We disagree about some aspects of his legacy, but the role of faith is indisputable.
By Cornel West and Robert P. George April 5, 2018 7:26 pm ET
In his own time Martin Luther King Jr. was regarded by some as a rabble rouser and even a communist sympathizer, and by others as an Uncle Tom and a “house Negro.” In demanding an immediate end to segregation and Jim Crow, he was too radical for some. In eschewing violence and hatred of anyone—including even the defenders of racial injustice—he was too “tame” and forgiving for others.
Fifty years after his death, he is almost universally revered. Though he did not fit perfectly into any ideological camp during his lifetime, he is claimed today by people across the political spectrum. His words are often invoked to defend causes that he himself did not live to form an opinion about—from opposition to affirmative action to advocacy of same-sex marriage. Everybody, it seems, thinks King would be on their side.
We can and should do our best to think about the implications of his basic principles, but often reasonable people of goodwill disagree about precisely what those implications are. The two of us disagree on some of these issues, though we continue to listen to and engage each other. This has deepened our understanding of King’s principles—especially his focus on the equal dignity and sanctity inherent to every human life.
One of us invokes “the radical King” in criticizing empire, capitalism, and white supremacy. The other recalls King’s principles in defending the unborn, Down syndrome and other disabled people, the frail elderly, and every life.
We both believe King would demand that more be done to fight poverty. But no one can say for sure how he would design and apportion the roles of government, at the national or state levels, and civil-society institutions in the effort. Nor would he claim that whatever policies he happened to favor were infallibly correct. In engaging with each other as fellow citizens, neither should we. At the same time, reasonable difference must never be an excuse for complacency or inaction in the face of evils such as poverty and injustice.
Still, in judging and acting, we must avoid sinning against King’s legacy by facilely claiming him for whatever policies we favor. A more fitting attitude, one consistent with what was truly radical about King, is to imagine him as a critic: “If Martin Luther King would be on the other side of where I happen to be on this question—why?”
This self-critical stance honors King by recognizing the centrality of his Christian faith to his work and witness. Today we treat King as a saint, but he recognized himself as a sinner. He struggled to live uprightly but often failed and stood in need of forgiveness. King was taught by the tradition of African-American Christianity, which shaped him in every dimension of his being, that all human beings are fallen. But he was also taught that all are fashioned in the image and likeness of God and are therefore worthy of being loved and treated justly—justice being what love looks like in public.
King was truly radical in his literal reading of Jesus’ command that we love others unconditionally, selflessly and self-sacrificially. And by “others,” he meant everyone—even those who defend injustice. He believed in struggling hard, and with conviction, for what one believes is right; but he equally insisted on seeing others as precious brothers and sisters, even if one judges them to be gravely in error.
King chose nonviolence not simply because he thought it was an effective strategy. This commitment reflected his belief in the sanctity of the human person, the principle that all men and women, as children of God, were brothers and sisters. King saw himself as the leader of a love-inspired movement, not a tribe or “identity group,” and that is because his radical love ethic refused to divide people into tribes and identity groups.
It was no mere ideology, but rather this biblically based radical love ethic that enabled Martin Luther King Jr. to embrace, fully and without reservation, the idea of America as a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And it was radical love that drove him to risk—and give—his life in the cause of calling his fellow citizens finally and fully to live up to our national ideal of “liberty and justice for all.”
Mr. West is a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard. Mr. George is a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton.