November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
October 5, 2020
Fraternity, conceived with Cain’s sober coldness, would not by itself explain the responsibility between separated beings it calls for.—Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence
Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”—Matthew 12:48–50 (NRSV)
In the final analysis, agape means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. 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.—Martin Luther King Jr., Stride toward Freedom
On the fourth Sunday after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, I was scheduled to preach at my church. In the lectionary for that day, the voice of John the Baptist is crying out in the wilderness, insisting on repentance and proclaiming that “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 3:10 NRSV). In my homily, I noted that 81 percent of white evangelicals and 60 percent of white Catholics had just voted for a man who gleefully repeated at rallies a false story about American soldiers killing Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.1 I called my mostly white liberal congregation to repentance and insisted that faithful discipleship at this moment required us to resist this president and refuse the complacent security of whiteness—or America, bearer of strange and bitter fruit, would rightly be cut down and thrown into the fire. A week later, I received an indignant email from a parishioner who felt that I had abused the sacred privilege of the pulpit. I was inciting hatred, the parishioner claimed, when I ought to be focused on building consensus. The parishioner cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s view that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”2
I was astonished that the parishioner would invoke King, among the most powerful critics of white supremacy in American history, to protect Trump from criticism from the pulpit. Later, as I researched this essay, I discovered that the quote about consensus comes from a 1968 sermon entitled, “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” In that same speech King also says, “It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle”; condemns the war in Vietnam as “one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world”; and laments that America was rightly viewed as an “arrogant nation.”3 The line about being a molder of consensus, in fact, was King’s defense against criticisms that he was being too divisive in politicizing the war in Vietnam. To marshal that quote in order to admonish a preacher for critiquing white supremacy is painfully ironic.
But such misappropriations, for better or worse, are part of King’s legacy. His image has been co-opted by hegemonic power, evacuated of its ethical content and trenchant critique. A shining monument now stands in King’s honor on the same national mall where he insisted, “We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” At the King memorial, a number of less threatening quotations portray him not as “radical” but as liberal humanist (“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” reads one inscription), while the only reference to race anywhere on the monument is a minimization of its importance, namely King’s insistence that “our loyalties must transcend race.” And standing at the center of it all, facing out across the Tidal Basin toward the monument to the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, is a statue of King. He stands thirty feet tall, and the stone from which he is sculpted is dazzlingly white. This King, as Cornel West wryly observes, was carefully “Santa-Clausified—tamed, domesticated, sanitized, and sterilized.” As West laments, the “radical King” was and remains largely unknown.4
Reading over King’s speech again, I came across a familiar passage that helps to explain how the radical message of King was sanitized for white popular consumption. The passage, which appears in various forms throughout King’s speeches and writings in the 1960s, is this:
Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet . . . we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers. Or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason 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 way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.5
The parishioner was able to invoke King to shield Trump from criticism because King’s central theological-ethical symbol is ambiguous. Our world, in King’s theological ethics, is a neighborhood, a brotherhood, a network of mutuality, an interstructured, interrelated, interdependent community—yet this symbol is susceptible to a depoliticized, romantic interpretation. One can feel brotherhood, or at least claim to, without relinquishing power. One can even be a blood brother, as Cain was to Abel, without accepting responsibility. But I will argue that King understood familial interdependence very differently.
This essay explores the theological symbol interdependence and its political correlative, integration, in the work of Martin Luther King Jr. Both concepts are rooted in King’s sense of the fundamental “solidarity of the human family.”6 Yet the US white political establishment has co-opted all three notions, whitewashing and appropriating King’s image and remembering him as a liberal humanist dreamer who envisioned a reconciled post-racial society. However, I will show that interdependence, integration, and family were not apolitical or romantic notions for King. Instead, King adhered to the gospel teaching that familial love is based not in blood but in solidarity, that brotherhood is primarily a matter of morally responsible action (see Matt. 12:46–50). Interdependence in King’s thought was not a gushy ideal but a moral necessity for human survival. Integration, for King, was not a saccharine mixing of colors but a substantive sharing in political power.
