Martin Luther King, Jr. Would Stand for Ideals Rather Than Settle for Evil in This Election
Men and women don’t defend ideals anymore. We don’t. We’re pragmatists of the worst sort, selling out the higher ideals of life for the practical expedients of political “wins” and “advances.”
Not even Christian men and women zealously contend for high ideals. We don’t defend ideals in our churches, and we don’t do it in politics. Perhaps there’s a connection. For surely if we applied the grace of God in loving church correction and celebration of Christian character in our churches, we might be inclined to call for moral excellence and consistency of character in our political leaders. But if we don’t do it at home, how can we expect to do it in the public square.
With Wednesday’s post, “W.E.B. Would Not Vote in This Election,” a fair number of honest, zealous, and I take it politically active Christians expressed alarm at the thought of DuBois and my not voting. If memory serves, I don’t think one of these folks took me to task for failing to live up to a higher ideal. Nearly every one of the arguments were rooted in the very real likelihood that the election would have consequences either for the unborn, for marriage, or for gays and lesbians. These are extremely important issues, and I cast my lot with all those who understand abortion to be the greatest social evil of our time, to be opposed and fought in nearly every way we can.
But there’s a “but.” We should oppose evil on every front but without compromising grand and lofty ideals, ideals that define the ‘good life,’ that define true manhood and womanhood, that define virtue in civic life, that define and call for righteousness in the highest places. I find that too many people are ready to plunge headlong into important political issues without first setting the compass of ideals and charting the course.
I’m sure someone will want to dismiss me as an “idealist,” someone with his head in the clouds and out of touch with the urgent nature of the times. I’m sure someone will insist that the time for ideals are long past; what we need are “practical” men and women who “know how to get things done.” I’d simply ask: How is that working for us? Isn’t that how we decided to vote four years ago? And four years before that? And four years before that? When’s the last time you cast a vote for someone you actually believed in and trusted? Do you even remember what that feels like? Do we remember the certitude that comes from observed character? The strength that’s born of solid conviction? The courage that’s conjured by someone taking a principled stand without regard for its unpopularity or social backlash or the latest favorability ratings? Do we even remember that kind of political leader? Do we remember a political leader who lived for ideals?
Jim Gibson is a venerable veteran of Civil Rights struggle. In his late 80s he has the look and vigor of someone in their late 40s. I worked with Jim in public policy and community revitalization. Jim has been disenchanted with public leadership since the 1960s, specifically since Martin King’s assassination. With King’s death died something else for Jim: idealism. And not just for Jim. So many people of Jim’s generation and the generations since the 1960s have written “R.I.P.” over the grave of ideals.
But not me.
Why ‘the Lesser of Two Evils’ Doesn’t Lead to Righteousness
A fair number of very sharp Christian brothers and sisters have written that we’re always choosing between the lesser of two evils. Really? Really? Has it come to that?
I reject that. I reject that there’s no righteous man or woman in the land–only evil and less evil. The assertion depends on a category mistake. There is no one who is righteous in the salvific sense. But the scripture tells us repeatedly of men and women who were righteous in the everyday practical sense. To say there is only evil and lesser evil is to obliterate practical righteousness and view every man only in terms of saving righteousness. Moreover, that man who believes that all men are evil is not only a pragmatist but also a pessimist. He’s the one without hope and without courage. I believe in not only the imputed righteousness of Christ but also the practical righteousness of holy living. I believe there are men and women who do what’s right for right’s sake. I believe there are men and women who lead with the courage of conviction, forged in the fires of struggle and fanned with the winds of passion. I believe there are men and women who see what’s right–not just on one glaring issue but also on more subtle and less dramatic issues. I want to vote for someone who stands for righteousness, not someone who tolerates it. I want to vote for someone who fights for righteousness, not someone who talks about it while quietly weakening it.
If one truly believes that we’re always facing two evils, how could we ever hope that evil would lead to righteousness?
I believe the prophet’s call to “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5:24) is not only beautiful and biblical but also believable and necessary. I want to hear a King sound once more the trumpet of Zion and stand once more against an entire country for the benefit of not just the vulnerable minority but the redemption of the entire nation. I want to join ranks with a King who would look at one party and say, “You still need to repent and extend justice to all,” and look at the other party and say, “Son, I marched to save the very lives you’re giving people permission to kill.” I want to follow someone who gathers up every just cause into his arms and marches one steady step at a time toward ‘the beloved community.’ I want to see a man or woman seek to rescue the very soul of the country not just the stuff of the country.
Surely there are righteous and spiritual men and women among us who can judge in these matters. Surely the Lord has a people in this pilgrim land who have not bowed the knee to the political Baals–idols of political and social power that have eyes but don’t see, ears but don’t hear, mouths but don’t speak, and hands but don’t work. Surely the Lord has a people who do not dance around the Asherah poles and engage in the bacchanal of partisan drunkennes. Surely the Lord God Almighty has a people in this land who sat down with Israel to eat but refused to rise up in revelry with the masses. I believe there is a real and sizable remnant belonging to the Lord and that we need to call them to stand!
