Ira Chernus  


MLK’s Message to a Dead Soldier’s Friend


What can you say about MLK that hasn’t been said already? That was the question I was pondering, driving across town listening to the radio, when all of a sudden tears welled up in my eyes. It was just another ordinary run-of-the-mill news report, about four young people who’ll be coming home from Iraq in body bags and how their home town took the news.

One piece of that heart-breaking story jumped out at me as I tried to connect MLK’s legacy with today’s tragedy. One of the dead soldiers left behind a six-year-old son. The dad’s friend told this story: Before he shipped out for Iraq, he told me that if anything happened to him, I should look out for his son and “keep him on the straight and narrow.” I’m going to do my best to keep that promise, the choked up buddy said.  

Now I don’t know these people, and perhaps I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. But a whole story about them leapt into my mind in a flash—a tale about an unknown soldier, a son who will never see his dad again, and the legacy of Martin Luther King.

I imagine the soldier as a stern yet loving dad, following what George Lakoff would call the “strict father” model. A boy needs a strict father, that dad would have said, to lay down rules and make it clear that if he breaks the rules he’ll have to take his punishment. No two ways about it. That will keep him on the straight and narrow. If dad himself can’t keep the boy on the straight and narrow, he’ll ask a friend to do it. If his friend can’t manage, the army is always there to turn the boy into a man.

That dad ended up in Iraq, with his life at risk, because the army’s commander-in-chief is playing out the role of strict father for the whole country. If he has his way, George W. Bush will be the strict father for the whole world.

Bush understands what it means to keep people on the straight and narrow. You’ve got to watch them carefully (maybe even spy on them). And when they break the rules, you’ve got to be ready to punish them without flinching (even when the punishment is death). The Bush administration has been acting out the “strict father” mindset at least since September 11, 2001. Millions of Americans love it. Millions more accept it as a tragic necessity.

Where do these rules come from that the strict father lays down? The typical strict father claims the right to impose his rules because he didn’t make them up. Like a military officer, he’s only passing them along from a higher authority. In most cases, that authority is God or a higher-than-human power of some kind. Sometimes it’s the authority of tradition. Or maybe it’s just what his dad taught him, and his granddad taught his dad before him.

The crucial thing is that the strict father insists the rules are fixed. Keeping on the straight and narrow means abiding by eternal rules—not making rules up for yourself, like some headstrong kid. Because once everyone starts making up rules for themselves, who’s to stop the strong from butchering the weak?

For generations, dads have been trying to keep their sons on the straight and narrow. For generations, those dads have been proudly marching off to war and just as proudly sending their sons off to war. Lakoff’s “strict father” theory gives us one plausible way to see the connection between the two. Strict fathers divide the world into two camps: the good people, who follow the rules, and the evildoers, who pose a mortal threat to society because they don’t follow the rules. Strict fathers know that the only way to keep the whole world on the straight and narrow is to punish those evildoers—to go to war and smoke ‘em out, dead or alive.

That’s the Bush administration's argument about Iraq: some higher authority has to lay down the rules there and keep those “insurgents” on the straight and narrow, or else the whole place will dissolve into bloody chaos. This may be just a smokescreen for more sinister motives. But so many Americans believe it because it fits so perfectly with the “strict father” model that rules their own lives.

And they aren’t all conservatives. After Saddam Hussein’s government fell to U.S. bombs, liberal columnist Thomas Friedman wrote: “We just adopted a baby called Baghdad.…[Iraqis] are going to need a firm hand guiding them.…‘Shock and awe’ is not just for war-making. It's an everyday tool for running this place.”

If  Martin Luther King, Jr., were still with us, what would he say to that unknown soldier’s friend and to all the good Americans who want to keep their kids, and the world, on the straight and narrow? No one knows. But since I’m letting my imagination loose, here’s what I imagine he’d say (though he'd say it much more eloquently than I can):

Most of us do want to believe in some absolute Truth, of course. It’s hard to live without it. We are glad to know there’s a higher power to show us the path of moral goodness and support us as we try to walk that path. But a society full of authoritarian, punishing “strict fathers” is always going to find evildoers and set out to punish them. That means unending war and the endless heartbreak of little children who will never see their dads again.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can believe in an eternal, absolute Truth as the foundation of moral life without needing strict fathers and evil enemies.

I am a Christian, Rev. King might continue, so I call the eternal, absolute Truth God. But you don’t have to be a Christian, or even be religious, to understand the main point. The Truth is not that we are all here to follow rules, or else society will tear itself apart. The Truth is that we are all here to help each other, to recognize what every person needs to live a fully human life and then help them get it in whatever way they think is best. We are all woven together in a single garment of destiny. If we don’t all help each other—if we divide the world into good guys versus bad guys and friends against enemies—the garment will unravel and society will fall into tatters.

That’s what is happening now. We worry so much about who is following the rules and who isn’t and who should be punished and how, that we forget how to show love to everyone. We forget to take responsibility for everyone, even those who follow different rules than ours or no rules at all. That’s why the social fabric is unraveling. The way to put it back together is to weave our lives together with everyone else’s.

We don’t need to punish evildoers to know that there is eternal moral Truth and that we are virtuous people trying to live by that Truth. We don’t need to force our lives into the narrow mold of someone else’s rules to keep ourselves morally straight. Morality comes from relationships, not from rulebooks. We must be responsible, not to authorities who would impose rules, but to our fellow humans (and indeed all species) everywhere—even those we now call evildoers and enemies. Because their well-being is woven together with our own, now and forever.  

That’s the straight truth. But it doesn’t lead to the narrow graves dug by war. It leads to the broad, expansive path of freedom, justice, and peace. That’s the path a true American patriot will take. That’s the path we hope the unknown soldier’s bereaved son will travel. It’s up to us, friend, to lead the way.