What would MLK have thought?
Although not an official holiday in Jamaica, the celebration of Martin Luther King Day in the United States last Monday was an event which undoubtedly resonated with some Jamaicans.
It presented the opportunity once again to not only remember the life and work of the legendary civil rights leader but to reflect on his legacy, especially within the context of the times in which we now live. One cannot help but wonder what he might have thought of the many things that we now take for granted, of the present difficulties that face the American nation, and the uncertain future that beckons.
Had he lived he would have been 94 years this year. Reflecting on his life 56 years after his demise in 1968, it is very difficult to be precise about what he might have thought about a number of things. But there are some things that come readily to mind which I will reflect on in this piece.
Specifically, being the intelligent and insightful person he was, one can be sure he would have welcomed the revolution in communication technology in the age of the internet.
Like many of us he would have marvelled at how life has changed and the tremendous possibilities that people now have to relate to each other across the globe. But one can be sure that he would lament the darker precincts of the internet, especially the negative influence of social media on the young.
As one who struggled and literally gave his life in service to human freedom, rights, and dignity, it is not difficult to see how pained he would be regarding America’s lurch towards authoritarianism. He would have lamented former US President Donald Trump’s incitement of a mob, which ultimately resulted in the breaching of the Capitol in a desperate attempt to obstruct the counting of the electoral college votes on January 6, 2021.
Like many of us he would also have been deeply concerned about what is happening in the Republican Party. I believe he would be distressed that with a population of over 300 million people, a major political party that has ruled the country at different times could not find a candidate for president other than one who faces 91 counts of criminal indictment and an assortment of other legal civil challenges that speak directly to his character. That the country is faced with the possibility that a convicted felon may very well hold the post of president would be profoundly disturbing to him.
Of all the flaws in the US Constitution, the founding fathers could not have envisaged a day when someone so morally compromised could be a leading candidate for a party in a presidential election. It must have crossed their minds, but they never imagined that it would become necessary for a constitutional authority to mandate that a person who had committed serious crimes should not be allowed by the American people to hold authority over their lives. Yet here we are with that distinct possibility.
If Trump is convicted and, worse, imprisoned for even one of the 91 counts against him, he can still be president. There is no provision in the constitution to bar him. The founding fathers counted on the sense of the American people to ensure that this did not happen. But now, it could. I believe this would be deeply troubling to Dr King.
One of Dr King’s greatest dreams was the building of what he described as the ‘Beloved Community’. Love and concern for the welfare of others was central to this project. He counted on the Church to be pivotal in this effort. But what do we find today? The Church has become one of the most important agents of division in the US, especially when the state of Christian evangelicalism is properly assessed.
Dr King would have lamented the political divisions as he did when he was an activist for social change, but the rampant hypocrisy in the Church and the path that important elements of it are willing to take towards Christian nationalism would have weighed heavily on his heart. He would not be able to accept the extent to which political ideology has superseded and marginalised the efficacy of the gospel as good news and the ways in which pastors and ministers are willing to sell their souls in fealty to an ideology that could do great harm not only to the country but put their own mission in jeopardy.
Most importantly, he would have decried the creeping death of activism on behalf of the poor and oppressed. In the disparate, atomised environment created by the independence of social media, the prosperity gospel that undermines the humility of the Christian message of hope and the quiescence of large sections of the mainline churches in the face of rampant injustice in the society, there seems to be little room left for activism on behalf of those who are oppressed. Prophetic criticism is a dying art. Everyone does their own thing in their own little corner and calls this the will of God.
What was once cardinal virtues espoused by the Church and fully supported by the work of the eighth century prophets — justice for the oppressed — no longer hold sway. At a time when it is needed most, advocacy on behalf of the poor no longer seems viable. It is every man for himself. I believe that Martin would have been profoundly disturbed by the blatant absence of prophetic self-criticism in the Church.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life’s Storms; The Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life; and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.