been separated by injustice, violence, and persecution.
King learned from Mahatma Gandhi that this spiritual action can also be very practical, hard-nosed political action to liberate people -- if it is done in the name of liberating all people. If we free ourselves from the yoke of "them" only to turn the tables and rule over "them," the fundamental separation that brings insecurity remains. But if we aim to end the separation of ruler and ruled, oppressor and oppressed, superior and inferior, then our political action is spiritual. Responding to hate with love "is the only way to reestablish the broken community." And that is the only way to get real security.
King learned this as he led his own African-American people to freedom. But in the last years of his life he turned to the problems that beset all Americans, north and south, black and white and every other hue. He came to understand that the cold war, waged in the name of national security, could never bring real security, because it was all about "containment" -- keeping the "evildoers" penned up behind an Iron Curtain that was the most glaring symbol of a torn and bifurcated world.
Now the cold war has been replaced by a global war on terror. There is no geographical line dividing the good from the evil. The front line may be anywhere, and thus it's everywhere. But the principle of the national security state is still the same: With enough guns and bombs we can tear the single garment of destiny in half; with enough violence against people we are tied to inextricably, we can protect our national security. That principle is still just as illusory, just as self-defeating, as it was in the days of Jim Crow racism and the cold war. Following it has turned us into a national insecurity state.
To achieve true security we need policies, foreign and domestic, that start from a very different principle: whether we like it or not, we and those we label "evildoers" are all in the same boat, all destined to reach the distant shore of the beloved community or drown together in a sea of insecurity.
How would my Dr. King have put that principle into practice today? Who knows? To the end of his life, he confessed that he did not know for sure. But he found security in a vision of a unified world that transcended any specific policies. "Structures will follow," he promised, "if we keep our ears open to the spirit."
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. firstname.lastname@example.org