The annual occasion to remember the life and ideals of Martin Luther King is marked appropriately by a range of emotions, sometimes soaring, sometimes somber. It is both a campus and a national observance that still moves with the times; it still connects a voice and a history from a half-century ago with the vivid events of our own contemporary life. Though the day has avoided the complete predictability of other national holidays, it will only remain relevant so long as we study, converse, grasp, respond, and understand that there are storms in other skies that gather over us again. It may not be in Selma or Birmingham or Memphis, but the history marked in those places is known well today in other locations around the nation and the world where suspicion, fear, and hate seem stronger than the capacity to transcend human differences.
It is not our purpose today to review the chapters of a man’s biography. Fine books and a new movie can do that for us. It is not our purpose to dissect and explain the news reports of all that has sometimes gone wrong between those who wear badges in their line of work and those who wear a weary look of someone constantly observed. And it is not our purpose to discuss the prosecution, trials, and decisions that may or may not miscalculate the scales of justice. In all these instances we may note the resemblance between other years that would surely be familiar to Dr. King.
Rather than making today’s observance an exercise in parallel stories and protest responses binding us vicariously to the experience of the King generation, I would invite us to think instead about the broader guiding principles that first spoke to the heroic leaders of those historic marches. It was from an even older music, literature, and philosophy that they found inspiration to never give up. We are faced now with the mighty temptation of giving up, of retreating, of building more secure fortresses, of walking away, of coexisting with strangers in hard places by added lengths of distance. We are closer to the limits of hope than we may realize.
One of the important values at St. Lawrence from its founding days is that diversity, difference, pluralism, inclusivity, and another’s identity are the most difficult things to live with, but they are also the most perilous things to live without. The college experience here gives birth to a formative promise, young ideals, the clarifying of values, the ability to think confidently and independently. It is a place and moment of overloaded optimism. And I would not advocate taking one brick off the cart to change the weight of that positive and happier view of life.
There are valid reasons, however, to unsettle and uproot that optimism even in a protected place like ours, at times as magical as Brigadoon, that seems far away from Ferguson, Kabul, Paris, Islamabad, or Gaza, far away from suicide bombs, terrorist attacks, and brutal beatings. There are, in fact, unrelenting reasons for sadness, disgust, and despair. Tortures, beheadings, and massacres are not old news from the Roman Empire. How long? asked Dr. King repeatedly in sermons, letters, and speeches. How much longer must this go on?
Our time offers a long list of reasons to feel hopeless. Martin Luther King confronted those feelings in their most extreme terms, though he was not, of course, a Hercules with boundless powers to defeat increasing despair. His physical courage was finite; he was not athletic; he was not a large person who towered impressively above the crowd, let alone adversaries. Dr. King was keenly intelligent and well educated, but he was not a philosopher or university scholar. He was eloquent and stirring, but in his day, he was not considered the best preacher in America, not even in the black church, and not in the wider circuit riding of national pulpits. But he was a man of intense hope and he exceeded all other public figures of his day to demonstrate triumphant living in the face of cogent, hopeless feelings he carried within. In his memory, his life’s perpetual meaning is to help us rebalance the sadness with a larger hope.
Dr. King knew the ancient texts, drew perspective from them, and staked his vision on them. A wise person wrote centuries ago, “Set a straight course and keep to it, and do not be dismayed in the face of adversity.” And then, 300 years later another writer added, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer.” Between the times of those two sentences, awful things had happened in the world—devastating wars, executions, rapes, assassinations, tortures, and unceasing enslavement of human beings. How could anyone be taken seriously in saying, be of good cheer, do not be dismayed? But that is the attitude, not a pose or a proposition, that King would insist we attain. It cannot be done or had on the cheap.
Last winter, Lynn and I went to Ottawa on a Sunday afternoon to see the art of John Ruskin on exhibit at the National Gallery. Ruskin was the pioneer in the fine writing of architectural criticism whose essays I once read in literature classes at St. Lawrence. He was also gifted in drawing and painting, whether architectural studies of Venice or mystical landscapes reminding one of the North Country’s diverse waters and giant rocks. Ruskin never visited America because, as he once wrote Charles Eliot Norton, he doubted that he could stand its reputation of “over-hopefulness and getting-on-ness.” Fair enough, I suppose, that American culture would seem shallow and lacking in sufficient realism to a skeptic. But for all the years of your generation, you students have had ample tribulation. Many of you have done well to face adversity personally or even to face it more abstractly through global events that haven’t touched you directly.
Hope is not a permanent virtue. It requires some deeper reflection about what you experience and observe. It can leave you like a feral cat after it has licked a plate of cream off your back porch. In reality, there must be the quality of a provisional pessimism to achieve an ultimate optimism in the workings and foundation of lasting hope. Otherwise, hope is glib, fragile, and fleeting, the very quality that made Ruskin suspicious.
Hope is a complex concept because it is often challenged by bad things happening to good people, yet it keeps despair at bay anyhow. Its difficulty to define or achieve is anticipated around 1900 by the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson in the verses of his song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” which later became known as the Negro National Anthem. I loved singing it every year at convocations when I served on the faculty of the Howard University School of Divinity.
The song begins with a tremendous chorus of positive feeling, success, and ultimate triumph: “Let our rejoicing rise/High as the listening skies,/Let it resound loud as the rolling sea….Facing the rising sun of our new day begun/Let us march on till victory is won.” But then the second verse transposes that mood with a provisional pessimism: “Stony the road we trod,/Bitter the chastening rod,/Felt in the days when hope unborn had died.” What does that mean—hope unborn had died? Doesn’t something have to live first before it dies? But the poet says it’s possible that hope once died before it was ever alive. It is this sort of worse-than-you-imagine contradiction that we need to understand better if we are to maintain the authentic hope that can face adversity and be of good cheer.
In other words, the idea in the poem/song “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” which was thoroughly embedded in Dr. King’s thought, is that our hope is the hope that appears when the circumstances are beyond hope itself, just as if hopelessness had killed hope before it ever breathed.
One of the chief lessons of hope is that if we have even an ounce of it for ourselves, we must be willing to risk it all by giving hope to another person. Many years ago, early in my career, I encountered a man who appeared one afternoon at my door in Washington, DC. He spoke intelligently, but his clothes were tattered and he had been robbed, badly beaten, bloodied, and bruised. He showed me a doctor’s prescription he needed to fill for the treatment of his wounds. I was skeptical, but reluctantly gave him ten dollars. Many weeks later in my mail slot one morning was an envelope. I opened it and out fell a ten-dollar bill with a note: “Mr. Fox, thank you for believing in me when no one else would.” I never saw him again, but now, he was the one giving me hope.
At what moment can that shift occur in personal terms to bring hope alive? The theologian Paul Tillich gave Dr. King an essential thought in some short compelling sentences, which begin, “You are accepted.” Martin Luther King believed that about himself. It was the cradle of all his dreams. Further, he was not exclusive about that universalism, because he believed everyone was accepted ultimately, even those who would destroy or kill him.
“You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now, perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
In Dr. King’s life such acceptance meant endurance. With hope there is no turning back, no stopping, even when weary feet trudge upon the stony roads. To discover hope you must accept the blessing of being accepted. No matter how awful the news, no matter how long the tears of despair shall flow, no matter how intense the acrimony of the cynic’s sting, there is never a forlorn night or human problem that can be defeated by a sunrise or a hope.
William L. Fox
January 19, 2015