“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Familiar words from the Pledge of Allegiance. It the ideal to which we commit ourselves as a reminder to ourselves and a light held up to the world.
We are more than a little divided these days. Pick a demographic quality – almost any quality and there are divisions. Not the normal distinctions that are part of the melting pot uniqueness that makes our nation vibrant, diverse, and gives us an amazing array of cuisines, celebrations and customs. I mean some of the divisions are hardline separation, with-us-or-against-us discord in which friends and families are broken and subsumed into a deepening silence. The words “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one) seems a distant echo.
Today’s is Martin Luther King Jr. Day coming less than two weeks after the events of January 6th at the U.S. Capitol Building. Whatever one thinks about that day, our nation’s Capitol was the scene of a riot: police vs. people, riot gear, smoke bombs, batons, calls for the lynching of elected officials and chaos. By the end of the day, police had arrested 61 people for “unrest-related” offenses. Five people died during the riot including a woman shot by police, three more in the crowd outside via unspecified medical emergencies, and a Capitol Police officer hit in the head by a rioter with a fire extinguisher and later dying from his injuries.
One nation, indivisible
Dr. King knew about these things. He knew about mobs. He faced them across the American South. Yet after enduring a year of death threats, false arrests and fire bombings in the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King spoke of “the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization.” I am awe struck how Dr. King dealt with such violence. In his story, there is a model for our times.
Whatever the hope and purpose, January 6th crimes were committed. Our instinct is to hold accountable those involved. It is reasonable to believe that King would support holding people accountable for crimes committed, but King also held a higher hope that at least some of those who were part of the violence might be changed so that we were one step closer to “e pluribus unum”, a nation indivisible. In our desire for justice, do we hold such higher hopes?
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you…This is the time for reconciliation. This is the time for redemption. This is the time to build the beloved community.”
Dr. King said this about people who had tried to firebomb his home. Later while leading a march for fair housing in Chicago, King was faced with a similar mob, and he reacted in much the same way. The several hundred peaceful demonstrators he led through the Marquette Park neighborhood were met by a crowd of thousands of people, mostly ethnic whites, fermenting with hate. They screamed racial epithets at him. He kept marching. They threw rocks and bottles. One hit him in the head, he went down on his knee, wiped the blood away, got up, kept marching.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a group of teenagers jeering at him. Somehow, King escaped his security detail, walked up to them and said something to the effect of: “You all are so smart and good-looking. Why would you want to stoop so low?”
One nation, indivisible – but people have to cross over and hold out for other a vision of their best self.
Without a doubt, the anchor for King’s actions was his Christian faith. King truly believed that all of us are created in the image of God, that love is at the center of the Gospel and that it is “the only force capable of changing an enemy into a friend.” In addition to his spiritual commitment to use the love of God to turn enemies into friends, King was working a deeply pragmatic strategy. He understood a profound truth about democracy: You have to live with the people you defeat. And remember they have all the same powers of citizenship as you do. They can hold rallies to promote their views, raise money for favorite causes and run candidates for office. And so, each side has a stake in the other being better than their worst selves.
Dr. King believed that people change when they are reminded of their God-given potential for both greatness and goodness. He said this to his fellow advocates, to his enemies – he says it to you and me today.
This is not all that you can be. Your potential is so much greater than this. Even though I am the target of your hate, I see so much more in you. I am going to remind you of that greatness and goodness, and then I’m going to convince you that I’m building a world where your greatness and goodness can manifest. You will like yourself better in that world. And in that world, we will be like brothers and sisters.
If we are to have a healthy and diverse democracy, more of us will need to have the Martin Luther King Jr. talent of seeing in people at their worst, but at the same time seeing the possibilities that they can be something great. Ourselves, friends and enemies – at our worst, we all lose. At our best we are one nation, indivisible.