A new mythology is most likely to succeed if it is closely linked to a hero from the past, someone who is widely respected and admired by most Americans. Many of those heroes achieved their preeminence in part because they were great myth-makers. But most of them offered up versions of the two great dominant mythologies that included the problematic elements we want to avoid:
- dividing the world into the “virtuous” and the “evildoers”
- pitting America against perceived enemies
- mixing the hope inherent in the ideal of progress with a strong dose of fear of fundamental change
- promising a perfect future that clashes frustratingly with the reality of the present
There is one name that stands out, though, not only for eminence and mythic imagination, but for meeting the requirements of a successful mythology while avoiding these pitfalls: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King was a gifted myth-maker. He had a rare ability to tell the truth in emotionally powerful words that could inspire dramatic political and cultural change. Like all great American myth-makers, he took a great number of empirical facts and wove them into a deeply moving narrative centered on the ideal of freedom. Unlike so many of the others, though, he included facts that were disturbing to most Americans, facts about the tragic denial of freedom in this land. So there is less of a gap between fact and myth in the national story that he created than in most others.
King also had a rare ability to root the radically new elements of his mythology deeply in the existing mythology of hope and change. He insisted that the dream he so famously had was nothing really new, that it demanded no novel ideals or values. He dreamed only that the nation would finally live up to the most basic values on which it was founded, the ones it declared as its reason for being on July 4, 1776: the equality of all people and the right of every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Founding Fathers expected a nation living by these ideals to transform the world. Dr. King agreed.
It is already evident that his mythology meets the first three tests: patriotic appeal, continuity with the mythic past, and freedom as the highest ideal. King clearly met the fourth test — an unshakeable foundation for our lives — when he preached freedom and equality as eternal, objective truths that were granted not by any human entity but by God.
However King was well aware that religious language, which was his native tongue, would not be meaningful to many Americans. So he carefully cast his mythology simultaneously in both religious and secular languages. Like the Founding Fathers, he presented the fundamental values as trans-human truths both by claiming a divine source and by arguing that they are self-evident to human reason. Here again he showed his continuity with the mythic past and stood with the pantheon of our earliest national heroes.
What follows is a sketch of a mythology based on King’s words as I read them (with occasional quotations). I rely only on King’s secular words, since any mythology has the greatest chance of success when it can appeal to the widest range of people. Many Americans will want to translate this story into the religious language that King so commonly used. He made that translation surprisingly easy, which is one more good reason to use his words as a springboard for a new myth. (A summary of King’s views in my book American Nonviolence shows how effectively he intertwined religious and secular language.)
I do not suggest that King’s mythology is the one-and-only cure-all for the nation’s ills. I present it merely as a springboard for imagination, an example of what a search for new mythology could look like. Like any mythology, it can be developed in endless ways.
The story begins at the very beginning of the United States of America. The Founding Fathers created something brand new and extraordinary: A nation-state based on eternal truths that are self-evident to any reasonable person. It is obvious that every human being feels a need to be free. Everyone, if allowed basic freedom, feels that they are intrinsically worthy and valuable. So everyone wants to be treated on the same basis as all others; that is, everyone wants equality and justice.
The Founding Fathers emphasized certain specific kinds of freedom: the freedom to speak openly, to vote in elections, and to own property. But real freedom means much more than that. It means “the opportunity to fulfill my total capacity untrammeled by any artificial barrier.”[i] It means the ability of each person to choose their own way to actualize their own unique potentials to the fullest. That is the ideal America stands for, the ideal every patriotic America will live and die for, in this new mythology based on the words of Dr. King.
Why did the Founding Fathers hold such a narrow, limited view of freedom? Because they saw humanity as essentially a collection of separate individuals, all free to compete with each other for life’s rewards. But there they made a fundamental mistake. No one can exercise any kind of real freedom, and certainly no one can reach their full potential, all alone. Sooner or later (and usually sooner rather than later) we all need some kind of help from others. That’s why “my personality can be fulfilled only in the context of community…the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance of responsibility for his brother.”[ii]
To be fully free, we must recognize that we are all members of a single human family. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality. You can never be what you ought to be until I become what I ought to be” — and vice versa.[iii] The actions and experiences of any one person have a ripple effect that impact everyone else. What happens to one happens to all.
Consider one especially important example of this basic truth: When any one person’s freedom to pursue their own fulfillment is abridged, they cannot contribute fully to the fulfillment of others. So all suffer a loss of their fullest freedom. It is in everyone’s self-interest, then, that no one interfere with the freedom of anyone else. Certainly the Founding Fathers understood that and built their vision of the new nation upon it.
