Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

Quotes, authority and truth

UPDATE: Apparently, Dr. King did say it. Well, some of it. Kind of. And we think we know who started it. Maybe.

By now, people have probably seen both of the following in the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s death:

“‎I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

They have also probably seen this Atlantic article (or a derivative thereof) about how the quote is misattributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. He never said it. And we don’t really know who started it.

Wait, wait...don't tell me!

Most people use the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote to encourage sobriety during the news of Bin Laden’s death. Others use this idea that the quote is misattributed to excuse their jubilation. What most people don’t ask is, why does a misattribution make the quote somehow less valuable?

It’s human nature to appeal to authority. After all, authorities usually know a lot about whatever they’re an authority of. For the most part, even the most independent, iconoclastic hipster or libertarian still makes appeals to authority on a daily basis. If you’ve never seen Australia with your own eyes but talk about Australia as if it is actually there because you read it in a book, that’s an appeal to authority, just as much as someone uses a Founding Father quote to prove that their economic policy or ideology is “right.” Appeal to authority is important and even necessary when constructing our world view.

But then we get into cases like this Martin Luther King, Jr. quote. Just because Dr. King didn’t say it, does it automatically discredit the information? Why do we like this quote? Is it a profound truth, one that resonates within our souls, and we simply want to give credit where credit is due? Or do we believe in it more, that it is somehow “more true,” because a famous civil rights leader said it? If, instead, it was our grandmother, or a drunk off the street, does it make it somehow “less true”? We all like to think that we, as people, are more interested in actual truthfulness of statements more than who said it, but do we act like it?

All of these are important questions to ask when it comes to considering the validity and worth of any quote.

“I hate quotes. Tell me what you know.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson 


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Moderation and Extremism

There is a fascinating quote by Aristotle in his work Nicomachean Ethics, where he discusses the idea of a mean, or average, in virtue:

First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.

(Book II)

In other words, if you want to know how to increase a virtue (something that occupied much of Aristotle’s mind), you have to find a middle ground, and work on it. However, his middle ground is different for everyone. For example, a skilled runner, for example, will find one mile a day very paltry. If he only runs one mile a day, he will not develop, and may even backslide. But for a very beginner runner, one mile a day may be destructive; he’ll be prone to injury and pain, which will only halt his progress. But if he doesn’t run enough to push him, he will also never develop. Somewhere, there lies a happy medium, and this is the key to success.

I love this idea, but recently, I’ve been challenged by another great thinker, who wrote this:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

(Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail)

Compound this with this recent blog by Winterbuzz at Feminist Mormon Housewives, where she writes:

What about Mormonism seems to demand balance? What about the Word of Wisdom suggests balance? What about our faith, our dedication, our worship, our study, our sacrifice suggests ‘balance?’ As Mormons, we were raised to be extremists. If we use our linear graph to gauge ourselves by the world’s terms, we’re so far to one side we’re almost out of view. Polygamy anyone? Mormons are some of the most extreme people on earth. (As a side note, it was also pointed out that Jesus doesn’t actually talk about balance very often, although he does say that if we are lukewarm then he will spit us out of his mouth.) When we Mormons talk about moderation, it’s kinda silly; we have no idea what that means.

She kind of has a point.

The thing is, I’m with Aristotle on this one, for the most part. When developing virtue, whether it’s virtuous basketball playing or virtuous honesty, a person must start small, and slowly work their way up. But, at some point, in order to improve, one must become a fanatic. A runner who only runs three or so miles a day will never become the fantastic runner my sister became one summer while training for a half-marathon, where she started running eight or so miles a day. In order to become a “virtuous” runner, you must begin to adopt extreme measures. In order to be a virtuous person in the Church, you must become extreme. After all, we follow, as Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly put, a fanatical Son of God, a being who during his physical incarnation told his disciples to sell everything they own and distribute it to the poor, who told them on the one hand to take no thought for the morrow, but then to scrutinizingly count the cost for their actions to make sure it has spiritual significance, who told them he would die for them, and then told them that he expected them to do the same for him.

We worship a guy who ran into the sacrosanct temple grounds and started upsetting tables and letting loose the animals. He made a whip, for heavens’ sake, to drive out the animals and moneychangers.

Imagine if a robed man with a big beard ran into the local temple and started upsetting tables and chasing people out with a homemade whip? I imagine most Mormons would look at him with shock and horror. How absolutely vulgar, we’d say. He has no concept of sacred.

