Monday, January 20, 2014

MLK on the Treatment of Opponents

Last week one of my bosses encouraged all of his subordinates to read Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" today.  I would encourage everyone to do the same.  (Yes, even if you were one of my US history students.  Read it again.)  The letter is an exemplary work for a variety of reasons.  It is a model of rhetoric, of political philosophy, and of Christian thinking.  It engages with the Old and New Testaments, St. Augustine, the British legal tradition, the American political tradition, current European history, Martin Luther,John Bunyan, and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, to name a few.  But today I would like to highlight the way King characterizes his opponents.

Here is the context: King has come to Birmingham at the invitation of local campaigners to fight the system of segregation there, a particularly egregious case.  Having been jailed for his non-violent campaigning, King was criticized in an open letter by eight white pastors in the area, who accused him of being an outsider and asked that peace and order be maintained.  "We are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely," they wrote.

King responded with a resounding defense of why he was in Birmingham and why the campaign and its methods were justified.  But rather than reviling his critics as racists, cowards, or pawns of an unjust system, he called them his "Christian and Jewish brothers."  King explained, "Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas....  But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms."  He went on to agree with his critics when possible.  "You are quite right in calling for negotiation....  You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern."  And he applauded their past efforts, though more limited than his own: "I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue."  And he wished them all well: "I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother."

Perhaps most strikingly, he considered the possibility that his analysis might be wrong: "If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me."

In our own day of bitter ideological divides, calls for bipartisanship are many.  But I think they may, sometimes, miss a larger point which King implicitly makes.  He extends the hand of peace to his critics because he genuinely believes in brotherhood, not compromise for its own sake.  He does not call for a lukewarm moderation - indeed, he criticizes lukewarmness - but recognizes something inherent in all men, a dignity which demands that even when he disagrees, he need not be disagreeable.
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