But here again their vision was too narrow; it spoke only of what we should not do. If America is going to point the way toward full and complete freedom it must take a more positive approach. No one of us can be free unless we each actively support all others in fulfilling themselves. That’s the only way we can enable them to help us totally fulfill our own potentials.
This active and mutual support is the deepest meaning of love. So the American ideal of freedom demands that we must not merely tolerate everyone else; we must love all members of the human family equally. We must care about what happens to every person, respond to the unique needs of each, and thus help all fulfill their highest potentials.
For some this may be a religiously or morally motivated altruism. For others, though, it is only a matter of common sense. We need others to fulfill ourselves. The more optimally others are functioning, the more they can give to us. We must live in whatever kind of community we create. The happier and healthier the community, the happier and healthier our own lives.
So we don’t have to abandon the traditional vision of America as a nation of ambitious individuals, where everyone is free to build the best life for themselves and their families. We only have to recognize that to serve our own best interests we must also help others. And when we help others we are also serving ourselves: “We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of morality coalesce with our self-interest.”[iv]
If everyone acted upon this common-sense insight, we would be living in “the beloved community.” This is Dr. King’s version of the utopian or millennial goal that has been such an essential part of the mythology of hope and change throughout American history. In the beloved community, everyone would recognize the truth that we all are, always have been, and always will be interdependent. And everyone would act upon that truth. The ideal is active interdependence and mutual loving service, not individual self-reliance and competition. Therefore there would be no hierarchies, no unresolvable conflicts, no oppression.
The beloved community would be one of perfect unity but not strict uniformity. Diversity would be fully valued, because the distinctive qualities and potentials of every individual would be fully valued. The unity would come from each one appreciating and enhancing the qualities that make every other one different and unique.
At first sight it seems that this millennial ideal creates the same gap between the real and the ideal that all other millennial visions have created, breeding the same frustration and anxiety, since it is hard to believe it could ever be attained in this world. This new mythology openly acknowledges the radical difference between real and ideal. Obviously, in today’s real world many people are selfish and unjust; many ignore or actively thwart the needs of others, especially the need for freedom; inequality is far too widespread; societal problems fester and are exacerbated every day.
To say the same thing in other words (which will turn out to be more helpful words): We long for a world in which everything fits together harmoniously. But what we see around us is a world full of all kinds of separations that cause conflict. (As many religious people would put it, we see a world full of sin.)
This is readily apparent in our own nation’s life. Americans have learned from their earliest beginnings to see themselves essentially as separate individuals who have a terribly difficult time figuring out how to relate to other individuals. That difficulty is reflected in the many separations between groups: genders, nations, ethnicities, races, religions, etc. As soon as there is separation there is likely to be a contest for domination between the two opposing sides. This is the ultimate source of all inequality, which brings with it oppression, injustice, conflict, and all too often violence.
In the modern world, we also find growing separation between our own competing values: some toward ethical/spiritual ideals, others toward material acquisition. And the material side seems increasingly to be dominating. The urge to materialist domination is a major cause of the environmental perils we face. But the only reason we can even think about dominating nature is our deep cultural tradition of treating humans as separate from the rest of the natural environment. In all these ways, separation is the source of humanity’s ills.
However American culture is inherently optimistic. So we should refuse to believe that separation, with all its baneful effects, is the final word. We know that there is a countervailing reality, “some creative force that works for togetherness, a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” This is one of the objective truths that every reasonable person will acknowledge. And it’s one of the fundamental principles of the mythology of hope and change.
We can see this unifying force at work most easily in natural environments unspoiled by human interference: an organic system of endless interactions, all contributing to an overarching harmony. But when we start tampering with nature, driven by our belief that humans are separate from nature, we generate all sorts of artificial separations and conflicts among natural forces, which leave the environment ragged and torn.
It is harder to see the same original togetherness in human society. We are all threads interwoven in the single garment of destiny. But the many separations we have been creating for so long have led to conflicts, which leave the weave ragged, torn, and full of holes — some of them as big as the gaping hole in the earth’s ozone layer.
So America is caught up in a great, ongoing battle with profound moral consequences. There are two forces contending for dominance in our world and our daily lives: one for togetherness and one for separation, one toward the beloved community and one away from it, one making us optimistic and the other pessimistic. This conflict can easily be seen as a battle between good and evil, the kind of moral drama that has always been central to the mythology of hope and change.
Each one of us is called to choose sides in this conflict. We can create more wounds and holes in the garment of destiny. Or we can choose the American way, as this mythology sees it: doing everything we can to help to mend the weave. When we become menders, we resist every form of evil: inequality, injustice, oppression, violence. We take a step toward fulfilling America’s mission: to make our nation, and ultimately the world, a beloved community. Resisting evil is our patriotic duty. It means courageously going out to fight for what we believe in, which remains a vital part of the American way.
