Jun 17 2012

Requiem for Rodney King…

Rodney King is dead.

Can’t we all get along?” – These words have been the subject of ridicule and derision for two decades. Yet for me, the words embody something else altogether – agape love. Rodney King was speaking in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr. when he expressed this sentiment. In Strength to Love (1963), MLK Jr. writes that:

“…we must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbour, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy. Each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against ourselves (Strength to Love, 1963).”

Though he probably didn’t consider himself to be a practitioner of transformative justice, I would contend that Rodney King certainly was. As one of my touchstones, archbishop Desmond Tutu often says: “We can only be human together.” Rodney King seems to have understood this fact on a profound level.

I have thought for years about how Rodney King must have felt to be ridiculed for his words particularly by other black people. Black people in this country have suffered an inordinate amount of oppression. This has led some of us to rage against the concept of meeting hate with love. I understand that. I often find myself struggling with the concept of agape love. I think that many of us got upset with King because he exposed our ambivalence about how to address the violence that is often directed at us. At a time when we were feeling so much anger and rage, we had someone who looked just like us admonishing us to react instead with love. It felt like too much in the moment. Perhaps it even felt like a betrayal of sorts.

At the crux of Rodney King’s “can’t we all get along” is an imploration to forgive. But on that day in 1992 so many of us didn’t want to forgive. We weren’t ready for it in large part because of what forgiveness expects from us. Once again, I turn to a quote by Desmond Tutu for some insight into the concept of forgiveness:

“Forgiveness gives us the capacity to make a new start… And forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew… In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrongdoer to change.”

Many of us weren’t ready “to make a new start” when Rodney uttered his famous words. We were longing for Malcolm circa 1957 or Huey circa 1967. We wanted accountability for what had been done to him and what had been done to countless of us over the decades. We wanted “justice” and he was asking us to “enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.” It was too much for some of us.

Others were embarrassed by his compassion because it seemed to denote a sort of weakness in an oppressive world that perhaps demanded a different response. And Rodney was asking us to turn to our better angels when what we wanted was to rage against injustice. But what did MLK Jr have to say to us about this urge to meet violence with violence?

“If the American Negro and other victims of oppression succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle for freedom, future generations will be the recipients of a desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be the endless reign of meaningful chaos. (Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958)”

In his articulate inarticulate way, isn’t this really what Rodney King was saying to all of us on that day in 1992? I think so. Today, as I learned of his passing, I felt a sense of sadness overwhelm me. Frankly, I was surprised it. But perhaps I shouldn’t be. In his reaction to an unimaginable wrong (that most of us will never experience), this decent man stood before the world and declared in his own way that love is stronger than hate. Rest in power, Rodney, rest in power!