In the recently published Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s Final Years, Tavis Smiley reminds us that living a prophetic and integral life does not result in winning popularity contests. While prophets may become mystics, saints, and geniuses post mortem, Dr. King was no exception to the historical rule that no prophet is broadly welcome in his own time.
This thesis reminded me of a Taoist aphorism:
Who receives unto himself the calumny of the world
Is the preserver of the state.
Who bears himself the sins of the world
Is the king of the world.
[Translation by Lin Yutang, 1948, Random House, NY]
While Dr. King had gained broad support for his positions regarding racism, as he retained a consistent ethical voice in support of equal rights for women and against the culture of violence and war epitomized in the Vietnam War, he would have had increasing difficulty had he ever aspired to elective office. His allies in D.C. resented Dr. King for biting the hand that they believed had fed him more than sufficiently already. His African-American clergy colleagues often did not appreciate King’s views on the rights of women in society, much less within their churches.
Both Mr. Smiley and Laotse speak to the creative tension between powerful prophecy and effective redemption. The strength of prophecy for redemptive effectiveness, to support regenerative change, becomes compromised by cultural dissonance. Too much cognitive dissonance is dismissed as insanity or marginalized as appropriate for the saint and martyr, but not realistic for universal human nature. Yet as redemptive comprehensiveness is softened, contained, diminished, the prophetic voice is softened for more confluent ears. Regenerative potential can be largely residual potential; less incarnated.
The cutting edge of regenerative optimization is a rationality that ebbs the flow and follows the flowing-confluent edges around, and eventually through, the ebbing knots of cultural dissonance. Inviting society into a more rational future becomes more effective through the weakness of optimally ebbing and flowing water, energy; both listening carefully and summarizing astutely the echoes and distresses within historical and cultural trends.
There is nothing weaker than water
But none is superior to it in overcoming the hard,
For which there is no substitute.
That weakness overcomes strength
And gentleness overcomes rigidity,
No one does not know;
No one can put into practice.
[Ibid, p. 306]
Perhaps no “one” can put water’s wisdom into practice because the flow of regenerative energy is intrinsically interdependent, swelling where there is confluent and sure flow, and cautious and much slower, gently inviting more positive and inclusive discernment, where the diverse sprays of mutual dismay remain more complexly knotted. But, gentle invitation is the land of the facilitator, and not the stand-alone prophet. Active peace-making walks between these two worlds–which Dr. King did rather better than most of us.