Of course the call to battle seems to leave us trapped in the same fears that have always been at the heart of the mythology of hope and change — fear of enemies, of evils beyond our control, and of a future where the real can never match the ideal — all the fears that have filled the American way with so much insecurity and anxiety. But the fundamental innovations of this new mythology — viewing all humanity as one family, tied together in a single garment of destiny, and focusing on the battle between separation and togetherness — point a way out of this dilemma.
Imagine that the American way becomes a new way of seeing others: not as discrete separate units, trying to figure out how to relate to others, but as so many strands in the single garment of destiny, already related to others in myriad ways, with each of us affecting all others in one organic whole.
From this new perspective many of the familiar assumptions of the traditional mythology of hope and change simply make no sense. We cannot claim to be purely good and innocent, as if we stood apart from those we oppose, and ascribe all evil to them, as if we had no role in contributing to the ills that plague us. Nor can we hope to heal those ills by imposing our control over others, as if we were some kind of Lone Ranger arriving from outside to right every wrong.
Once we recognize that we are all parts of an interactive network of mutuality encompassing all humanity, we realize that we can never stand outside that network. We are never passive victims of history, nor can we be isolated from the dynamics of history. And the hope of fully controlling people and events is a fantasy; every effort at control acts back upon us in unexpected, usually harmful, way. But we always influence what happens. So we each share some degree of responsibility for contributing to the ills of the system. The ills arise out of the pattern of relationships. They cannot be blamed on any one person or group of people and certainly not on “those people” across the border, since the border is itself a kind of relationship, a place where two groups meet and interact.
From this perspective, the enemy is no longer any particular person or group of people. It is the evil that has arisen from all of us. In a more abstract sense, the enemy is the fact of separation itself. Therefore, in this new mythology, Americans no longer see themselves as the “good” people dedicated to destroying the “evil” people. America’s mission is to overcome separation, to strengthen every thread in the garment of destiny threat by strengthening the interaction of each with all others. Every good American must have that same goal.
So America still has opponents, both abroad and at home — those who appear to be increasing the separation in the world and blocking progress toward reconnection. We recognize them by the inequality they promote, the injustices they inflict, and the harm they do to others and themselves. But we oppose their actions, perhaps even label those actions “evil,” without viewing the people themselves as evil.
Instead, good Americans treat them the way we treat all people, as equally important threads in the single garment of destiny. We respect their inherent dignity and demand the same freedom and justice for them as for all others. If we resist their actions, it is only because we want the best for the whole society, including them. We aim to help our opponents fulfill their full potential, which in turn will help us do the same.
Since we and our opponents are parts of the same human family, we give them the same respect, empathy, and love we give our own family members even when we disagree with them. We handle conflict with them the way we handle conflicts with our own family members: asserting our own views, sometimes very strongly, only because we want the best for the whole family, including those we disagree with. The American way is guided by the principle of universal love, which means overcoming every separation, even between ourselves and our opponents.
So we try to see the world through our opponents’ eyes, “to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves.” Only then can we have the fullest possible view of what is best for all.
However, when grave moral matters are at stake, good Americans take a firm stand and fight for it. Indeed, in this new mythology it is our patriotic duty to risk death, if we must, defending our nation’s highest values.
But it is equally our duty never intentionally to inflict death or injury in defense of those values. Killing or physically harming our opponents would only increase the separation we aim to overcome. And we can never promote what is best for our opponents or help them fulfill their highest potential if we kill or maim them! In other words, nonviolence must be an intrinsic part of this new mythology of hope and change.
But refraining from physical injury is only one part of the larger principle of nonviolence: to love all and want the best for all. That means we must never intend to do any harm to others; we must never try to gain advantage by imposing ourselves or our views in ways that will thwart the fulfillment of others.
Any intention to do any kind of harm creates conflict and separation, not only physically but psychologically. Hatred and anger lead us to depersonalize and dehumanize others, to treat them as an “It” rather than as “Thou.” Because violent intentions as well as actions always perpetuate this dehumanizing, they can only “intensify the cleavage in a broken community.” In the end, violence “leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.” It simply will not work to pursue the goal of community by means that drive people apart. Even when violence is used to promote a just cause, it destroys the very community it seeks to create.
When Americans are called to fight for our ideals nonviolently, we will stand firmly against others, but only temporarily, and only to help them in the long run to heal the rifts that set them apart from others. Responding to hate with love “is the only way to reestablish the broken community.”
