Love and Politics

Today we’ve seen and heard just about everyone sing the praises of MLK…and rightly so.  But, as Cornell West has recognized, King’s legacy has been sanitized (4:25 in the video).  So much so that people like Glen Beck and Sarah Palin feel comfortable citing and praising him without any hint of irony (see 7:05), while continually bastardizing the very principles that he stood for.

In a speech to King’s former congregation a year ago, West urged us to stop the “Santa-Clausification” of King. King was a pacifist, a supporter of social democracy, and a tireless advocate for the downtrodden.  King challenged some of Malcom X’s ideas, but Malcom also changed many of King’s.  He wasn’t some apolitical figure, but was, according to the FBI, “the most dangerous man in America.” He wasn’t a “centrist” and he certainly wasn’t seen as a national icon by many.

King was a radical like few are radicals.  He wasn’t afraid of the untimely or the unpopular. And most whites – even many so-called “liberals” – didn’t support him (the most famous being the eight supposedly liberal clergymen who he responded to from the Birmingham Jail).

The church, for King, was – like the idealized polis in early greek philosophy – a space where all of the social inequalities that existed in our imperfect private realities, could be suspended and reflected upon (see “The Drum Major Instinct”).  It was the exact “church of social justice” that conservatives bemoan.   And the love that he espoused wasn’t a “love” cloaked in the fantasies of self-interest or self-indulgence, but one founded upon a compassion for the Other – encompassing, here, not only the down-and-out and discriminated against, but the discriminator and oppressor as well:

“In speaking of love at this point, we are not referring to some sentimental or affectionate emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense.  Love in this connection means understanding, redemptive good will.  When we speak of loving those who oppose us, we refer to neither eros nor philia; we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape….Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving other for their sakes. It is an entirely ‘neighbor-regarding concern for others,’ which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets” (see “An Experiment in Love”).

Sound good for church, but too idealistic for politics?  West and several other progressive theologians disagree.  In the aftermath of Tucson (to name but one event), it might be worth dwelling on this relationship between love and politics:



~ by iamtomjoad on January 17, 2011.

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