Considering Christ and King

Can we cultivate constancy in a culture of cooptation?

Given by Maki Ashe Van Steenwyk at First Mennonite Church of San Francisco on MLK Sunday.
Watch or read below.

Jesus of Nazareth and Martin Luther King Jr are prime examples of liberatory leaders who have been coopted into serving empire. How can we learn from them while resisting the forces that seek to coopt our own efforts and longing for collective liberation?

Some days, lately most days, it is hard to have hope.

Creeping fascism, genocide, growing economic inequality, a growing number of transphobic laws, environmental crises grow.  

If there were a moment when radical movements are needed, it is now. If there were a time for revolution, it is now.  

But we live in a society where liberatory movements struggle to find purchase. We live in a society where such movements become quickly coopted and defanged. Corporate sponsors at Pride. Presidential candidates claiming to be intersectional activists as they trumpet the call to war. Self-proclaimed progressives justifying genocide.

This is why we can’t have good things. Cooption is part of the logic of empire. Of dominance. Yesterday’s radicalism is today’s mass-produced consumer product.

Cooption is the process whereby the powerful appropriate a movement’s people or ideas to weaken the movement or as a means of averting threats to their power. It doesn’t have to be intentional since it is baked into the logic of empire.  

The end goal is a defanged movement that becomes absorbed into the dominant discourse. Another thread in fabric of imperialism.  

THE COOPTION OF KING

During his life, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was generally despised by White America. He was branded a communist, a criminal, and a degenerate (though these things aren’t bad, per se). 

Today, a growing number of people are calling King something else: A conservative icon. 

Many who would despise him (or did despise him) during his life, now claim the legacy of King as their own, suggesting he was a champion of self-help, patriotism and a colorblind America.  

Yet, even when King was alive, his adversaries distorted his words, agreeing with some of his message in public while undermining the parts they didn’t like. His cooption started early on. It is something we see happening all the time today in nearly every widespread radical or progressive movement from #defund to #metoo. 

While the coopting of his life and message began during his life, it was certainly accelerated after his murder. One of the first leaders to invoke King’s message in support of conservative ideas was Ronald Reagan.  

In 1983, after two decades opposing the work and legacy of Dr. King, Reagan signed a bill establishing MLK day as a federal holiday, beginning in 1986. Later, he wrote in a letter to Meldrim Thomson Jr, the republican governor of New Hampshire, that his position was based “on an image of King, not reality.” He personally disdained King, but with growing criticism from the NAACP, the Urban League, and other civil rights groups, he made the move to pacify critics and promote a twisted vision of MLK’s legacy. 

In June of 1985, Reagan (who opposed the civil rights act of 1964) cited King’s “content of our character” line from the “I Have a Dream” speech whilst opposing affirmative action suggesting that King wanted a “colorblind” society.  

Nevertheless, in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967, King prophetically named the US government as the “greatest purveyor of violence int he world today.” A year later, when he was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers, he was assassinated.  

In that speech, he called upon his listeners to declare eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. But at the King Memorial in Washington, you won’t see a single quote about poverty. And quotes concerning racism and war are abstract…lifted out of context to such a degree that almost anyone would agree with them.  

Donald Trump spoke at Liberty University in Lynchburg Virginia on MLK day in 2016, leveraging his memory to promote a bigger military, stronger gun rights, and special rights for Christians.  

Today, people call upon the memory of Dr. King to condemn abortion, to deny rights to queer people, to champion war, to denounce affirmative action and critical race theory, to shame the poor…all the while treating the evils of white supremacy a thing of the past.

Dr. King has been coopted; his legacy twisted to champion the very evils he opposed. 

Of course, in this, Dr. King finds himself in good company.

THE COOPTION OF CHRIST

The Gospel that animated the reverend King’s work has been continually coopted for 2000 years.  

Like King, that cooption began during Jesus’ life. We read in the gospels that his words were oft misunderstood by his followers. And within a generation, Christians began to twist the words and actions of Jesus to fit their own regressive convictions.  

Jesus, an itinerant prophet who promoted solidarity with poor, broke bread with outsiders, and proclaimed a Gospel of Liberation has become an Idol of militarism, economic exploitation, and supremacy.  

But that cooptation didn’t simply come from outside by a cynical emperor. Constantine didn’t coopt Christianity so much as Christians were increasingly coopted already. Constantine formalized a cooptation that was well underway.  

Christianity was a growing movement. By the time of Emperor Constantine, Christians numbered about 10% of the population. Within a generation, they’d be half the population.  

By the time the emperor Constantine came to power in 306, Christianity was a major force in Roman society, with a growing number of wealthy bishops. Christianity was coopted by wealthy men before it became a prize for Constantine. By that point, most Christians saw this shift as a big win for Team Jesus.  

With this in mind, let us examine some words from Jesus that may serve to help us challenge cooption.

THE ULTIMATE SYMBOL OF CHRISTIAN COOPTION

We read these words in Mark 8:31-38: 

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ 

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?  

Here we see an example of misunderstanding within Jesus’ own life. The seeds of cooption, I believe, are planted as early as then, as soon as misunderstandings take root.  Though, of course, Peter’s perspective certainly shifted in the years that followed. 

Peter’s reaction was an example of Satanic logic (the logic of Empire): securing oneself at the expense of the struggle for liberation, fear instead of hope, anxiety instead of trust.  

But Jesus’ message of the Cross is hard for us to grasp today, because of centuries of imperial logic imposing itself as an interpretive lens. Today, the dominant strands of Christianity traffic in self-denial devoid of fulfillment. Sacrifice without joy. 

The Cross is the ultimate symbol of supremacist cooption. Yet it is at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of the Gospel. But not in the conventional way most of us understand it.  

The call to take up the cross isn’t about moralistic self-denial or virtuous self-sacrifice. It isn’t about mere obedience even to the point of death, as though the goal of Christianity were to submit to an external code handed to us from the Ultimate Authority. 

After all, the writer of Hebrews asserts that “Jesus took up the Cross for the joy set before him.” What Jesus did he did for joy. And I believe that joy was, at least in part, intrinsically tied to his longing for collective liberation. For what he called “the Kingdom of God.”  

Jesus’ challenge to his disciples to take up the cross is, likewise, “for the sake of the gospel.” It isn’t the gospel (good news) in itself. Suffering that doesn’t serve a deeper fulfillment is dead. 

This gospel is one of liberation, mutuality, fullness of life, fullness of peace and joy. Everything that oppresses, violates, or dominates will cease. 

So, then, this taking up of the cross is properly selfish: a longing that seeks something more than the logic of Empire. It is a call to participate in the work of the Spirit of Liberation even if it involves losing our imperial standing or privileges. Even if it causes us our life because it is worth the risk to lay hold of the fullness of life for ourselves and others.  

Trying to do the “right thing” is not enough. Anxiety-driven solidarity ends when the cost is too high. Performative liberalism runs out when the cost of comfort or security feels greater than the performative gains—of the cred we get for being good people. This sort of so-called solidarity, of allies driven by moralism today, becomes part of the dominating force tomorrow. Guilt or shame driven allies become oppressors.  

If we want to be animated by the Spirit of Liberation, part of her work building a new world, the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, then we need to remember the joy set before us. We need to believe that vision is more powerful, more life-giving, more fulfilling than anything offered by enemy.  

Because, what good is it if we gain power, privilege, and ease in the world as it is, when Liberation is before us? That is, I believe, what it means to take up the Cross.  

When we keep that joy before us, we will be resistant to cooption. Because the cost of cooption is too high.  

Now, in the words of Dr. King:  

“Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”  Amen.

Kalie May
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