TODAY is Martin Luther King Jr Day in the United States and across the world. The annual event, which marks the civil rights leader’s birthday on 15 January 1929 (and is observed on the third Monday of January each year), has added poignancy in 2021, with the overt resurgence of white supremacy, Christian Nationalism, post-truth and proto-fascism under the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
The federal holiday in the United States (sometimes referred to as MLK Day) was first observed on 20 January 1986, having been approved under the Reagan presidency. However, it had initially been proposed by labour unions and civil rights activists, and was vigorously and determinedly opposed by major elements of the political right, including overt and less overt racists. We should never forget that.
In other words, the status of Dr King was and is a matter of dispute – because his brand of nonviolent direct action, thoroughgoing anti-racism and Christian socialism was far too radical for most in the corporate establishment. Indeed, in his own day, and right up to his assassination on 4 April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr King was a substantially unpopular figure in the United States.
It is important to remember and recognise this, because a milquetoast version of Martin Luther King Jr has long been in circulation. It is designed to remove the threatening, cutting-edge nature of his nonviolence, to turn his pacifism into something more resembling passivism (a move that parts of the left have used to caricature him, too) and to minimise the degree of social revolution he stood for.
In fact, Dr King’s nonviolent vision, strongly rooted in a Baptist faith shaped by what we would now call liberation theology, was one that saw anti-racism as inextricably linked with economic justice, with opposition to militarism and what became known as the military-industrial complex, and with a substantial overhaul of representative democracy in favour of active participation and the decisive role of poor and working class people.
We do both ourselves and Dr King a severe disfavour when we water-down, deny or marginalise that radicalism, or when terms like “healing” and “reconciliation”, which he championed in the right way and under the right circumstances, get used (for example) to minimise or wish away the criminality, corruption, divisiveness and violence associated with the rise of Trump, the core movement he has built, and the deep complicity of the Republican Party in all this.
In short, until these painful realities are faced and dealt with in the public, political, social, cultural and religious arenas, it is not “time to move on” (only days after a vicious assault on the Capitol), and invoking Martin Luther King to argue for that is a huge distortion of who he was and what he stood for.
Likewise, and equally importantly, the reality of Christian Nationalism, which has existed for a long time, but whichTrumpism has brought to alarming visibility, cannot simply be dismissed as some sort of alien aberration attached to the otherwise pure body politic of historic Christianity. It is no such thing. It is the latest manifestation of that part of the religion’s DNA which Dr King would have unflinchingly identified as “slaveholder religion”.
No matter how uncomfortable acknowledging this is for self-styled progressive Christians and others who like to see the faith as a source and fount of all goodness, Christian Nationalism is historically and sociologically a form of Christianity – albeit a hateful, deceptive and twisted one. It cannot simply be talked away as “fake” and “nothing to do with us”.
For herein lies within the contested heart of the Christian religion, an element of which, right back to biblical times, has undeniably supported, used or justified war, slavery, crusades, genocide, patriarchy, racism, white supremacy, the denial of science, and much else that is wrong – not least the oppression, subjugation and punishment of all kinds of minority groups. Most recently that has included LGBTQIA+ people, in particular.
Such fatal disfigurements perpetuated in the name of the Christian gospel need to be recognised, analysed, understood and combatted with something different, kinder, stronger and better. For that purpose we need to turn to those alternative traditions (rooted in everything from William Blake, Quakerism and radical non-conformism to liberation theology, feminist and contextual theologies, the peace churches, the Catholic Worker movement, and many other strands) which have told a very different Christian story; one that is levelling, subversive, hope-filled and freeing.
It is time for those (often minority, subaltern) narratives to be heard again and much more prominently – in dialogue and cooperation with all who are working for genuine healing and justice for people and planet, the deconstruction of colonialism, the undermining of monopoly capitalism, the end of oppressive religion, and the opposition to white supremacism. That is where Ekklesia stands.
Moreover, this “ecumenism from the under-side” is surely what Dr Martin Luther King Jr. would be arguing for right now, with a global view shadowed by the dangerous rise of the far right, massive economic inequalities, forever wars, the degradation of the biosphere, pandemics driven by our exploitation of nature, and a climate crisis threatening our very future on this fragile and beautiful planet.
These are among the issues we need to give fresh thought and impetus to on MLK Day and beyond, alongside a commitment to reinvestigate and revive the “real” Dr King, warts and all. That includes, as his daughter Bernice and others have been doing, challenging the grotesque misuse of MLK’s legacy by right-wing Christians – who have been doing the same disservice to other figures, such as Deitrich Bonhoeffer, in recent years.
At the same time, let us remember the communal aspirations and goals of Martin Luther King Jr Day 2021. As the King Centre has explained, following a global, online teach-in on 15 January, the theme for the 2021 King Holiday Observance is “The Urgency of Creating the Beloved Community”.
Dr King described the Beloved Community as a society where “caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence. At its core, the ‘Beloved Community’ is an engine of reconciliation.”
That means peace fortified by justice, silence fortified by speaking out, nonviolence fortified by courage, and anti-racism fortified by intersectional solidarity – all infused with love and beauty, as much as struggle and commitment.