In a recent volume considering King as a forerunner of globalization theory, Roy Money considers the sources of King’s ethics of interdependence and shows that King was deeply influenced by Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi, Boston personalists, process thinkers, the Black church, African communalism, and Buddhist metaphysics. For example, Money quotes the liberal Baptist minister Henry Emerson Fosdick:
We are interrelated. We flow into one another. We are members of one another, and as individuals and nations our woes, problems and tragedies spill over from one into the other’s life. We are intermeshed in an inescapable mutuality.7
Money follows Keith Miller in identifying this sermon, published in a 1958 collection, as a source in King’s thinking on mutuality. King began to use similar language at least as early as 1961:
All life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.8
Rather than suggesting that King stole his ideas of interdependence from these thinkers, Money argues that King and his contemporaries were responding to new streams of thought, global socioeconomic processes, and scientific discoveries (such as complexity science, network theory, and ecology) that revealed the interrelated character of the world. In the end, it was King who was most successful in communicating these insights to a popular audience.9
Further, Gary Dorrien has shown that King inherited a rich tradition of Black social gospel theology. Dorrien places particular emphasis on the mark left by Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays: “American Christianity has no greater legacy than what King got from Thurman and Mays,” he insists.10 The mystic Thurman in particular developed a substantive ethics of interdependence, which I discuss briefly in what follows.
Thurman was a prolific writer whose view of interdependence is most clearly distilled in The Search for Common Ground,which was written in the aftermath of King’s death. In this book Thurman makes a powerful case for the unity of human beings with one another and with all of life. He writes that it is not possible for a person to be separate from their fellows, “for mutual interdependence is characteristic of all life.”11
Human self-consciousness, Thurman argues, is characterized by a reflective self-awareness that is the result of an individuation process. Humans achieve self-consciousness by separating from other persons, by separating from other “lower” life forms, and even by severing the mind from the body. Thurman is not dismissing separateness altogether but arguing “merely that it is not absolute.” For when separateness is absolutized, it produces destructive self-defensive behaviors. Thurman interprets white supremacist practices, such as lynching and segregation, as expressions of this aggressive tendency. He also worries that Black separatist organizations are susceptible to this same isolationism, although he is more sympathetic to the reasons for their appeal for many Black people, especially after King’s assassination.12
Yet there is another tendency within the human spirit, writes Thurman, that runs in the opposite direction: a “whole-making tendency,” an “intuitive human urge for community.” This urge for organic harmony and integration is inherent within all life—Thurman writes that recent scientific investigations of the universe reveal “a vast, almost incomprehensible interrelatedness tying all together.” The interrelatedness is visible not only on the cosmic level but also in the many systems that work together to sustain animal life. The circulatory, lymphatic, immune, and nervous systems all work together—Thurman points out that blood replenishes the lungs by providing needed nutrients, while the lungs in turn replenish the blood by supplying oxygen. The body’s systems are “subtle interwoven and interdependent structures of varied kinds and functions.”13
This whole-making tendency is discernible also in a certain “affinity” between human consciousness and other forms of consciousness. Thurman tells the story of a father who discovered his little daughter playing with a rattlesnake. The father did not rush in to retrieve the girl, fearing that doing so would cause the snake to strike. Instead, he watched as the rattlesnake would circle around the girl and let the girl pick it up, turn it on its side and back again: “it was apparent that they were playing together.” When the game ended and the rattlesnake slithered away, the father blasted it with a shotgun. For a brief moment, though, “it was as if two different expressions of life, normally antagonistic to each [other], had dropped back into some common ground and there reestablished a sense of harmony through which they were related to each other at a conscious level.”14
It is this common ground that Thurman desperately seeks to locate and promote at the level of interhuman relations. For a tantalizingly brief period, it seemed that Martin Luther King Jr. was offering to Black and white people this hope—“that for better or for worse they were tied together.”15 Because The Search for Common Ground was published after King’s death, it is not possible to claim Thurman as a clear source of King’s thought on this particular topic (even though, as Dorrien shows, Thurman was an important influence for King generally). Instead, King and Thurman both responded to the emergence of interdependence as a profound social symbol in twentieth-century thought, and they employed it to think about the problem of race in America.
