Monday, January 16, 2006

Happy MLK Day

Let me send you to Roger Alford's post on MLK at Opinio Juris. And while I'm at it, Chris Borgen's post, same blog.

I've tried reflecting today on what it means, within the tradition of MLK and religion and politics in the United States, to "bear witness."

It is a peculiar idea for the public sphere, in many ways, because it flies in the face of secular concepts of deliberative democracy. The point of "bearing witness," after all, is not to convince someone by purely reasoned, rational argument - the core of it is to invite the person to see, in some spiritual, perhaps religious but perhaps not, way that they have something fundamentally wrong. And invite them to change.

In contemporary American political life, we, especially we in secular mode, have a very mixed reaction to that. When it is Dr. King, we embrace it. And we tend to be rather accommodating to it when it arises out of the generally liberal American black churches. When it comes from the right - using religious conversion to change minds about abortion, white people praying in the public square, etc. - then suddenly, somehow, there is this switch in gears, and that form of "bearing witness" is denigrated, less than worthy because it does not seek to persuade according to the canons of deliberative democracy (which, as Peter Berkowitz has pointed out better than anyone, in a review essay in the New Republic about ten years ago, has its own special rules about what counts as rational and what not, with an amazing coincidence between "liberal" and "rational"). And we have not yet begun to take in what bearing witness might mean as applied, say, to Islamic jihadists and fanatics, who are beyond the call of any kind of reasoned argument.

I don't know how one resolves all this. Partly, I guess, it is what Martin Luther King did - it was never all one or the other, all reason and no witness, never all witness and no reason. One reinforced the other. I'm not sure I know how to carry it further than that, so I guess ... God bless Martin Luther King on his birthday.

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