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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. in a month of political violence

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In this 1960 file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. The civil rights leader had carried the banner for the causes of social justice — organizing protests, leading marches and making powerful speeches exposing the scourges of segregation, poverty and racism.

Associated Press

On Nov. 6, 1956, in a sermon at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”

He continued: “Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”

It is fitting that we celebrate King’s birthday this month only a few days after political violence struck the nation’s Capitol and after a year of sometimes violent social unrest. It’s fitting to study his words amid a culture in both political parties that treats the other side as an enemy, rather than as a collection of loyal Americans who happen to have a different vision for how the nation can succeed.

Sadly, too many have let others pull them so low as to entertain hatred. Too many see violence as the only tactic left, ignoring the legacy of meaningless chaos.

Is someone willing to break this cycle?

Is someone with political power willing to do so?

Abraham Lincoln once appealed to our “better angels,” implying that we also have worse angels capable of being summoned from within. He knew a thing or two about that, just as he knew that endless hatred against a conquered Southern enemy wasn’t the way to peace. 

Leadership matters. So does political courage. 

Not too many years ago, former Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch forged a relationship with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. It’s easy to look back on that and smile or to parse it, forgetting the context of the times. Together, they passed the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Americans With Disabilities Act and federal funding for AIDS, back when that was a hot topic.

Kennedy once told the Deseret News, “I don’t really feel that I have a difference with Orrin in terms of what the objectives ought to be.” Both took heat from their respective parties, but they solved problems.

Imagine Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, reaching out to incoming Majority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to collaborate on something important, like immigration reform. Or imagine either Chris Stewart or Burgess Owens, two Utah GOP representatives who wanted to challenge electoral votes, reaching out to someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the fiery liberal representative from New York.

Then imagine something more personal. Imagine reaching out to the person down the street who proudly flies the flag of a candidate you disdain and offering to help with a project, or inviting him to dinner, not to argue politics but to be friends. This is more than just a problem for politicians to fix.

Speaking on the eve of the inauguration of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox earlier this month, former federal judge Thomas Griffith described what he called the need for “civic charity.” This means Donald Trump supporters joining with Bernie Sanders supporters and, while acknowledging their political differences, deciding to be friends. 

It’s more than just a quaint notion, he said. The nation can’t survive long without it. “The Constitution cannot succeed unless the citizens of the United States of America are committed to the idea that we are going to make a go of this together,” he said.

Martin Luther King Jr., understood real grievances. He and the people he led had suffered endless persecutions and indignities of the kind that naturally lead to anger and hate.

In an essay on nonviolence, he spoke about how difficult it was to convince people of this tactic. “We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice,” he wrote.

He also had to explain that the object was not to humiliate the white community, but to make friends with them. “The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness,” he said. “The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community.” 

We celebrate King’s birthday precisely because he had enough faith in Christian teachings to actually use them to achieve social change. If he had told his followers to commit violence to achieve their ends, he would be on the ash heap of history, forgotten along with many others who failed, and even some who succeeded for a time, using bloodshed to fuel power.

So, who’s it going to be? Who among the radicals in the halls of power will risk political destruction by reaching out? Who among us in our neighborhoods will shock others by doing the same? 

Who will calculate the risks of not doing so and realize there isn’t any other choice?