Posted by Lee Gordon on 17th January 2011

January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr. showed the way toward building a community of respect

By Brien Hallett

The recent political murders and assassination attempt in Tucson, Ariz., have changed this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday radically and tragically. Normally, we celebrate the Rev. King’s life.

We celebrate his patriotism in defending the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and transforming them into a new and more solid American reality.

We celebrate his audacity in dreaming “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Or, we celebrate his role in redeeming — 100 long years late, it must be said — Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves, so that today “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Normally, we celebrate this and much more of the Rev. King’s life. But this year, our joyous celebration of his life is overshadowed by the tragic specter of his death. This year, we are forced to recall the shock, the emptiness, and the anxiety of his assassination on April 4, 1968.

Memphis, Tenn., may be a thousand miles from Tucson, Ariz., and four decades distant in time — but the charged rhetoric, the bitter accusations and the intemperate demonizing of those who disagree with us is the same, then and now.

Once again, the simple homespun courtesy that our parents taught us, the restrained civility that our teaches and pastors tried to instill in us, have been drowned in a flood tide of the ridicule and sarcasm from radio and television personalities hired by media moguls more interested in ratings than the common good.

Once again, the essential ingredient of democratic politics, civil and respectful dialogue, has been betrayed by overwrought politicians. Their rhetoric is colorful and catchy. The media love it, but this riling of emotions solves none of the nation’s problems. Instead, it leads inevitably to assassinations, as the history of 1968, if not 2011, demonstrates.

Instead of raising our voices to an ever-higher fever pitch of anger, we need now more than ever before to recall the “radically moderate,” always thoughtful, ever-uplifting speech of Martin Luther King Jr. We need to emulate his always respectful manner and words.

In particular, we need to recall that the Rev. King’s ultimate objective was not civil rights for all Americans. This was only a way station. His ultimate objective was the Beloved Community.

Although the term originated with the 19th-century Social Gospel, neither “community” nor “beloved” is a religious concept. Both are thoroughly secular. When the two words are put together, a Beloved Community is a community in which you respect me because I respect you. What I say is always civil and truthful. What I do is always helpful and honest.

If you reciprocate my respect for you, we will be able to act together and live together in a cooperative and productive community.

If you do not reciprocate my respect for you, then we will not be able to act together and will, instead, be forced to exist in an antagonistic and counterproductive aggregation of spiteful groups.

Thus, the overarching and ultimate goal and the choice that the Rev. King always held out to us: Will we live in a community of mutual respect? Or will we live in an aggregation of mutual disrespect?

Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died to build a community of mutual respect. Our fight, the murders and assassination attempt in Tucson tell us, is the same.

Categories: 2011