‘Politically Homeless’ Americans Should Look to Dr. King’s Words

By WESLEY A. SMITH | Jan 16, 2019

On Jan. 21, we will pause to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. On that day, as “identity politics” tear at the fabric of America, let us recall the words of M.L. King Jr. during a 1965 commencement address at Oberlin College: “… learn to live together as brothers and sisters … Or, we will perish together as fools.”

Dr. King’s words speak to our time when so many Americans feel politically homeless. We far too seldom hear a call for reasonableness and compromise in a political arena consumed with shallow selfishness. The Christian call to love our neighbor (including the world’s most vulnerable) is drowned out by the brash voices of selfish personal and political ethics that places self always before others … my interests first, everyone else’s concerns second.

What has happened to the ethic of God’s kingdom that insists that our neighbors’ concerns, rights, freedoms and well-being are as our own? As John Chrysostom wrote, “Nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for their neighbor.”

How we serve alongside others – even people with whom we don’t agree – and how we treat each other inspires a social ethic that brings hope to a cynical and often irreverent culture and our loudest and most brash voices.

In Trent Lott and Tom Daschle’s book Crisis Point, the authors agree that “the state of our democracy is as bad as we’ve ever seen it.” The authors say that elected representatives need to understand their obligations to the country as well as to their parties. They need to rediscover ways to accommodate each other’s values and commitments in order to meet their obligation to the common good. As I read excerpts from Crisis Point, I kept returning to “The Golden Rule” from Luke 6: “Do to others what you would have them do to you,” and to the words of John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Yes, putting common good above personal gain creates a virtue that James Madison thought even the finest political system could not survive without. Judeo-Christian faith underscores the reality that political positions are not ultimate truth and understands the greatest good and deepest fulfillment are to give and not to get. Personal gain is always secondary to the common good. We believe in the community of faith rather than in individualistic prominence. So, before we judge our neighbor, let us first examine ourselves and turn away from our self-centeredness. Then, let us show each other the peace and mercy we have received.

We daily witness far too many Americans battling one another rather than working together to build a more perfect union. Today’s dissonance is harsher than I have witnessed at any time over the past six decades. “One nation, under God” threatens to become a dimming light of hope to many. Divisions fueled by the White House, partisan politics, extremism and good Americans’ fearful reticence to say or do anything are eroding the ethical fabric of the greatest country on Earth. This reality only fortifies the failure of civil discourse – the hope for our Nation. “Let us learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools.” Thank you, Dr. King.

The Rev. Wesley A. Smith of Harvey Cedars is a retired pastor with the American Baptist Church, USA.

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