There’s always more. About a week ago, I put together a piece for America’s Right that was intended to be a brief introduction to my childhood experience with social justice in America. I only described my experiences in a racially divided America that was in the middle of fighting the Vietnam War. My intention was to show that much of the demand for social justice sprang from the personal experiences of its citizens, not from abstract ideologies or stupidity.
Now, however, perhaps we’re best served to look at what I consider to be the foundational yin and yang of the social justice movement in the 1960‘s, a yin and yang which have been carried forward until the present day, represented by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
There has been enough written about Martin Luther King, Jr. to fill the Grand Canyon, but for my purposes he represented the social reformer who wanted to appeal to the decency that he apparently believed to exist within all of humanity. Trust me — in 1965, where I lived, human decency was not always easy to find, but the point King made was well taken within the Christian context in which he preached.
His “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written in 1963 is still considered one the greatest pleas for social justice ever written within the tradition of Mohandas Ghandi, who spent a lifetime peacefully protesting the occupation of India by the British, and also St. Paul, who often wrote from prison pleading with fellow Christians to follow the teachings of Christ.
I knew a lot of adults in 1965 who really hated King, and as much as that hatred intensified as King began to speak out against the Vietnam War, those same adults never feared him. They actually hated King in very childish ways. They reacted to him in the same manner as a child reacts to being forced to wash his hands before dinner; the child knows his mother is correct to make him clean up before eating, but he resents being told what to do. That is why King ultimately knew that unless the white people of America came around to his point of view and agreed with the fact that institutional racial segregation was unjust, no amount of coercion would bring peace. King tried to do this in a Christian context as a minister. I call this “criticism from the inside.”
I cannot overemphasize how important this point of view is. For example, when America’s Right editor Robert Wallace writes a response critical of something I have written it can be argued that he is criticizing me in the same way, as one who shares a common ground but thinks I have missed a point somewhere along the way and need to be corrected. Martin Luther King wanted to unite the Christian family, not tear it apart by saying that the Christian message was wrong or misguided. He wanted the Christian message to be fulfilled. Whether or not this actually happened can be debated; I only mean to present his intentions.
The opposite side of this perspective, the “criticism from the outside,” was leveled against the Christian world most notably by Malcolm X. Perhaps more than any figure from the 1960’s, he made a lot of us white Christians aware that there were people in the world that did not like us, and would actually be content to live without us. White people seem to have a notion that everyone wants to be like them, and that attacks against them are based more on jealousy than any other motive. Malcolm X made me aware that there were people in the world who hated me, both as a human being and as a representative of the cruel ruling class. Malcolm X was a Muslim, he was black, he was smart, and he gave every impression that he was ready to kick my ass.
When I went to a public university in 1973 to begin my college years, I found out he was not alone. There were lots of people in America who despised Christianity, who really believed that the solutions to the problems of America would be possible only when Christianity was eliminated as a source of Truth.
For purposes of example, consider the words of Gore Vidal, the famous essayist and novelist:
I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race. I see no good in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — good people, yes, but any religion based on a single… well, frenzied and virulent god, is not as useful to the human race as, say, Confucianism, which is not a religion but an ethical and educational system that has worked pretty well for twenty-five hundred years. So you see I am ecumenical in my dislike for the Book. But like it or not, the Book is there; and because of it people die; and the world is in danger.
Yes, Malcolm X believed in a single God, too, but he presented the proposition with great force that America had an evil within it that it had never faced, and would refuse to face, as long a there was a white, Christian male running things with a Bible in his hand.
My home town, like many other home towns, had a public radio station which played alternative points of view. One night when I was driving home, the station carried a speech it attributed to Malcolm X. I actually stopped my car on the way along the side of the road to listen to it. I have never heard anything like it. It was frank, brutal, and contrary to anything I had heard in my childhood. He used the “N” word a lot — a word which I will avoid and which, for purposes here, will be substituted with the word “servant.” In the speech, Malcolm X said there were two kinds of servants on the plantation: First, there were the field servants who worked outside, who were separate from their masters, and whose concern was their own survival. Next, there were the house servants, the ones who took care of the master’s residence and his family. He said that these servants were concerned about the master. They worried about whether the master was happy. They saw their fate and the fate of the master as inexorably linked together.
I am haunted by this speech to this day. Whenever I am in line at the grocery store and see magazines that write about the lives of movie stars, I think about being a house servant. Am I supposed to be concerned about Brad Pitt? Should I worry about Oprah’s weight? When I was in college in 1973, there were plenty of people who wanted to kill the master and burn his house down. They believed that the master did not deserve love, and that, in fact, caring about the master only made us his slave.
I believe, beginning in the 1970’s, social justice became a vast battle ground between the Christian left and the anti-western left. The right would largely abandon social justice all together for the ethics of personal responsibility. When I went to college in 1973, I found myself in a world unlike any I had ever known, where every criticism of American culture would be a criticism from the outside. I can honestly say that in six years of college I never had anyone in authority speak to me from a Christian perspective. I can also honestly say I became a fairly literate student of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin, the Holy Trinity of the view from the outside. This view would have its most powerful voices in the soprano–the voices of woman who wanted to see Christianity go the way of the dinosaur.
Maybe that’s fodder for a Part III.