Martin Luther King, the Beloved Community and the Socialist Idea

obery hendricksA classic from theologian Obery Hendricks, re-posted from The Huffington Post (May 2, 2014).

I speak the password primeval…I give the sign of democracy; By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpoint of on equal terms.
Walt Whitman

Recently on The Huffington Post I explored Martin Luther King’s rejection of capitalist logic and his endorsement of Democratic Socialism as an antidote to the ills and injustices inherent to the capitalist system he so fervently opposed. These include capitalism’s subordination of human welfare to the pursuit of profits; its transformation of greed from Christianity’s Third Mortal Sin to the preeminent capitalist virtue (based on a selective reading of Adam Smith); and its rejection of the biblically-mandated responsibility to “love your neighbor as yourself,” i.e., to care for society’s poor and vulnerable. In addition to the consternation that I would dare to use Martin Luther King and “socialism” in the same sentence, a number of readers also seized on King’s endorsement as confirmation of the old charge that he was a Communist sympathizer.

It is well documented that this charge is nothing but a product of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s malicious campaign to demonize King in the wake of “Red Scare”-era dog-whistle demagoguery. Unfortunately, that particular mode of demonization is not a thing of the past; the same demagogic charges are today flung at anyone who seeks to rein in the excesses of capitalism, or who simply acknowledges its abuses. In fact, the president of the United States, who has voiced serious concerns about growing income inequality in America, has routinely been called a “socialist” by the opposition party and in recent days has been demonized as a “communist, subhuman mongrel.” This “socialist/communist” labeling tactic goes back at least to the 1930s, to the hyper-wealthy DuPont brothers and their American Liberty League, the well-heeled “property owners” propaganda vehicle they founded in the name of “liberty” to protect the economic ascendency of America’s wealthiest citizens. Although in King’s case the charge has long been discredited, the continued use of this pernicious propaganda in present-day American politics begs a response.

So let us be clear: In practice Communism has proven to be fundamentally antithetical to Democratic Socialism for the simple reason that there is no room for democracy in Communism. Conversely, Democratic Socialism is, well, fundamentally democratic; it insists that every significant policy decision must be decided by a democratic voting process open to every adult citizen. In other words, no one who subscribes to American democracy can rightly be called a Communist. Not Martin Luther King, not the President of the United States. To coin a biblical phrase, those who have ears, let them hear!

As for Democratic Socialism, it was attractive to King because it seeks to replace formal democracy that is declared yet unrealized in practice, with a truly democratic system in which the public interest takes precedence over the interests of private profit; in other words, a system that values the legitimate needs of people over unbridled profits and manipulated wants. True democracy must be full democracy, and that includes economic democracy that gives workers and employees of every type a real voice in the determination of the conditions under which they must work and live. For it is a sad truth that the bulk of American workers have no real voice under capitalism; they are subject to the dictates of “bosses,” corporate owners and leaders. In many cases, perhaps in most, the power and control which corporate capitalists and their managerial designees have over their employees verges on the despotic. A case in point is the recent expose` of the shockingly oppressive working conditions at the retailing giant,, in which manual workers are routinely pushed to the outer limits of their physical endurance to meet ever expanding productivity mandates. It is beyond ironic that the site at which millions of American workers spend the bulk of their waking hours — the workplace — offers the least democracy.

Martin Luther King was a passionate devotee of democracy. In his speech, “Loving Your Enemies,” he declared, “Democracy is the greatest form of government to my mind that man has ever conceived, but its weakness is that we have never touched it.” King not only wanted America to touch democracy; he wanted democracy to “roll down like waters” into every aspect of American life.

The spiritual dimension of King’s love of democracy evolved from his belief in imago dei, the biblically-based concept that all persons are equally created in the image of God. As the gospel of Matthew puts it, God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good… on the just and unjust” (5:45). If we are to fully understand King’s Democratic Socialist vision, then we must keep in view that he was a man of unwavering biblical faith.

Elsewhere I have summarized the biblical ethics of King’s political economy as mishpat (“conceptual egalitarian justice”), sadiqah (“acting justly, doing right”), emet (“honesty, truth”) and hesed (“steadfast love”). In fact, as King himself shared, mishpat, sadiqah and emet were the ethical imperatives enjoined upon him in his transformative “kitchen table experience” of “the presence of the divine” when fear had cowed him to give up his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott. As he agonized over how he might relinquish his leadership role without appearing to be a coward, be became aware of a voice, which he later identified as the voice of Jesus. “Martin Luther,” the voice said, “stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth.” In his notes for a 1958 sermon, King also signaled the unmistakable importance of hesed for him in his description of Micah 6:8 and its citation of divinely preeminent ethics — including hesed (steadfast love) — as “one of the high water marks of the [Old Testament].”

In addition to the concept of hesed in the Hebrew Bible, also crucial for King was the Greek New Testament term, agape. Agape embraces the meaning of hesed, which reflects a covenanted relationship, but expands it to ‘unconditional love,’ a loving relationship without conditions: “When we rise to love on the agape level we love men not because we like them… we love them because God loves them.” Elsewhere he declared that love guided, overarched and undergirded his life of servant ministry: “I have decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…. He who has love has the key to ultimate reality.” This constellation of ethics that governed King’s political activism is consistent with the divinely affirmed ethics of social and political governance (“A throne”) that are extolled by the prophet Isaiah: “A throne shall be established in hesed (steadfast love)… and on it shall sit in emet (truthfulness) a ruler who seeks mishpat (egalitarian justice) and is swift to do sadiqah (put justice into action)” (Isaiah 16:5).

