MLK’s passion for justice was not synonymous with defeating an enemy

Usually our civic holidays inspire us. But sometimes—as in the case of Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2020—the spirit of a holiday is so at odds with our current practice that it judges and indicts us.

That spirit is impossible to summarize in one King quote from a lifetime of quotable eloquence. But if I were forced to try, it would be this: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Is it possible to find a more routinely violated principle in our public life? We have a president who boasts of avenging slights and criticism with multiplied viciousness. Donald Trump has political opponents (including, on occasion, myself) who feel obliged to attack his breaches of decorum, morality and ethics with an intensity that continues the country’s rhetorical escalation. Partisan media and talk radio make their money through incitement and answering fire with fire.

And much of this conflict is based on a trend that threatens to become a tragedy. Political divisions in America are becoming less ideological than sociological. Americans are increasingly taking opposition to their views as an assault on their way of life. So issues such as gun control or climate disruption—instead of being matters requiring debate and offering the possibility of compromise—become signifiers of cultural identity. Among those who hold this mindset, losing an election raises the fear of cultural extinction. The strongest and loudest political advocates tend to think their loss might end America as they know it.

If there is any common ground left in our political life, it is the general belief that hatred is the only thing that can drive out hatred.

The depth of our divisions would not, of course, surprise King, who lived in a time when social divisions were far deeper, and the level of political violence far higher. King was not optimistic about human nature. He strongly rejected the false idealism of white liberals who thought that education and economic development could overcome racial divisions under the guidance of benevolent experts. “This particular sort of optimism,” King said, “has been discredited by the brutal logic of events. Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency man faces the ever present possibility of swift relapse not merely to animalism but to such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice.”

For King, the passion for justice was not synonymous with defeating an enemy. Influenced by thinkers such as Jesus, Henry David Thoreau and Gandhi, King believed that moral goals must be pursued by moral methods—by means that bring credit to the principle itself. In this way, suffering for a cause can be more powerful than killing for a cause. Violence leads to escalation and makes future reconciliation very difficult. Unmerited suffering, in King’s view, can reveal the moral bankruptcy of racists while maintaining the possibility of future reconciliation.

“Nonviolence, according to King, was based on the belief,” said historian Albert J. Raboteau, “that acceptance of suffering was redemptive, because suffering could transform both the sufferer and the oppressor … and it was grounded in the confidence that justice would, in the end, triumph over injustice … By accepting the violence of the oppressor, without retaliation and even without hatred, the demonstrators, he insisted, could transform the oppressor’s heart.”

“I think I have discovered the highest good,” said King. “It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos.” And he found this true for a specific reason. “Agape [meaning God-like love] means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated,” King wrote. “All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.”

Many will find this impractical. But in the midst of our zero-sum politics, it is worth asking: How practical and successful is the theory that hate can drive out hate?

(Washington Post Writers Group)