Love, Death and ISIS: A view from the mountaintop

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When Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his final speech on April 3, 1968 – a speech in which he urged support for the labor strike of Memphis, Tennessee’s African American sanitation workers – he spoke candidly about having received death threats prior to his arrival in Memphis. Because of the threats, King told his audience, the plane upon which he arrived had to be (according to the pilot) “‘protected and guarded all night,’” and the bags of the other passengers on his plane subjected to heightened security checks.

“I got into Memphis,” King continued,

“And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out, or what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

What was significant about this speech, and this moment, was not – as many have speculated –that King had some kind of sixth sense about his impending assassination. Instead, what made this moment important was that King modeled the capacity we all have to transform into a source of power our physical vulnerability to others’ violence; to claim as “our” brothers and sisters those who want to harm us and, in the process, to recognize their need for healing; and, to let go of our attachment to “longevity” – indeed, to our fear of death – precisely because these attachments keep us from seeing, and erecting, our vision of a better society.

King was not special. He was just a man, one who decided that he would not let his vulnerability distort his vision, turn him against others, and compromise his highest ideals and deeply held beliefs. He died for them, yes. But he also lived for them.

The “current threat of terrorism,” wrote Leela Fernandes in Transforming Feminist Practice, “is a real one and the fear which people feel is also real.” Consequently, “if progressive activist-thinkers gloss over this reality they will not be able to reach a wider public base.” The “difficulty,” Fernades continued, “is to provide a courageous alternative at precisely the point where individuals feel their own personal safety is at risk, for it is usually at this point of perceived vulnerability that we are most willing to put up our fences, lash out at others and forsake our deepest ideals.” Indeed, the “question of security poses the deepest possible spiritual challenge to individuals, communities and nations – for it is an area which has created the most distortion around the meaning of self-preservation. From a spiritual perspective, any act that causes harm to another can never ultimately be an act of self-preservation.”

King’s demonstration – “a spiritualized practice of nonviolence,” to use Fernandes’ words – is the stuff from which we can create “a courageous alternative,” one that will allow us to attend with an open heart to our countrymen and women’s (and our) growing hysteria, fear, and utter sense of vulnerability concerning both the emergence of ISIS and the continued threats of “terrorism,” as well as the warmongering and hate that are feeding all of it. Instead of submitting to vulnerability and fear, and consequently closing ranks, we could use both to engage and resist ISIS as well as others who do terrorism (and that includes our countrymen and women) in ways that claim them, absolutely, as “our” sick brothers and sisters in need of healing. We dare to see ourselves in them, in fact – to pursue policies rendered unthinkable by our belief that a Self/Other view of the world is the only realistic vision we can have for humankind. By daring to step into this kind of vulnerability, we might very well break the cycle of carnage and counter-carnage that passes as both self-preservation and foreign policy.

And I say this conceding that, by now, the men and women whom we call “terrorists” – and certainly ISIS – are probably beyond our reach. To use the words of South African theologian Allen Aubrey Boesak, “I am painfully aware that deeply complex situations arise where nonviolent intervention comes too late, where the world, for various reasons, has hesitated too long, has erred fatally on the side of greed, neglect, or indifference, has invested too vastly and for too long in the entrenchment of tyrants of all kinds.”

However, it is not too late to examine ourselves and to look at the question of terrorism – foreign and domestic – in terms of our having failed to choose nonviolence in the first instance (by, for example, refusing to underwrite tyrants, to sacrifice the needs of the many for the benefit of the few, to hoard resources, to live with great indifference in the midst of profound poverty and despair). It is not too late to see self-preservation as inextricably bound to the well-being of others, or to see in the violence around us the harm we have caused.

And it is certainly not too late to reject our politicians’ invitation to retributive justice and joyful, sacred violence.

But all of that self-examination requires that we ultimately let go of our attachment to the longevity of this empire, does it not? We must look at death – the death of our bodies, the death of our idea of self, the death of nation, the death of anything and everything that makes it impossible for us to speak in terms of I and I – and fearlessly say, as did King, that we are “not concerned about that now.” For the place we want to get to – peace – is the place we must bring into being with a willingness to pay the price if we must, so that we can one day sit and break bread with all of our sisters and brothers – all of them, without exception.


For Joanie, my mother (d. 11/24/2012)


My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)

You can order directly from Amazon and Lantern books.