From King’s passionate biblical faith came his selfless love for humanity; his heightened sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice; and his self-identification with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable persons. But his political worldview was specifically anchored in the political witness of the biblical prophets, whom he quoted liberally. He famously summarized the prophets’ proclamations with a quote from the prophet Amos: “[L]et justice roll down like waters,and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).

It was this concern for justice for all of God’s children, for all to have the same fair and equitable opportunity to eat of the good things of life, that moved King to embrace Democratic Socialism, because for him it meant economic fairness and equity, social cooperation, reciprocal community, and democratic participation of workers in the enterprises that determine their material destinies. His embrace of Democratic Socialism held a pronounced sense of urgency: “[N]ow is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” he declared. “Now is the time to make the United States a better nation.”

There is no exact definition of socialism, but every form of it since the concept of socialism emerged in the mid-19th century has shared the same goal: to expand democracy from the social and political to the economic dimensions of life. It seeks to transform the quality of life, not the quantity of goods; to base production on genuine needs, not manufactured or manipulated wants. Contrary to popular misunderstandings, Democratic Socialism neither seeks to repudiate the profit motive nor to abolish markets. What it does seek to abolish is economic exploitation. In short, Democratic Socialism is a system that is organized to meet the essential needs of people. And that is what King so passionately sought: for the basic needs of all to be met. It was King’s belief that “God never intended for some of his children to live in inordinate superfluous wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty.”

Socialism’s many forms include market socialism, a mix of socialist public ownership alongside functioning markets; ethical socialism, which rejects capitalism’s morality of valorized greed, opting instead for a morally conscious economy based on fairness, community and cooperation; and Christian socialism, which is based upon the Gospel teachings of love and neighbor care and the conviction that the ethics of Democratic Socialism are fully compatible with biblical Christianity. In fact, there was a robust Christian Socialist movement in America from the 1890’s to about 1940. Notable Christian Socialist activist clergy and theoreticians include Walter Rauschenbusch, author of the seminal book The Social Gospel; six-time U.S. presidential candidate Norman Thomas, and brilliant African American scholar/pastors like Reverends Reverdy Ransome, George Washington Woodbey, and R. R. Wright. King’s socialist vision is largely heir to Christian Socialism, yet also strongly reflects the influence of the market and ethical forms of socialism.

Thus Martin Luther King’s vision of the Beloved Community is necessarily a Democratic Socialist vision. The concept of community implies mutual cooperation and assumption of responsibility for the welfare and wellbeing of neighbors. It also implies fairness, equality of social, political and economic entry and opportunity, and institutional mechanisms to ensure them. True community requires that everyone have an equal say-so in the policies that govern every sphere of their lives — including the workplace. Thus, true community cannot exist where there is pronounced income inequality, because differences in the most pressing everyday challenges of rich and poor people limits interaction as peers and ultimately precludes ideological, if not actual, social contact.

King’s notion of the Beloved Community is predicated upon social and economic cooperation and fairness and assumption of responsibility for the welfare of our neighbors. He envisioned it as a community based on love, justice and full democracy transcending race, ethnicity and nationality to build a community rested on cooperative mutuality, rather than capitalism’s atomistic individualism and morally obtuse and benighted sensibility of dog-eat-dog competition.

Despite its high moral expectations, however, King’s Beloved Community is not a utopian notion. In fact, in some ways King’s Beloved Community can be likened to the Folkhemmet, the ideology of society and state as the “people’s home” of mutual social and economic responsibility that laid the basis for the formation of Sweden’s Democracy Socialist welfare state policy apparatus that held sway in Sweden’s political economy from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. Far from seeking state ownership and control over industry, the Folkhemmet evolved a viable working partnership between capitalists and socialists. For various reasons, the dominating influence of the Swedish Folkhemmet waned beginning in the 1970’s, to the point that it does not hold sway in Swedish governance today. Yet during the Folkhemmet’s ascendancy, policies and institutions were established that for years have consistently placed Sweden at or near the top of every reputable survey of the world’s happiest nations. Today in Sweden the term Folkhemmet connotes not a set of policies but rather a principled “middle way” between capitalism and socialism, a form of market socialism, so to speak. This concept of the Folkhemmet “middle way” can be seen as thematically consistent with King’s “higher synthesis” of political economy: “[T]he kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism, but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.”

King’s faith-based Democratic Socialist vision, his uncompromising notion of a Beloved Community based on democratic, cooperative social and economic relations, coupled with the notion of functioning markets that, quite conspicuously, he never repudiated, indeed embody a “higher synthesis.” We might venture to call this higher synthesis “Christian market socialism,” whose possibilities for addressing America’s economic crisis today cry out for full and thoughtful exploration.

Although each spoke according to his own lights, Martin Luther King’s social democratic vision holds dear the same truths as that other great devotee and seer of American democracy, Walt Whitman: “I speak the password primeval… I give the sign of democracy; By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpoint of on equal terms.”

In King’s faith-based Democratic Socialist idea and in his thoroughly humane vision of the Beloved Community that would embody it, there indeed is “nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on equal terms.”

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