Sway the World: The Martin Luther King in Us

A little love can sway the world.  We’ll look back in history we see how little acts influenced larger outcomes.  Then, in our own lives, the same applies.  Little changes in our spirit, mind, and mood make for little acts of love in our world.  This then goes out to sway our whole world in ways we don’t yet know, but will.

Henry David Thoreau, friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, refused to pay his tax because it was going to help fund the war on Mexico.  Put in jail overnight (where he penned his classic “On Civil Disobedience”) his friend Ralph Waldo came to his window and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?”  Henry replied, “No, Ralph, [allow congregation to add the punch line] what are you doing out there?”

In this new era of our taxes going to unfairly attack Mexicans and others, we could ask of ourselves, “What are we doing out here?”

Like Emerson, Thoreau wrote, “If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.” He chose jail to live up to himself.  So he penned into his masterpiece “On Civil Disobedience” that Christianity and slavery are incompatible and that good men would choose jail via non-violent disobedience rather than go along with social evils.  Thoreau’s was a little sacrifice; he was only jailed overnight, and jails were more humane then.

Fifty years later, the Bolshevik writer Leo Tolstoy put Thoreau’s words in the mouth of his protagonist Nekhludoff, who said, “The true place for a just man is in prison.” Gandhi was so touched by Tolstoy’s Christianity, he became a better Hindu.  But Tolstoy himself was earlier influenced by the Christian story of Barlaam and Josaphat, which was a retelling of the Muslim story taken from Manichee ideas recasting Buddha’s telling of Bodisaf, Yudasaf, and Josaphat.  Our own Martin Luther King adopted it from Gandhi. The power of the peaceful, persistent penchant for justice is embedded in the human community. It is promoted and protected in many spiritual traditions, is beyond heroes, and rises in us.

Even earlier versions are found in ancient Jain writings. The Jains follow ahimsa, the willful decision to not cause suffering to any other.  This seems to be a core part of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (truth-persistence), soul force, good people bravely but non-violently confronting social evils. One dictionary put that as “passive resistance.”  It’s not.  It’s non-violent, deliberate resistance.  It is confronting angry, evil power with innocent, dedicated truth, justice and even love.

Satyagraha uses its goal in its technique – the way to peace is peace.  It calls on community cohesion despite fear.  It seeks to see truth and value in one’s opponent while remaining critically honest about one’s own person or cause. It doesn’t seek to defeat opponents, but to win them over with truth, persistently and persuasively offered.

This is not easy, as Gandhi and Martin Luther King both demonstrated, dying for their causes.  This fits in the archetype of Jesus dying for his cause rather than to attack or serve the enemy.  None of these fought back, yet all won their way.

I want to both warn of the martyr archetype and recommend it.

Warning first.  It is one thing to endure unavoidable pain to advance a worthy cause nobly.  It is another to choose pain thinking it makes you noble.  Too much, we jump on the cross, thinking it makes us spiritual.  It doesn’t; it makes us gullible and waste-able.  By enacting the crucifixion archetype at the center of our religious identity we entail the self-serving Pharisees’ judgment and the dutiful Roman soldiers’ obedience.  Over and over – bloody injustice.  No thanks.  Avoid stubborn, often stupid waste. Choose celebration over suffering when you can.

But on the other hand, as Meher Baba said, “Being is dying by loving.” We often die to parts of ourselves in order to be born to new parts of ourselves.  We at times need to sacrifice something in us for someone in front of us or some higher cause that calls. It needn’t be actual death, just dare to be honest and loving.

I’m not urging you to get put in jail or jump on the cross.  But, just as Henry David Thoreau took on the scorn of his community and the walls of his cell in order to live up to himself, and just as that little act and essay went on to influence whole social movements, sometimes doing the difficult is doing the divine. When we let our better selves shine, serve and celebrate, we are each other’s angels.

While brave non-violent protest might be the calling of our time (as ominous cruel and totalitarian people wield foreign and domestic power harshly) most of our spiritual learning and preparation is more in our everyday interactions.  As it says in Hardwiring Happiness, “if you take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.”  Can you live up to your own soul force?

Yes, you can, and it helps if we acknowledge and care for each other as we do.

