What would Martin Luther King do? (More)

On Monday Dan Gillmor tweeted this.

It’s pretty obvious that if Martin Luther King were alive today, he’d be one of Barack Obama’s fiercest critics on all kinds of issues

The implication (as subsequent tweets demonstrate) is, of course, that President Obama would come up wanting under the fierce criticism of Martin Luther King.

That sparked quite a discussion on twitter and if you’re interested you can view the whole thing here.

In similar fashion, Glenn Greenwald’s column yesterday used Martin Luther King’s views about Viet Nam to critique the current administration on civil liberties.

While I revere the life, work and teaching of Martin Luther King (and personally feel like I have a LONG way to go to realize them in my own life), the truth is that these kinds of arguments make me very uncomfortable…to say the least.

As one who grew up with the teachings of fundamentalist Christianity, I wrestled long and hard to reject the idea that words written over 2000 years ago and eventually became the Bible are inerrant. Many brought up in the Catholic faith have the same struggle with the idea of the Pope being inerrant in his teachings. And any liberal knows that one of our biggest battles with the right is over their “strict constructionist” view of our constitution.

What all three of these examples teach us is that, while words written/spoken in a particular time and place may have meaning, they are all written/spoken by mere mortals who sometimes get things wrong.

And so while each of us has the freedom to accept/reject what they have to say as guidelines for our own lives, to make gods of their utterances is folly when grappling with the world as it presents itself to us right now. My experience is that failing to do so absolves us of wrestling with difficult questions and simply provides pat answers to morally challenging situations.

The other issue I have with using Martin Luther King’s legacy this way is that he was a mere 39 years old when he was assassinated. While it may be interesting to ponder how he would have developed personally over time if he had been allowed to live, its folly to assume we know.

I am now 19 years older that King was when he died. As I look back on those years its easy to see how I’ve changed. Life has a way of doing that to you. And it would have been true of King as well. We need to grant his legacy the reality of that truth.

There are many of us who wish profoundly that he could have lived to see the first African American elected president. But we know that that is a wish for the world as we want it to be and not the reality of how it actually is.

The fact is that President Obama has wrestled with King’s legacy…how his role and the times are different. We know a bit about that based on his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.

We should all follow his example. That would mean learning everything we can from the man Martin Luther King – including his struggles, failures and triumphs – and then taking that knowledge to wrestle with the very real challenges we face in our own life and times today.

King doesn’t have all the answers for us. We have to find those ourselves.