It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and, for those of us who deeply value his legacy, it’s hard not to greet the first official King holiday of the Trump era with a deep sense of painful irony. As I wrote last year at this time on the eve of his inauguration:
Today we are at [a] dead-end with Trump’s administration full of revanchist billionaires, right-wing demagogues, and military strongmen representing the triumph of market fundamentalism married to racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and authoritarian militarism. Simply put, in Trump Nation, King’s “triple evils” [of racism, economic injustice, and militarism] are akin to the holy trinity.
Unfortunately, the last year has done little else but confirm this proclamation, making this year’s remembrance especially important. For King’s critique of American society is now even more relevant than it has been in the decades since his death—it haunts us like a ghost.
Indeed, as I have written on MLK Days past, King’s legacy means nothing if we do not honor its unabashedly radical nature:
When dealing with the issue of poverty, King notes that, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” For Dr. King, this meant looking at the entire society and asking questions about “the economic system [and] the broader distribution of wealth.” It meant thinking about “the restructuring of the whole of American society” . . .
[W]hat King’s words challenge us to do today is think beyond the neoliberal economic dogma that asserts that the market can solve all problems. If there is a radicalism afoot today, it is these ideas—that all public institutions are suspect, that taxes are inherently evil, and that business models and yet more privatization can solve everything from how to educate our children to how to treat patients in the hospital. If we are afraid to say this, we may as well pack up and go home. As long as the game is played on neoliberal turf, ordinary folks will lose. Our standard of living will continue to decline, the gap between the rich and the poor will grow, and our politics will become less and less democratic as corporate money floods into the pockets of the politicians on both sides of the aisle. The road we are currently on leads to a dead-end. Thinking that we can outwit the right by repositioning ourselves on their playing field is a fool’s errand.
Thus any economic program that deserves our attention needs to start with an overt critique of free market fundamentalism. In opposition to this Social Darwinist dogma, we must insist that capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. Indeed, almost all of our current economic, social, environmental, and international problems have to do with the unchecked excesses of the free market system. In the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, Americans clamored for more government to help protect them from the excesses of the marketplace and the unregulated power of big business. We have forgotten this history at our peril.
Unfortunately, enough Americans did forget that history and all the lessons it has to teach us, and, consequently, we have been thrust into a brave new world of nasty and reckless social, economic, and environmental policy driven by a “generalized rage” that only serves to afflict many of those who are the most angry at their perceived powerlessness. For progressives, the political answer to our current situation is obvious: resist, fight, reverse the current disastrous course. Stand up to the overt racism, the sexism, the brazen greed, and environmental destruction and say: “no more.”
But how? What road will take us toward the “beloved community” that King dreamed of making a reality? How do we avoid being overwhelmed by our anger or surrendering to despair? How do we achieve any kind of unity amidst an atmosphere of deep division? What can sustain us over the course of what will surely be a long, hard struggle?
Here, there is another lesson to be learned from Martin Luther King Jr. if we remember that it is not just a social, political, and economic challenge that his legacy leaves us with, but an equally important idea about the absolute necessity of radical love.
As King argued, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
As Dr. King noted in his 1957 sermon “Loving Your Enemies,” progressive politics that seek to address the forces of hate need to be rooted in love because if we don’t have the wisdom to counter hate with love:
[T]his world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
For King, this love was not a flimsy sentimental thing but “agape,” an “understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return.” It doesn’t mean liking everyone; it means believing in the potential for redemption, a concept deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian notion that we should always be driven by the tension between the way the world is and the way it ought to be. Thus, the struggle for redemption–or justice–has love at its heart. “Justice,” Cornell West reminds us, “is what love looks like in public.”
This is an idea that has, for many, fallen out of favor. As bell hooks provocatively writes of the evolution of the civil rights and women’s movements:
These two movements for social justice that had captured the hearts and imagination of our nation—movements that began with a love ethic—were changed by leaders who were much more interested in questions of power. By the late seventies it was no longer necessary to silence discussions of love; the topic was no longer on any progressive agenda.
For an antidote to this, hooks turned to Martin Luther King Jr.’s comrade in the struggle for human dignity, Buddhist master and Vietnamese anti-war activist Thich Nhat Han, who, in response to a question from hooks on love and activism in a 2000 interview, observed that:
Martin Luther King was among us as a brother, as a friend, as a leader. He was able to maintain that love alive. When you touch him, you touch a bodhisattva, for his understanding and love was enough to hold everything to him. He tried to transmit his insight and his love to the community, but maybe we have not received it enough. He was trying to transmit the best things to us—his goodness, his love, his nonduality. But because we had clung so much to him as a person, we did not bring the essence of what he was teaching into our community. So now that he’s no longer here, we are at a loss. We have to be aware that crucial transmission he was making was not the transmission of power, of authority, of position, but the transmission of the dharma. It means love.
So perhaps to honor the man who suggested that love should lead us away from an atomized competitive individualism that places the values of the market against the embrace of a greater sense of self, we should continue to resist—with love, empathy, compassion, and solidarity.