“Yes, as nations and individuals, we are interdependent,” King was fond of saying. He often cited his trip to India as a turning point in his globalizing consciousness. He had traveled to India in 1959 to study Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, but King was shocked at the extreme and pervasive poverty he encountered there, which was far beyond anything he had seen in the United States. He was depressed by the knowledge that in Bombay, a million people sleep on the sidewalk every night; and he was convinced that his own nation, which spends so much money to store surplus food, had a moral obligation to store it in the stomachs of the world’s poor.16
This idea of global interdependence, which was also central in Gandhi’s philosophy,17 became predominant particularly in King’s later writings—for example, the notion in his last book Where Do We Go From Here? that we all inhabit a “world house.”18 Despite our differences of religion, culture, and race, as inhabitants of a common planet we must learn to live together in peace. In his 1967 Christmas sermon on peace, King elaborated further on the interrelated nature of reality. He reminded us that we cannot leave for work in the morning without depending on most of the world. We wash with a bathroom sponge provided by a Pacific Islander, drink coffee “poured into your cup by a South American,” and enjoy toast produced by an English-speaking farmer. “And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning,” King declared, “you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality.”19 King here has simply expressed the empirical fact of globalization, which was already a powerful force in his time.
But as King scholar Lewis Baldwin shows, one cannot derive an unproblematic ethics from the fact of economic globalization. Globalization is a morally ambiguous phenomenon: positively, it breaks down barriers between people and can lead to advances in universal human rights and opportunities for women; negatively, it increases wealth inequality and structural racism.20 Thus, it is likely that the Pacific Islander and the other makers of our household products are not justly compensated for their labor, and the distribution chains that ship our products conveniently across the globe are presently causing environmental catastrophe. The fact of interdependence, as manifest in economic globalization, more clearly evidences cutthroat market logic and structural oppression than mutuality or responsibility. King’s speech points to a fundamental moral ambiguity: globalization, in economics and political science, is synonymous with “interdependence” and is even referred to as “integration.”21
Although he may not have attended to the moral ambiguity of interdependence as globalization, King recognized the interdependence of forms of social suffering. He condemned racism, economic exploitation, and militarism as “triple evils that are interrelated.”22 And although King was no feminist,23 his awareness of the interrelatedness of oppressions anticipates the Black feminist idea of intersectionality in that he understood the struggle for freedom for Black people in America as inextricably linked to the struggles of colonized peoples in America, Africa, and Asia.24 All struggles against racism, imperialism, and other forms of social domination were interdependent since all human beings are tied together in an inescapable network, as inhabitants of a common “world house.”
King deepened the moral sense of interdependence by connecting it with the theological idea of brotherhood. We are not only dependent upon one another; we are responsible for one another, insofar as we are siblings with a common divine parent. King employs the symbol of brotherhood to express the love ethics of interdependence: “In the final analysis, agape means a recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. 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.” This statement combines process thought, in which we think “of the world as deeply interwoven—as an ever-renewing relational process,” with agape theology, in which we are bound in universal love to one another by the very structure of the universe, as it makes the point that familial ties are ties of identity.25 Brotherhood signifies a universal sharing in being such that an injury to my brother harms me, too. In his last book, King puts it in economic terms: “In a real sense, all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”26
King’s sense of familial interdependence and responsibility for the other is founded upon a deepened and expanded conception of self-interest or what Christian ethicists sometimes describe as the common good. King challenges the assumption that self-preservation is the first law of life. Other-preservation is primary, King insists, because “we cannot preserve self without being concerned about preserving other selves.” In caring for others, we care also for ourselves: “We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of morality coalesce with our self-interest.”27 The preservation and fulfillment of selfhood depends, then, on the preservation and fulfillment of other persons. There can be no separation of my interests from yours: we are bound together, sharers in precious family and precarious fate.
Integration is the political correlative to King’s theological notion of interdependence. When people of all races at last achieve a “recognition of the solidarity of the human family,” King suggests that a completely integrated society will emerge.28 We have seen hegemonic power co-opt the integrationist argument, adopting the romantic language of a post-racial society and retiring the most egregious forms of state-sponsored racial discrimination while refusing to alter the socioeconomic structures that secure continued white dominance. But King’s own understanding of integration was far more complex and morally serious. He understood the promise and limitations of integration, and he worked diligently to mitigate the dangers and to achieve a genuinely integrated society. That he failed to do so speaks less to King’s own shortcomings and more to the entrenchment and durability of white supremacy and the concerted efforts of shrewd and powerful people determined to preserve it.
