In the fall of 2001 I sat on a committee charged with planning the program for Martin Luther King Day here at UC Irvine. American armed forces were then just entering Afghanistan, seeking Osama Bin Laden, and fighting to oust the Taliban and, we were told, establish democracy. The theme of the day was to be: “What would he say?”
I suggested that we talk about the war. I thought that a discussion about how a Christian pacifist makes sense of a war would make people uncomfortable, and maybe make them think. (By profession and disposition, I spend a fair amount of time trying to generate discomfort.)
King opposed war, I said, pointing to his courageous and very unpopular opposition to the war in Vietnam. A student of Christian theology and Gandhi, King thought a lot about nonviolence more generally. For the civil rights movement, he advocated nonviolence as both a political strategy and a moral necessity. In his autobiography, he explained:
True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to an evil power…it is rather a courageous confrontation with evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.
Of course, embracing suffering in pursuit of moral redemption is a tough road for any nation to take. “But they attacked us,” protested another member of the committee, “He would have seen the difference.”
King was pretty clear in his writing and in his actions, but he couldn’t have anticipated the terrorist attacks of September 11. A Martin Luther King with forty additional years of life experiences might have rejected his earlier views and endorsed the war. We can’t know. Seeking a more cuddly consensus–something Martin Luther King was unlikely to have done–we avoided the issue.
But whether King himself would have (hypothetically) supported or opposed the war is less important, of course, than the moral and political judgments we have to make as we confront a world that keeps changing. The lives and words of our heroes should help us think through those judgments, not make them for us.
If Christian pacifist Martin Luther King can’t tell us what to do in difficult circumstances decades after his death, what about the Founders, who are much in vogue in contemporary movement politics, where Tea Partiers wearing tri-cornered hats like to haul out the Constitution?
Finding Martin Luther King’s position on new wars, as difficult as that might be, seems far easier than discerning what the framers of the Constitution would think about Federal health care reform nearly 250 years later.
Adams, Franklin, Madison, and the boys didn’t mention health insurance in the Constitution, a topic neglected along with abortion, airports, the internet, nuclear weapons, and women.
The Constitutional convention was filled with pragmatic politicians, not ideologues. I’m reasonably confident that, were we somehow able to haul them into the present health care debate, they would want to know how medicine worked in contemporary America, whether bleeding was still a preferred treatment, who funded medical care, and how much it cost. Bold experimenters with government, they would certainly also want to know how other countries managed their own health care programs.