Still, there’s a pleasing symmetry in Reagan forking over a day to Dr. King. Both men owe their reputations to the Sermon on the Mount. The president’s most enduring bequest might be a city-smiting drug war, but thanks to a nice smile and a biblical sound bite that’s not how he’s remembered. Reagan cribbed from the Gospel of Matthew via the Puritan John Winthrop to dream up his “shining city on a hill” legacy. And Americans in general and Republican presidential candidates in particular still believe in it, probably because they’re not watching “The Wire.”
Here’s what Dr. King got out of the Sermon on the Mount. On Nov. 17, 1957, in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the “loving your enemies” sermon this way: “So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: ”˜I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’ ”
Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
The Bible is a big long book and Lord knows within its many mansions of eccentricity finding justification for literal and figurative witch hunts is as simple as pretending “enhanced investigation technique” is not a synonym for torture. I happen to be with Dr. King in proclaiming the Sermon on the Mount’s call for love to be at the heart of Christian behavior, and one of us got a Ph.D in systematic theology.
I live in Lower Manhattan. In my seriously secular neck of the woods, Christians are often dismissed as those homophobes on the news hell-bent on keeping half the population of Chelsea out of the wedding pages. Once, I told a member of the fabled East Coast Media Elite that I was raised Pentecostal and he asked if that meant I grew up “fondling snakes in trailers.”
I replied: “You know that book club you’re in? Well, my church was a lot like that, except that we actually read the book.”
Read it all.