King’s notion of integration began with an interior dimension. He argued that the ten-year protest phase of the Black freedom movement, from the Montgomery bus boycott to the Selma march, was a necessary first phase in a broader effort to dismantle American racism. King acknowledged the limitations of this phase while insisting on its importance: Black people “came out of this struggle integrated only slightly in the external society but powerfully integrated within. This was the victory that had to precede all other gains.” Grinding racial oppression had left Black people “forever fighting a degenerating sense of nobodiness,” but by organizing against unjust racist laws, Black people began to experience a “new sense of somebodiness and self-respect.”29 The interior dimension of integration meant seeking wholeness in a society that fractures Black psyches, leaving Black people struggling with the “double-consciousness” of which Du Bois wrote—that is, measuring themselves through the eyes of white people and thus battling a tension of “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Before social integration can be possible, King believed, Black people must achieve interior spiritual integration. As Lauryn Hill would later put it, “How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?”30
King also understood integration as “true intergroup, interpersonal living.” Explicitly connecting integration and interdependence, King writes that the United States is “a multiracial nation where all groups are dependent on each other, whether they want to recognize it or not. In this vast interdependent nation no racial group can retreat to an island entire of itself.” In other words, this interpersonal living applied equally to white supremacists and Black nationalists: Black nationalists, he thought, were unrealistic in their calls for a separate Black society and misguided in their calls for a race war they could never win. Black and white people, for better or worse, were bound together in a multiracial society, and therefore it was imperative that all persons “learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.”31 Integration as interpersonal reconciliation was both a pragmatic and a moral necessity, an expression of fundamental human solidarity based on our familial ties as children of God.
Finally, for King, integration was a political program for the full inclusion of Black people into the benefits of US citizenship. Here King distinguished between desegregation, a negative term connoting the removal of legal barriers that discriminated against Black people, and integration, a creative term signaling the positive inclusion of Black people into the full range of American life. Such inclusion, King clearly insisted, requires a “mutual sharing of power.” As early as 1959 King rejected mere “token integration,” which incorporated a few Black people into the middle class while leaving the substantive conditions for most Black people unchanged. In an essay published posthumously, King showed that he was aware of the hegemonic co-optation of integration, insisting that “integration is meaningless without the sharing of power. When I speak of integration, I don’t mean a romantic mixing of colors, I mean a real sharing of power and responsibility.” In the same essay, King admitted that integrated schools tended to combine the problems of segregated Black and white schools, rather than solving those problems. Integration was, in his view, a necessary but insufficient condition for liberation. Yet while he acknowledged these limitations, King preached the goal of integration and the method of nonviolence up to his death: “We have not given up on integration. We still believe in black and white together.”32
The theologian Victor Anderson argues that family is a “grotesque” symbol, in which deep joy and lasting trauma are often copresent. The symbol of family ideally conveys feelings of loving companionship, responsibility, and delight, but for those of us who have experienced sexual, physical, emotional, and/or psychological abuse at the hands of family members, the symbol may also trigger painful memories of those traumatic experiences. Jacques Derrida extends these negative connotations of family, observing that the political rhetoric of nation-states almost always invokes familial language, especially fraternal language. The emphasis on brotherhood erases women, nonbinary persons, and genderqueer persons while also marshalling affective imagery in the service of masculinized hegemonic power that is most frequently employed militarily, for example, with brothers in arms. And Iris Marion Young worries that, in addition to eliding difference, the notion of brotherhood presumes a preexisting shared origin in the mother. Instead, Young insists, “solidarity must always be forged and reforged. Solidarity is firm but fragile.”33 Thus, just like King’s symbols of interdependence and integration, the symbol of family is morally ambivalent and susceptible to hegemonic co-opting.
