Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King, Jr. is no Aristotle

Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary,

the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon?

and are not his sisters here with us?

This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is no Aristotle. Sure, in America where we once forgot we’d fought long and hard to free ourselves from the tyrannies of slavery, he gets his day.

But King is way too subjective, too unoriginal, too fragile, too emotional, too rhetorical, too ambiguous, too dependent on the actions of his followers, too dreamy, too loving, too much willing to distract us with his too-often abused and his too-often imprisoned and his also-murdered body.

Listen to him if you dare.

Read him if you will.

Remember him if you can.

He’s one of Phillip Yancey’s unlikely teachers (with a dozen others).

He’s one of Robert E. Quinn’s extraordinary masters (with Jesus and Gandhi).

He’s Keith D. Miller’s voice of deliverance (with others whose mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers were enslaved). Listen.

Listen also because he’s Theodore Pappas’s plagiarist who’s literally no “Martin Luther” but is rather America’s progaganda minister in the culture wars.

When I first read Pappas a decade ago (before I’d read Yancey or Quinn or Miller), I decided I’d hear out King on his own terms. So I read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail and found it to be very much like the gospels of Jesus Christ. Here’s the way they’re alike: they allude to and quote and paraphrase the ideas of others (kind of like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her friends like Frederick Douglas do with the revolutionary declarative egalitarian theological ideas of Thomas Jefferson). There are variant texts out there. I found at least three strains of the "Letter" in publication, two different versions published by King himself (one in the Atlantic Monthly of August 1963 now excerpted here on the Atlantic's web site and another revised by him and his editors for a book in which he compiles some of his writings and speech transcripts). And there are textual mistakes in the variants, both little things like misspellings and big ones in which different words and paragraphs are changed so that the texts in certain ways could well be of interest to lovers of the Q theory and fans of the lost gospels of “Jesus” and paid subscribers to J.D.E.P. except that M.L.K. Jr. won’t as quickly give them tenure or technorati ratings. And there are different versions of how the “original” letter was written down and eventually copied for publication. This should excite historians of text. But the thrilling thing is that Pappas hadn’t uncovered any of this “evidence” for his more willing, more explicit, more damning, more arrogant, more Aristotelian part in the culture wars. And I’ve sat on it silently for years now, waiting for much time to pass, telling only a few friends who understand Aristotle. We are trying to understand (with Yancey and Quinn and Miller) Jesus. And King. But we keep finding that Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. understand us better than we’re understanding them. My humble advice after all these years is this: listen. (Listen even if it sounds like great demands on you: “change your minds” and “believe” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post, Kurk!