You can listen for the pleasure of the speaker.  You can speak for the pleasure of the listener.  You can forego your reactiveness and plug in your responsiveness.  You can de-escalate riled conversations by bravely empathizing with your antagonist.  You can, if you get what Jesus, Gautama, Gandhi and King meant, by turning the other cheek, not in loser passivity, but in determined truth-force. Bullies are afraid; the brave go past it.  The soul-force of love you are developing is fortifying you and influencing the antagonistic other.  That “other” might be an angry politician, contributor to a forum, co-worker, spouse, or stranger.

To put it in terms we might appreciate, we try to live up to being Unitarian Universalists, greeting every unitary other as part of the universal self we all experience and share.  How to relate so-as to serve the other, the truth, justice, and ourselves? Neither attacking nor passivity will do.  We have to stand up to, not only some other’s ego, but our own as we seek peace and justice for both.

Martin Luther King reminded us, “Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.” He went on: “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.  Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”  So, he also said, “when evil men plot, good men must plan.”

This will to serve justice and the truth while seeking reconciliation with enemies is greater than MLK or UUism or Christianity or any one religion.  It is part of the wisdom of humanity, a social sense of what works in the long-run.  We join and further the great soul of humanity as we live up to our selves while being unafraid, unintimidated by anyone else, be they the president or just present in our company.

We don’t win people over by pushing them away. In this spirit I joined Van Jones’ call for the creation of an Army of Love to confront and change the ominous direction we’re headed under Trump.  Jones doesn’t seek to defeat such people as much as dissuade them. He says, “We’re pushing people away from us by saying, “If you voted for him then you’re no better than his worst utterances.” You’re giving away people who probably felt very conflicted voting for him.  We need build a bridge of respect, and part of it starts with actual dialogue.”

Not all agree with the non-violent approach of a Gandhi or a Van Jones.  One blogger said sarcastically, “Sure, kindness, not stricter gun laws, is what will prevent another white man from storming a mall and mowing people down with a machine gun.”  She’s leery, because on the other side, “They aren’t talking about loving us.”  Many of her responders agreed, one saying, “”Hipster” Neo-Nazis deserve everything that is the opposite of love.  Things like scorn, hatred, and guilt-free fantasies of awful things happening to every single one of them.”

I sympathize with this jaded reaction. There comes a time to kill rather than be killed.  But we’re not there, and we don’t need to go there.  We’re an overly dramatic, divided society worn by worries and woes we have little control over.  Reactionaries need responses, not reactions. No eagle flies through the air, one wing battling the other.  America has more hominess and humor than that.

How can Americans handle the many ominous signs of fascism here? Jones goes on, “The problem is not the abundance of people with bad intentions; it’s the superabundance of people with good intentions who don’t know what to do yet.”

I saw those good-intentioned people at the Women’s March in Ashland, where 8,000 passionate, colorful people filled the streets of a town only three times that size.  I met the women (and their men, kids, and dogs) with glad gratitude.  I stood to the side, tears in my eyes, as they paraded by, hundreds by hundreds coming by in exuberant affirmation that our beloved America will not be defiled by racism, sexism, militarism, corporatism, and anti-environmentalism.  Oh, how I wish Donald Trump could have somehow snuck into that event, soaking up all the good vibes and happy smiles.  It would have helped heal that lonely, deluded man.

Again, at a spontaneous Indivisible meeting, 400 people filled the sanctuary of the Unitarian church in Ashland and another 200 were outside.  The power of the loving concern for America buoyed us all up.

Yet again, at the Martin Luther King annual event at the armory, I couldn’t get in and had to join the overflow crowd at the Varsity Theater blocks away.  Though no one in the main event could hear us, we clapped and cheered anyway.  We could hear us.  We found out that by showing up, we see each other.  By showing up, we come up to ourselves.

In the little meetings of our private lives, in the friendship and honesty of this fellowship, and in this grand meeting in American history, dare to live up to the loving truth and justice you embody.  Make it a habit with and for each other. Let the King in you rule from your sovereignty.  A little love will sway our world.

Reverend Byron Carrier

For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass, February 19th, 2017

Byron Carrier

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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