However, all symbols are morally ambivalent. As theologian Edward Farley writes, religious symbols are “words of power” that are “corruptible, ambiguous, and potentially idolatrous.” The task as Farley sees it is not to dispense with symbols but to analyze and expose their corruptible elements. In this way, we may mitigate those dangers and reinterpret symbols to promote human flourishing. Likewise, Anderson does not think that we can afford to abandon our grotesque deep symbols, riddled though they are with contradiction and limitation. What is needed, instead, is “to find better ways of deploying these kinds of symbols.”34
As Vincent Lloyd argues in a chapter devoted to King in his Black Natural Law, King was seeking a world where everyone is treated in accordance with the infinite worth of their personality, and he found that “the best model for such treatment that we have in our current world is family, specifically brotherhood, a metaphor also evoking shared divine parentage.” Therefore, although interdependence, integration, and family are corruptible deep symbols, they are nonetheless among the most affectively evocative images available to us, and this is why they are routinely employed in the service of both oppressive and liberative power. The task, then, is not to relegate these symbols to the social ethical waste bin but to seek out the “responsibility between separated beings” to which, as Levinas writes, the symbol of family calls us.35
Interdependence was a guiding theological-ethical symbol for King. His belief in the fundamental solidarity of the human family sustained him through periods of severe depression and enabled him to ward off despair in the face of the intransigent racism of white America. Integration was the political correlative of interdependence; it was love in action, mutuality made manifest as real sharing in power. For King, the failure of white Americans to accept the ethical demand for integration was simply a refusal to recognize a fundamental truth about the world. Authentic human fulfillment cannot be found in hoarding wealth or dominating others. Instead, we can become most fully who we are only when others are similarly able to flourish.
I have discussed the many contemporary sources of King’s thought on interdependence, but the idea that our individual joys and sufferings are linked is not a twentieth-century innovation. This same conviction is already present in the ancient insight that “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). King would depart from the spirit of Paul’s letter only in his insistence that there are no “lesser” or “greater” members (12:22–24); all are to be accorded equal dignity as children of God.
King’s notion of interdependence as familial solidarity, I contend, entails an expanded awareness of self-interest, where other-preservation is inextricably linked to self-preservation. Although King did not make this connection explicit, the very term interest derives from the Latin inter-esse, which means to be one among others.36 What Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing” is in fact the etymological foundation of interest: if “inter-est” is being-together, all interest by definition is communal interest. Responsible interdependence, the ethics of interdependence, is an ethics of interest, where interest is not isolated competition for finite resources but simply a common share in being. All life is interrelated; all good is common good; all interest is common interest. Strangely enough, self-interest turns out to be a contradiction in terms!
King’s theological ethics, then, entail radical political changes; however, his central symbols are often deployed in the service of the status quo. In his 2016 book Democracy in Black, the religious historian Eddie Glaude argues that white supremacy is sustained through the “racial habits” of white people who believe in a “value gap”—they think, consciously or unconsciously, that white lives simply matter more than Black ones. White people buttress the value gap, ironically enough, with a sanitized version of King: “This whitewashed King often gets in the way of frank and fearless discussions of black suffering, because his words, in the hands of far too many, are used to hide racial habits and sustain the value gap.”37 I learned this firsthand, as that angry white parishioner quoted King to admonish me for speaking so harshly about Trump.
And speak harshly we must. Thanks in large part to religious critics like West and Glaude, and to mobilizing efforts like the revived Poor People’s Campaign, the whitewashed portrait of King is beginning to fade. We are more and more reminded of King’s deeply controversial opposition to the Vietnam War, his socialist politics, and his harsh critiques of white moderates. However, in this essay I have adopted a somewhat different strategy: I have examined some of King’s ideas that are generally taken to be moderate and harmless, and I have revealed that they carry radical political ramifications. Were we to take King’s notion of familial interdependence seriously—valuing our responsibility to all of our siblings as dearly as we value our own lives—our world house would shift beyond our capacity to imagine. Were King’s notion of integration to be implemented—not token integration but the interior, interpersonal, and political transformations it implied for him—the structures of white supremacy would come crashing down. Integration, interdependence, brotherhood: these seemingly benign ideas were and remain politically extreme, despite their having been co-opted by hegemonic power. And after all, one could say the same of the ideas of that radical Teacher whom King strove to emulate, even to his death.
Andrew Stone Porter
Andrew Stone Porter is a PhD candidate and a fellow in the Theology and Practice Program at Vanderbilt University, where he studies ethics and society. His dissertation, “The Limits of Interdependence as a Value for Social Ethics,” frames interdependence as a “deep symbol” emergent in twentieth-century relational and liberationist thought and post-Newtonian science. The project assesses the dangers of hegemonic co-optation of this symbol and recovers “responsible interdependence” as a critical value for social ethics.