Or maybe it’s us who don’t have a real concept of sacred? Are we like Jesus and extremists for love, or are we Aristotelean moderates, both individually and collectively as a society? I’m not so sure anymore.


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“Divine, Messianic Force”

This is a fascinating video of 10 more obscure Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes. Every quote in this clip is powerful and Dr. King’s rhetoric at its best, but it’s quote number 7 is what I really want to talk about:

And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”

– Martin Luther King Jr., in a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967 titled “It’s a Dark Day in Our Nation.”

There’s a fairly popular teaching in our Church that ebbs and flows with the cultural winds on American exceptionalism. It’s the idea that this land is a choice land, blessed above others, a promised land where good people are led and blessed and become prosperous as long as we follow God. Because of this, the United States of America is God’s chosen country for bringing about His work[1], and this, of course, includes the Constitution and the Founding Fathers springing forth from the well of Divine Inspiration. For many Americans, the Restoration and the last dispensation of the latter-days could not happen anywhere else because specifically America is just that awesome with religious freedom and all. Imagine, we say, if the Restoration happened anywhere else before it did? It would have been squashed like a tiny bug by giant, oppressive, narrow-minded governments! It would have never been given the time and ability to flourish like it would have in America! According to this mind view, no new deviations of Christianity ever occurred between the establishment of the Catholic church and 1830 (hint: This is not true; see also Reformation).

Some members see this as problematic as the Church transitions from an American church to a global one, and most non-US members either ignore it or see it as a quixotic American quirk that doesn’t really hold as much importance as principles like agency, the plan of salvation, the family, or saving priesthood ordinances. However, in the US at least, many Mormons fiercely hold on to this cherished ideal almost as much as guns, and especially in dark times such as recession, the fall of our capitalist banks, and the fact that our president is a fundamentalist Christian turned Islamo-Kenyan-non-American terror-bomber-in-chief, this sentiment is experiencing a great deal of popularity currently within the Jell-O Intermountain Corridor.

Martin Luther King, Jr., however, sees a massive problem in this kind of American exceptionalism, and that is arrogance. This sermon was given in the height of the Vietnam War, a time when America truly saw itself as the policeman of the world, stomping the Commies where’er they be found. Of course, hindsight if 20/20 and we saw the ultimate aftermath — a humiliating military defeat tactical withdrawal, and a massive humbling experience for the United States that would last until Ronald Reagan, who gave the US the wonderful gift to feel smug about itself again. For Dr. King, exceptionalist thinking brings about arrogance, and we should never let anyone think that we, for one minute, are some kind of messianic force for good in the global community. It leads to dangerous thinking, and it leads to lost lives.

It was a big problem with the Nephites, too, the previous recipients of God’s double-edged promise regarding the Promised Land known later as ‘Merica. Repeatedly, the Nephites were warned that only when we follow God’s commandments would God continue to let them even exist on this sacred ground. And what was the number one problem with the Nephites?

Pride. We even have a cycle named after them in Mormon terminology.

I can’t help but wonder if Dr. King is right. Maybe the whole exceptionalist thinking, the feeling that we’re living on special land and somehow that in turn makes us special, is incredibly dangerous and we should do away with it all together. Maybe this land really is special. Maybe it really does have some kind of special blessing-inherent property. Maybe the Constitution really is God-inspired, 3/5 included. Maybe even the Founding Fathers, warts and all, were inspired as well. But! Does that make us special, just by association? Just because we won the birth lottery and happened to be born in some specific, man-made, artificial political borders?

I don’t think Dr. King thinks so. And I’m inclined to agree with him.

[1] This conclusion is not a very solid one. Does the scriptures mean that North America as a continent is blessed? Then what about Canada? Is Canada the chosen land, too? Sadly, this question would cause many American Mormons to hesitate or say no. Then why America? Because we wrote the Constitution?

In addition, most scholars seem to agree that the Book of Mormon stories, if they ever occurred, would have occurred more likely in the Mesoamerican region. So does that mean in all actually we were wrong and Mexico is actually the blessed nation? Many people point towards the fact that many patriarchs declare South Americans descendants or adoptees of the tribe of Mannaseh as spiritual proof that they are Book of Mormon descendants. So…maybe the blessed messianic nation is actually south of the border?

Or maybe the promise of blessings for obedience and destruction for disobedience isn’t necessarily geocentric?


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