Yesterday, I was in DC handing out copies of a 3 year old article that I wrote about the legacy of MLK to passersby on K St. I was inspired to revisit this article after the action taken by Cornel West and 18 others (including Raheem DeVaughn) on the steps of the US Supreme Court on Sunday. In his explanation of why he picked that day in order to protest on the steps of SCOTUS, West directly referenced the induction of the new MLK memorial that took place on the very same day. As West put it, “we will not allow this day of Martin Luther King’s memorial [induction] to go [by] without somebody going to jail.” In other words, part of the act of protest taken by West (et al) was to remind the world that MLK was not the polite, sanitized figure that the educational system and the corporate media like to portray him as; King was a radical who directly confronted the complacencies of American society and the impolite act of going to jail was an essential part of that. My old article makes the rather simple point that we should not hold King up as a Christ-like figure above the human fray as each of us has it within ourselves to commit similar acts of righteous impiety if we so choose–the action taken by West and the 18 others is a shining example of precisely just such an act.
So there I was, handing out this old article to whomever happened to be curious enough to take one while passing by 16th and K, the site of OccupyDC. Amazingly, one woman wrote me back in a couple of hours with a very thoughtful and engaged response in which she asked me to reconsider the possible utility of aligning King with Christ. Prior to this moment, our paths had almost certainly never crossed before, we knew nothing about each other, etc. and yet here we were having a productive, robust, critical, intellectual debate in which we both opened ourselves to learning from each other! To me, this is one of the real beautiful aspects of what’s been going on the past few weeks. By coming out into public space and sharing our views in that space, we’re having conversations that we weren’t having before.
Here’s my response to her critique of my old article:
“I certainly am open to certain uses of the Christ story as a way of contextualizing and universalizing the struggles that we living breathing brothers and sisters face from an unjust economy, a racist criminal justice system, a backwards-ass educational system, etc., etc. To give you one such example of a contemporary radical usage of the Christ story, check out this awesome speech by the legendary liberation theologian James Cone.
That being said, Christians have many different interpretations of the Christ story. Personally, I prefer to think of Jesus as no more perfect than any of the rest of us. Or, if Christ did attain a sort of perfection, it was only in and through the act of sacrificing his body and life for the sake of confronting the powerful imperialists who perpetrated injustices upon his community and others throughout the world. Of course, this is also exactly what King did. But you know what the good news is? This moment of perfection is open to any and all of us insofar as we use our bodies, hearts, and minds to take a clear stand on the side of “the least of these” throughout the world. When we unite with our brothers and sisters catching hell throughout the world, when we realize that the suffering perpetrated in the sweatshops and mines all over the globe is dehumanizing to all of us just as is the suffering faced by black and brown folk in the ghettos and barrios, when we resolve to use every last bit of our bodily energy, courage, conviction, spirit, and intelligence to confront the sources of these injustices wherever and whenever we see them, when we pursue our own individual path of righteousness wherever it leads (up to and including our own individual death), when our life becomes wholly given over to this struggle, well then, we’re not so very far from Christ or Christ-liness at all.
The problem that I have with holding Jesus (or MLK for that matter) up as a superhuman individual is that I feel that it makes it seem like none of us can fully devote ourselves to using everything that we have in fighting for the least of these. It gives us an excuse, a cop out. For instance, we might say: Jesus could be perfect, Jesus could give his life to the struggle, but there are limits to what I, a mere mortal can do and can give. Surely, there are human limits to each of us in terms of our energy, time, courage, etc. However, we only really know what these limits are when we try to exceed them! Moreover, while we as individuals may be limited in terms of what we can do, know, and sacrifice, when we come together as a revolutionary community in a collective struggle against global injustice that takes place throughout the course of history, there are no such limits! I suppose in the end, Christ is the name for this process, this struggle as a total, all-consuming, collective act–in other words, Christ is a verb! While none of us as individuals are Christ, each of us can live our lives in radical adherence to the collective process of Christifying the world. While we are always human and finite, through the disciplined devotion to the ongoing struggle of alleviating the suffering of our brothers and sisters across the globe (regardless of their respective genders, colors, sexual orientations, or faith traditions!), through that process, each of us becomes more and more divine! To me, it is in just such an immediate, material, physical, and global context–and when it is seen as an integral part of, but irreducible to, the great teachings of the world’s faith traditions taken as whole–that the Christ story becomes meaningful. And while I’m no theologian–though there are many theologians who hold similar views, e.g., Charles Hartshorne and John Cobb–to me, that’s the essence of the gospel!”
Let’s keep having these radically open, truly transformative conversations y’all! At the end of the day, that’s what democracy and revolution are all about!