Who Are "They"?


April 9, 1968, Benjamin Mays gave the eulogy at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral. Only five days after King’s death, the world did not yet know who pulled the trigger on the gun that killed him. Mays understood and said so in his eulogy that more than one individual was responsible for King’s death. Mays was not talking about a conspiracy theory of any kind, but he was talking about the entire nation being complicit in murder.
Mays said:
“We all pray that the assassin will be apprehended and brought to justice. But, make no mistake, the American people are in part responsible for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. The assassin heard enough condemnation of King and of Negroes to feel that he had public support.”
Mays spoke about the millions who hated King. He spoke of the Memphis city officials who ought to have given the garbage workers a living wage without demonstrations. He spoke of a nation where African Americans needed to sit-in and demonstrate and march to be treated equally in this society. He said:
“We too are guilty of murder. It is time for the American people to repent and make democracy equally applicable to all Americans.”
He told his audience that we have the power to make things right. (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/benjamin-mays-mlk-eulogy/552545/)
When I first heard that King had been shot, the same thought that came to me when I learned that Malcolm X had been killed returned: “Well, they got him.” From that day to this, I have been thinking about who the “they” is in my thought.
I grew up during a time when news of murder, bombings and assassinations punctuated our daily lives. I remember my parents’ sorrow when Medgar Evers was assassinated in June of 1963. They had attended college with him at Alcorn College in Mississippi. A few months later, four little girls died in a bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. In November of that year, we learned of President Kennedy’s assassination when our teacher was late coming into the room after lunch. In 1965, Malcolm X died. Cities erupted in violence, and the anti-war demonstrations gained intensity as the Vietnam War came home for dinner each night on the evening news.
So, when I learned that King had been killed, I was not angry or afraid or surprised or shocked or even sad. I was resigned to the fact of American life, that as Mays said in his eulogy millions of Americans wanted him dead.
As I have thought about the “they” who are responsible for the death of King and others, I have determined that the “they” are not only human beings. As the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians tells us:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12 KJV)
What are, who are these principalities, powers, and rulers if they are not flesh and blood? Are they some kind of spiritual beings known to the ancient Greek world that no longer live in our imaginations? Are they the governmental, police, and military apparatuses in the world? Are they political/economic systems? Are they simply the opposite of goodness?
I say and say again that the communion table, the logic of commensality helps us to see the moral goal of human living is sustenance and joy for ourselves and for all of humanity, nature, and creation. The death-dealing “they” are the opposites of sustenance and joy. They are deprivation and sorrow. They are ignorance and greed and fear and hatred and lies. They are rage.
What is the source of injustice? Is it the impulse to have sustenance and joy for ourselves and for our kin and kind, but not for the Other? Deception makes us think that the Other stands in the way of our own survival and happiness. The problem of evil is the problem of why human beings choose the opposites of sustenance and joy. I will not rehearse the various theological and philosophical arguments that try to understand why an all-powerful, all-knowing, good God would allow evil in the world. I believe in human free will. God has given some of God’s power and authority to humankind. So, we are responsible for evil in the world. And, when natural disasters strike, we are responsible for helping each other to recover.
I do not believe in redemptive suffering. As a Christian I believe that Jesus paid it all, and that there is no more need for a blood-shed sacrifice. King’s murder did not redeem the nation. Except for Jesus, no blood shed before or since has redeemed the nation or humankind.
Suffering is just suffering. Pain is just pain. Grief is just grief. Horror is just horror. If such suffering would redeem humanity, that redemption would have happened a long time ago.
We need redemptive joy. We need to be able to help human beings see that the sustenance and joy of each of us is found in the sustenance and joy of all of us. We have to begin to see the Other not as a rival who will take something from us, but in the logic of commensality, the more we share, the more we all have.
Today, on this 50th anniversary of King’s funeral, the United Nations Security Council met to discuss what the world ought to do in response to a chemical attack in Syria. Bombs have already fallen on Syria in the wake of the chemical attack, and as I write this, the Trump administration has yet to decide what the response of the United States will be. There is talk of a military strike which means more death and destruction. More pain. More grief. More will to revenge. These things are the “they” who killed King. They are the “they” that kill someone somewhere every day that comes.
The thing that we each can do is to resist the deception of the death-dealing “they” and live our lives with a different determination: in all that we do, act to increase sustenance and joy for ourselves and for the Other, even the ones who we think want to do us harm.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation”

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