We don’t need to settle for the lesser of two evils. Not only is that to in fact settle for evil but also to subvert the very idea of a righteous public square. Oh, I know we can’t expect unbelievers to act like Christians. But can we no longer expect Christians to act like Christians and to live for something beyond this election? Can we no longer as Christians hold out hope for a more thorough-going righteousness in our leaders? I do. I’m tired of playing the game that elects a man with the expectation that he’ll break his word within days or weeks of taking office then accept that there’s nothing we can do about it except vote differently next time. That rat wheel is old.
I’m told that settling for the lesser evil and working inside the party system is the sure way to get incremental change. I’m told that people outside the system, refusing to vote, can not effect change. I laugh. The largest sea changes in American political history–and even in our present times–have come not from presidents and party loyalists but from footsoldiers outside the system. King wasn’t a party insider and the Lord used him to change not only the laws but also the heart of the country. Advocates of gay marriage aren’t party insiders, and they’re effectively using public opinion and courts to advance their agenda. About the only way to change the country is outside the party machinery.
We wonder why there are no Kings in our day. It’s because there are too few men willing to embrace an ideal as deeply and passionately as King did and have that ideal animate his every thought and action. But we can be Kings. Each of us. And that’s why holding out isn’t hopelessness.
Caring About Abortion and More Than Abortion
Some dear brothers and sisters in the Lord took my previous post to be immoral or at least irresponsible. They took that view in large part because they believe there’s a clear difference on abortion between one candidate and the other. They care about the lives–millions of lives!–of the unborn. They passionately care and they’re completely right to do so. I join you. I’m with you. I hate the murder of innocent children along with you, and I do see something of a difference between the candidates. Not as much as we’d like to imagine, but a difference nonetheless.
We dare not care about less than abortion as an issue. But can I ask you: Ought we to care about more? Can we care about the vulnerable lives of unborn children in the womb and the lives of living children vulnerable from the womb? Can we not fight to see children into the world and fight to see them well in the world? Doesn’t righteousness call us to protect the unborn and to feed the born? Doesn’t righteousness call us to work for a child’s safety in the womb and work for their safe housing outside? For me, the ideal begins with protecting the unborn but it continues with providing a just life for the young child. I’m with you for an end to abortion. Can you not be with me for more? Are we to work for the end of abortion only to abandon children to high-poverty, high-crime, low-resource, educationally-broken neighborhoods? Shouldn’t we close abortion clinics but keep open health care clinics? Shouldn’t we end abortion coverage and extend child insurance coverage?
Ideals call us to more, not less. Ideals stubbornly refuse to allow us to settle. Here’s the problem with settling: We only settle into mire, not mirth. Settling is always downward, always dirty, always muddy, always ignoble. Ideals always propel upwards, always inspire, always enliven. The country can’t afford the righteous to settle. The future of the country does not hang on these two candidates but on God’s people consistently standing for righteousness on every issue before us. Oh, I know the future belongs to our God and King. But doesn’t He normally work through His people? If His people set their sights so low as to vote for the lesser evil rather than stand for the greater justice, He’ll either judge us for the hypocrites we are or be forced to accomplish His will without us–or both.
The Fruit of the Struggle
One honest young man wrote to express his disappointment. He, like some others, I’m sure, considers not voting a betrayal of the freedom struggle so long endured by African Americans and symbolized by the right to vote. I understand the sentiment, and I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some twinge of that sentiment in my own heart, some wondering to myself if not voting betrays much that’s dear.
But then I remember: The full exercise of freedoms earned for us is not a betrayal to those who earned them. The full exercise of freedom is the fulfillment of freedom’s wish and promise. The freedom struggle not only opens opportunities once denied, but ironically open opportunities to act contrary even to the freedom fighters. That’s the difference between a dictator’s revolution and a democratic revolution. Dictators oppress the people they “free;” democracies may be opposed by the people they liberate. It’s not freedom to say, “We want African Americans to have the right to vote, only they must vote or must vote a certain way.” Isn’t that to exchange one master for another?
Freedom, in the American civic context, means you and I have one master: our own conscience. In the spiritual context, which matters most, there too we have but one Master: the Lord Jesus Christ. And Christ has not bound us to vote a particular way or to vote at all. It is a great gift that we have the privilege. But is it not also the case that the Christian teaching on freedom often requires us not to use the freedom for greater gains? So, should I choose not to vote, am I not both expressing the fullest possibilities of the freedom struggle and doing something entirely within my liberty as a Christian enslaved to the Lord?
What do you do when you live in a time when you can judge a man by the content of his character and find both men lacking in character? Do you vote for the lowly in character or do you demand character? At least some people with high ideals ought to demand character.
It’s not rhetoric I want in my candidate, or invented lives and embellished pasts, faux images and focus-group-tailored soundbites. I want to elect a free man, someone who stands flat-footed and leans into the cross-current of moral drift with conviction and courage. If he’s out there, he has my vote. And if a two-party system denies a righteous man opportunity to stand for justice then the system itself is the evil we need to oppose.