by Randall Auxier
Have you ever been in a room with someone important? There’s an energy some of these people exude that is pretty hard to describe. I was once in a room with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore. They all had the energy, but to my surprise, Clinton’s energy overpowered Carter and Gore combined. What is that? Is it our aesthetic experience of power? Plain old charisma? Are there types? Did Elvis have the same thing going as Gandhi? They both had something that gave them power over people, but I think it was eros in the case of Elvis (and Clinton) but something else for Gandhi –something like moral feeling, or what Emerson called “the sentiment of virtue.”
Moral feeling is mysterious, but we all have it and it’s everywhere. We just notice it more in the presence of people who have a greater share. Unlike sex appeal, moral authority grows in and around a person as a result of actions performed in the past and carried into the present as the embodied energy of that person. Gandhi wasn’t always the Mahatma. He became the Mahatma. By the time he was old, something like holiness or blessedness had settled into his body. It overwhelmed people. Something similar happened to Pope John Paul II.
That was also happening to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X when they were martyred. We call them martyrs because we know and recognize the transformation they were undergoing. They weren’t saints, but they were becoming holy. Both died at 39 and both would have been sanctified, I believe, by the age of 50, had they lived. Nelson Mandela turned 50 the year King was killed, and his journey, from then to now, fairly analogizes what I think King and X would have achieved, even though Mandela’s commitments were secular and philosophical, while Kind and X were religious men.
Yet, Mandela is also a “martyr” in the original sense of that word, even though he is still alive. The Greek word “martyrion” was used both for those who shed blood for the sake of truth and those who witnessed to the truth. In fact, “witness” is the usual translation of “martyrion.” The idea of martyrdom was first framed by the actions of certain faithful Jews during the persecution of the Seleucids, 167-160 BCE. It is interesting to compare the stories of the first “martyrs,” especially Eleazar, in Second Maccabees with the story in Fourth Maccabees (especially ch. 5). The first source gives religious reasons for the martyrs, but Fourth Maccabees is strictly philosophical, without being anti-religious. People in the Hellenic world accused the Jews of being superstitious and crazy in their devotion to their strange law. The author of Fourth Maccabees goes to great pains to show that martyrdom is entirely rational, under some circumstances, and he models Eleazar’s views after the example of Socrates.
We have come to use the cognate word, “martyr,” mainly in the sense of those whose lives are forfeited for a worthy cause, before the powers that be. But initially, the word just meant those witnesses who achieved “makarios” –blessedness. There is a familiar, if rare, process some people undergo through struggle, resulting in their personal purification, and we know we are in the presence of it when we feel it. Warriors have it, but peaceful warriors, like Malcolm and Martin and Mandela, most of all. It is hard to imagine how the human world could be moral at all unless we humans could feel this energy, value it, and recognize it accurately at least some of the time. No one would truly be blessed, I suppose, if we could not identify and follow our feeling that certain people are our moral guides in history. That may be more important in the world than it sounds. Imagine living in a world with no Gandhis, Mandelas, Lincolns, and their moral equals.
I think the tension between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad had something to do with disparate doses of this energy. It became clear to Mr. Muhammad that Malcolm would surpass him, and that is what happened. The burden of carrying the faith of so many people is tremendous. That is martyrdom itself, in a way –to be held in such moral esteem as to suffer from the gap between the way a person knows himself or herself, and the way the world sees that same person. Often, such public exemplars gave in to temptation, addressing the pain of their on-going martyrdom with sex or some other forbidden (but very human) activity. Elijah Muhammad did. Martin Luther King, Jr., did.
But what were Malcolm’s limits? I wish I knew. He might still be among us had he not met his end so young. Malcolm is valuable to all of us in his literal martyrdom, but he might have been the next Mandela, or more, had he lived. I similarly believe that the spiritual renewal of the United States was within the power of Martin Luther King, had he lived. We gained physical martyrs and lost living martyrs, witnesses to TRUTH. These people had the power to transform mere individuals into communities of hope. People felt the possibilities when they were in the presence of Malcolm and Martin, and they believed in things they couldn’t see. And they were willing to sacrifice themselves to bring those possibilities into the real world. That phenomenon is basic to human moral progress.
But moral feeling is also dangerous. The role of the martyr has come to be a problem in our times. Are suicide bombers true martyrs? What about kamikaze pilots in the Second World War? We have to admit the presence of ultimacy in their commitment, don’t we? Who sacrifices all for nothing? And what of the Tibetan and Egyptian self-immolators, harming only themselves and no on else? Surely these are martyrs. The word is used too loosely, we have to agree. The line is thin, but I think the arguments in Fourth Maccabees (philosophical) are a safer guide than those in Second Maccabees (religious). There is something in the power of philosophy that can make things rational without making them anti-religious.
So, as religious as Malcolm and MLK were, I see this as a philosophical encounter. The police officer in the photograph above looks pensive. After all, this is quite an opportunity for a white supremacist who wants to go down in history, and the meeting hadn’t been planned. One can barely imagine the combined moral energy in this hallway. It was 1964, Washington D.C., and King was meeting with congressional leaders, trying to get the stalled Civil Rights Act moving in committee. Malcolm was there too and according to Manning Marable, he slipped in to listen to King’s session. The session ended and Malcolm made his egress, but his entourage delayed him and then maneuvered him around a pillar until he was face to face with King.
This is their only known meeting, and it was brief. Had they met before? Some thought so. Did they meet again? Some believe it. But this encounter was a moment for the ages, as everyone knew. There was no chance at all that these two men would express anything apart from a robust and complete mutual respect. After all, at some level I think they knew they wouldn’t grow old. They were already martyrs here, witnesses to TRUTH, and for just this moment, two people who knew and understood the weight of other people’s hope on their shoulders had it not so much lifted as shared –something neither of them had experienced often. No wonder they smiled. Malcolm says something like, “You’re the man.” Martin says ,”no you’re the man.” And then they both say, “let’s go teach The Man a thing or two, shall we?”
This is one of my favorite pictures of all time. Many years ago I had a nice print made of it and hung it on my wall.I see it every day. One visitor to my home office remarked “that’s what got them killed, that picture.”
I’m pleased to end this series of blogs with this image. I think it bespeaks hope.