Ways of Seeing: King’s way of seeing is still needed

I have been reading an autobiography of Martin Luther King put together from his diaries, interviews, books, letters, and other sources. I am struck hard not only by the breadth of his wisdom, but by how apt it is for our times. Many of us have long been, or have recently become, activists. I hope to provide inspiration to you through King’s words.
“It must be remembered that genuine peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”
In the past, those of us lucky enough not to be personally affected by injustice could pretend that it didn’t exist. Now it’s right out in the open and affecting more and more of us as new laws are passed. Do we have the courage to confront oppression? King thinks we have to:
“The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide….”
Deciding to take action brings fear.
“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, not politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”
Once we decide to act, how far do we go? How much change do we aim for?
King said, “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love? … And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’ …
And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’
So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? … Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
If we try to limit the risk in order to protect ourselves, we can reduce our hopes, reduce our goal, until there is nothing left but the appearance of change. We are working hard for the world we want — why not go after the full dream? We don’t have to succeed in order to keep our self-respect, in order to be faithful to our principles. Sometimes one can’t win. Yet we do have to try. Shortly before his death, King said:
“I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”
How do we change in order to become people capable of a committed, possibly risky life?
“The Negro had to stand up amid a system that still oppresses him and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of his own value.”
Wow! I’m part of several minorities, how can I get to such a magnificent self-image when so many people and things say otherwise? The crux of it is that I must have an unassailable self-image if I want a meaningful life. For me it was a long road, but when I got there, I discovered that everyone else had arrived with me. Everyone has intrinsic value.
What about when we fail to stop injustice? King speaks of people whose dream was shattered or who died before knowing if they had succeeded:
“But so many died without having the dream fulfilled. And each of you in some way is building some kind of temple. The struggle is always there. It gets discouraging sometimes. It gets very disenchanting sometimes … it seems that your head is going against a concrete wall. It seems to mean nothing. And so often as you set out to build the temple of peace you are left lonesome; you are left discouraged; you are left bewildered. “Well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying: ‘It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart.”
A final bit of encouragement:
“Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”
Quotes are from “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” ed. Clayborne Carson, Warner Books, 1998
Barbara Clearbridge, known around town by her nickname “shulamith” (“peace”), has recently added interfaith Spiritual Direction to her Middlebury healthcare practice. She is the author of “Natural First Aid; Simple Health Solutions,” “Heal With Your Hands,” “Finding God,” and “Recovery: Women’s Words About Healing After Trauma.” Her website is FeelingMuchBetter.org .

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