This vision of nonviolence can serve as a basis for all relationships, from person-to-person all the way up to nation-to-nation. Just as parents and children are tied together even in the worst moments of conflict, just as the criminal and the victim are tied together, so the United States is tied to Iran, North Korea, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. In world affairs, as in personal affairs, there are no winners and losers. Either everyone wins or everyone loses.
John Quincy Adams once said that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” From the viewpoint of nonviolence, there can never be any monsters. As soon as we start to imagine monsters and set out to destroy them, we destroy the global community and the chance of fulfilling our own highest potentials. So America, like every other nation, will flourish best if it shows “an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.” America, like every nation, will preserve its own best values only by helping others enhance their own.
It’s easy enough to see that including nonviolence in a new mythology of hope and change avoids two of the major themes that have always marked this mythology: dividing the world into the “virtuous” and the “evildoers,” and pitting America against perceived enemies. The new version of the mythology would remove the insecurity and anxiety these themes have bred. Of course it would also remove the impetus to do harm to others, which has so often blown back in harm upon Americans.
Though it may be less obvious, nonviolence also avoids the other two major problems of the traditional mythology of hope and change: mixing hope with a strong dose of fear of fundamental change, and promising a perfect future that clashes with the reality of the present moment. Nonviolence avoids these problems because it does not aim merely to create harmony in some far distant future. It uses means that are meant to bring people together at every step of the way in order to reach togetherness; its ends are fully present in its means. So it creates harmony in the present moment.
When Americans go out to do nonviolent battle, we recognize from the beginning that we are always already connected with everyone, including our opponents. All our actions are guided by that awareness. So in the very act of resisting others we make the beloved community a present reality, in a partial and preliminary way. We realize that we may never have a perfect beloved community. But in every fragmentary experience of it we see the separation between present and future, real and ideal, being overcome. We experience the process of creating more unification. And that process of endless change toward greater harmony is the essence of the beloved community.
For Americans who live within the mythology of homeland security or the traditional myth of hope and change — and are therefore prone to see major change as dangerous — Dr. King, his words, and his example may still appear threatening. But for those who live, or aspire to live, within a mythology based on his words, major change of any kind is not inherently threatening. Every effort for change reinforces our awareness that we have no enemies and that there is no necessary clash between present and future, since the future we seek can always be partially realized, or at least glimpsed, in the present moment. No matter what obstacles we face, the way we face them demonstrates that our lives are changing for the better and thus gives us hope.
Thus we gain a sense of security that mythologies based on dualities –“us” versus “them,” the present versus the future — can never offer. More broadly, we gain all the advantages of a mythology of hope and change without the disadvantages of the familiar expressions of hope and change that dominate our culture now.
This vision of a new mythology may all seem like idle utopian speculation. In light of our current American reality, it may very well seem impossible to imagine nonviolence becoming a central theme of the prevailing American mythology. But it’s worth remembering that nonviolence has been part of the nation’s political culture since before there was nation, when the Quakers made such a success of Pennsylvania in the 17th century. Nonviolence has been especially prominent in the fight for racial justice for nearly two centuries, its banner carried by such eminent figures as William Lloyd Garrison and Julia Ward Howe as well as, of course, Dr. King himself.
The movement for racial justice is a reminder of how long change can take. But it also proves that the basic assumptions of American life can change in ways once thought impossible. Racism was taken for granted throughout most of American history as an immutable fact. Though we still have a long way to go in improving race relations and equal opportunity, the level of racial integration and equality we have today was absolutely unthinkable to the vast majority of Americans as late as the 1940s.
In a similar way, lesser mythic themes can become dominant surprisingly quickly. In the mid-1930s, virtually no one could believe that American discourse would ever be dominated by a fear of foreign enemies invading the nation. It seemed unimaginable. By the 1950s it was not merely a reality but an apparently irreversible reality. If the nation’s mythology could be transformed so quickly in the direction of homeland insecurity, it seems equally possible, in principle, to transform it in the opposite direction.
One of the reasons (among many) for the rise of the “homeland insecurity” myth was the tremendous conscious effort that a lot of people put into making it happen. Staffers in the Eisenhower administration made elaborate plans, with the president’s approval, to accustom the populace to cold war fear as what they called “the new normal.” They were merely speeding up a process that was already well underway, and they got the results they wanted. Americans became accustomed to what seemed impossible in the mid-‘30s: a life built on a constant, deep, underlying conviction that our national existence is constantly threatened. That conviction still dominates our national life in many ways.
If we are going to escape from the mythology of homeland insecurity, and from the negative consequences of the mythology of hope and change, it will take just as much conscious effort. This time, though, it’s not likely to happen at the highest levels of government. It will have to emerge the way the civil rights movement emerged, from deep thinking and wise planning at the grassroots of American life.