By David Jones
One of history’s habits is to soften the edges of people and events.
Except for Hitler and a few others, we prefer it if our historical figures weren’t yelling at us. That’s an injustice to those who shaped history.
Martin Luther King Jr. was one such personality. So many of King’s quotes we love to share deal with peace, love, and understanding that we never get to meet the Baptist preacher who thundered and roared against an America which he loved but at the time did not love him back.
In a cogent statement about how Dr. King is seen in popular white commentary, John Oliver said in a Last Week Tonight segment concerning American voting and third-party candidates, that two contestants stood out: “Either Kevin Kline’s character in Dave or the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr., assuming he only said the three quotes that white people like.”
It’s comforting to present only quotes which support peace and calm, but it’s not entirely consistent with who Dr. King was as a man who saw the evils of inaction.
On April 4th, 1967 he was talking to the Riverside Church in New York about the Vietnam War, from an address he titled, Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence. In that standout address, one line struck me hard:
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
Silence. That’s the big point here. Today many who call for calm during messy times say they want peace when what they really want is peace’s accomplice—quiet. But it’s selfish to demand my peace through your quiet.
As Dr. King wrote:
“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice….”
— Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963
If I don’t pursue solutions to injustices and inequalities but wish out loud that the aggrieved would just shut up and get over it, I prove that all I want is my individual peace.
Tibetan Buddhism has a symbol called the Endless Knot, representing the teaching that says we’re all interconnected. Maybe Martin Luther King understood that.
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.” – Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
Inequality isn’t just a problem for the minorities directly suffering from it—we all have a dog in this fight.
Many want Martin Luther King to be a safe inspirational speaker whose words are smooth and non-threatening, a charm to wear around our necks to ward off hard questions and pointed discussions. Lists of his inspiring sayings tend to focus on snippets that make white people feel good.
But King’s Baptist pulpit heard of the Jesus who stood before groups and denounced them as liars, hypocrites, blind guides and offspring of vipers. The Jesus who wanted his followers to turn the other cheek, was also perfectly happy returning a withering barrage of verbal artillery— when it was called for.
Sometimes, the quiet we achieve by being silent is a betrayal of us all.
David Jones has a 27-year career with the United States government. He encountered mindfulness in therapy for his endangered marriage (which had led to anxiety-based depression and dissociative disorder symptoms), and writes about the experience in his blog as well as articles in various publications. He started writing articles about mindfulness for Yahoo Voices under the brand: A Mindful Guy.
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