Speaking to his Montgomery church in 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. declared:
"So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers
in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: I love you. I would rather die than hate you."
King took that radical notion from Jesus'
Sermon on the Mount, a core Christian teaching, though not a widely held Christian belief.
And King died for it.
It's easier to change the subject than
face his statement even now, easier to call King a flawed personality or a hypocrite than to face ourselves.
Forty years ago next week, I was riding
home from the burger joint with my parents when the radio said King had been killed in Memphis. The news stirred dread in
What craziness had the adults of Christian
America gone and done this time? Killing a preacher who spoke out for Americans who didn't have anything?
Five years after Dallas, we had tainted
ourselves again with another public murder involving a gun and a scrawny self- pitying white killer. The adult world seemed
a childish, squalid place that night.
The logic of hate is always straightforward.
Bully, assassin and terrorist share the
same defeatist credo — "I hate my neighbor as I hate myself." Behind it stands a refusal to face one's own flaws and
The nonviolence movement to end segregation
revealed this five decades ago. The protesters, mostly students, refused to fight back when beaten by the angry crowds.
The violence against unarmed young people
exposed the inanity of racist laws and made the white establishment feel ashamed.
The disarming power of nonviolent discipline,
inspired by King and other teachers, was literally disarming.
This happened in Nashville in the early
1960s, and those memories and images of (usually) peaceful resolution shaped the city's modern self-identity.
Nonviolence was seen as pragmatic. The
experience made Music City a less hateful place.
Killings define 2008
Today, Americans are dying because of a
dire lack of local memories of peacemaking. A series of shooting slaughters — the Northern Illinois campus, a Louisiana
vo-tech, the Kirkwood, Mo., city hall, and a dozen other places — is defining year 2008.
We comfort ourselves to say they're all
unrelated. Yet they add up to something obvious, a pattern of national self-terrorism, the default fall-back option to use
weapons instead of words to make one's miserable, tormented point.
King is enshrined in national memory now, our
first official hero of nonviolence, so the chance exists that his words, not his killer's response, will come to inhabit more
and more people.
Ray Waddle, a former Tennessean religion editor who now lives in Connecticut, can be reached at email@example.com.