Radix Spotlight: Grace Feeney

This article is a feature of our Winter 2021 edition of Radix magazine, "Constellations." In it, Grace Feeney delves into a critical analysis of Martin Luther King's famous final speech, "I See the Promised Land," to explore the humanistic qualities of his writing in conjunction with religious sentiment. Grace Feeney is a fourth year philosophy student, primarily interested in Levinasian ethics and questions of embodiment.

In "I See the Promised Land," King’s writing has an underlying, but sometimes explicit, theme of man’s freedom being related to their being made in the image of God, and seems to believe that this can be seen made manifest in the relations between men. Succinctly, he finds the central cry of black people and other exploited groups around the world to be “we want to be free” (King 280). He expands on this declaration by writing that “we are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying that we are God’s children. And we don’t have to live like we are forced to live” (King 280). King is arguing that to be human is to be spiritually free, and material conditions that recognize and respect this freedom are necessary to honour the image of God in every human person. However, it is not only material conditions like affordable housing and access to education that he is considering. King acknowledges the immense importance of positive relationships between individuals as well as within the group as a whole. He observes from history that “when the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery” (King 281). The united front presented by the exploited group strengthens each individual member, and equally the whole community, in a mutually contributing way.

To describe this phenomenon, King suggests that there is something sacred created by the coming together of many people in the fight for justice. He uses the symbol of fire, reminiscent of John of the Cross’s flame of love, and writes that when protesting segregation in the 1960s, “there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out” (King 281). The strength of the group’s conviction to be recognized as equals under God, inspired by their faith, was greater than the physical power of those against their cause, which could only be inspired by at best, a misunderstanding of God’s will. King also expresses some degree of concern for these people, despite his intense indignation and belief that they are carrying out evil deeds in the name of God. He explains that “Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the ‘I’ into the ‘thou’, and to be concerned about his brother” (King 284). This seems to illustrate the basis of his nonviolent thought, as he is able to see from the perspective of the enemy and understand that he too might be suffering, and could be acting on an inadequate understanding of his faith. While raging against the white population might be an understandable reaction on King’s part, he maintains that all are worthy of respect and kindness in light of the fact that they bear the image of God.

Finally, King takes into account that those opposing his fight for racial equality might have understandable, even though misplaced and ultimately wrong, fear of the radical change he proposes. He makes this explicit by using a biblical example to show that “it’s possible that these men were afraid” (King 284). To respond to his own suggestion, he continues to explain that “the first question that the Levite asked was ‘if I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘if I do not help this man, what will happen to him?’” (King 285). This story is evocative of the Levinasian account of asymmetrical reciprocity within the ethical experience, and illuminates a primordial recognition of the Other as sharing in the image of God, which is clouded by social hinderances rather than by any innate human evil. This is ultimately made clear when King describes “some of our sick white brothers” (King 286, emphasis added). King sees these people as sick, not evil, and still recognizes them as his brothers on God’s earth.

Work Cited: King, Martin L, and James M. Washington. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986. Print.

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