A friend of mine sent me a quote on power by MLK yesterday after I played Mesmerized by Uncertainty and Revolution of Values for him in my car. I turned the highlights of King's Riverside speech into music and am now obsessed. I find them grounding.
Revolution of Values in particular, with its extended theme on the radical power of love, gets me misty nearly every time. In this speech, King nailed it, and its relevance to the contemporary moment is complete. My appreciation for King's ability to connect a political vision to the fullness of what it means to be human is constantly deepening. Here is King, in a 1967 address the the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on the subject of power and it's relationship to love.
"Now power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose…And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites -- polar opposites -- so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.I recognize a lot of Reinhold Niebuhr in this. Niebuhr's unsentimental views on human nature and power had an enormous influence on King. The strategic clarity of the civil rights movement derives substantially from Niebuhr's thinking on the centrality of self-interest to human experience and what this means in terms of the need for movement building.
…we've got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love…It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times."
Liberalism fatally assumes a base-line level of human decency that too often fails to materialize. This often includes a blindness to the power that self-interest plays in our own lives. This marriage of love and power that King discusses is the foundation of a grounded and transformational politics that can challenge the dehumanized ethics of a consumer society that defines us in terms of what we earn and own.
For Niebuhr, this grounding in a universal form of love was expressed in Christian terms, but the notion of a transcendent standard of love and community that rises above the limitations of time and tribe can be expressed in other ways as well. Love is bigger than religion. Love is all.