Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | January 16, 2012

Creatively Maladjusted: Thoughts on the Watering-Down of Dr King

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

While I love Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” my favorite quote of his is this: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”  For King, salvation is not something individualistic, or entirely distinct from the world, but a process whereby we discover our selves as enmeshed in a community in which our fate cannot be separated from anyone else’s.  Salvation, for Dr. King, is communal.  And it is not by conforming to society that we find salvation, but by transforming it.

The most radical concept in the quote is the term “creatively maladjusted.”  For King, like any prophet, the highest calling is not conformity to society’s norms.  If we are maladjusted to a corrupt system, our task is not to become “well adjusted”, but to use our maladjustment as a creative, not a destructive, force.

Black Liberation Theology

When Howard Thurman, another, lesser known preacher out of that tradition, wrote Jesus and the Disinherited, he was responding, at least in part, to the “strange mutation” of Christianity that American religion had become. Thurman had gone to Morehouse with Martin Luther King, Sr., and knew MLK Jr. In fact, it is said that Dr King carried a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited with him on the road.

The Black Church was uniquely positioned to re-imagine American Christianity. Thurman and King knew this, as did Thurman’s grandmother who had made a young Howard Thurman tear pages out of her Bible that seemed to justify slavery.

The tradition of the Black Church, due in no small part to its position at the margins of American society, also connects to the mythic sensibility in a way that American Protestantism has generally failed.  Prophetic leaders such as Dr. King have seen how their people lived out Biblical myths.  His speeches are mythic participation at its best, in which he sees himself both participating in the past (“I have been to the mountaintop”) and giving voice to an as yet unrealized hope for the future (“I have a dream”).

The Radical Vision

Unfortunately, King’s vision has been watered down in the public discourse. While it is true that Dr King dreamt of a world in which it is possible for Black, White, and Brown children to go to school together, to play together, to love each other without thinking much of color difference–indeed, my three-year-old’s school demonstrates that this dream has been partly realized–it is also true that his vision was far more radical.

His was a three-fold critique of American power: he opposed American racism, American imperialism and military aggression, and the economic inequities of American capitalism. (Perhaps George W Bush meant to attack Imperialism, Capitalism, and Racism when he coined the termed “axis of evil”.) Surely, Dr. King would recognize that, while it is wonderful that some children today, like my daughter, are less hindered by racism, the inequities and seemingly endless wars he saw in his day are still common and, if anything, more extreme.

Finally, when we remember Dr King, the depth and nuance of his theology must not be forgotten as it so often is. His “Beloved Community” was not about churches and block clubs; this was a metaphysical position about the interconnected nature of reality. We are inseparably and inextricably linked. The fate of our sisters and brothers is our fate as well.

So let us not make the day set aside to remember Dr King’s message the day in which that message is most blatantly and cynically forgotten.

To read more from Dr King on “Creative Maladjustment” click here.


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