It is no secret that I did not grow up in a cultural and Christian context that had a deep appreciation for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, I still remember wondering why he so passionately opposed the war in Vietnam in the last two years of his life. I was recently reminded of this by watching a video of King’s interview on the Mike Douglas Show. (This video is available on Netflix as streaming video if you are a subscriber. The Mike Douglas Show was a syndicated daytime TV show that aired from 1961-82.)
We now know that the FBI targeted Dr. King with wiretaps and wanted to convince the public that he was a Communist. There is absolutely no truth to this charge even though J. Edgar Hoover spent a considerable amount of time trying to prove it. Dr. King’s life had been threatened a number of times and he quite clearly knew that he might someday be martyred. If you lived through that time in history you have memories just as I do. When King was killed the nation stood on the precipice of the deepest division in my lifetime. As much as we hear how bad things are today those of us who lived in the 1960s remember a much worse time.
In the Mike Douglas interview Dr. King was asked several times if he was stepping beyond his bounds by his opposition to the war in Vietnam. He was asked if he did not run the risk of losing his role in the civil rights movement by his stance on the war. Was he not surrendering the position he held, which included a large measure of respect and prominence, by speaking out so boldly against this war? I will never forget his answer:
A man of conscience can never be a consensus leader.
I have a great respect for consensus leaders. We need them to guide governments and institutions. College presidents and statesmen must become such leaders. But leaders need men (and women) of conscience if they are to promote the truth. Dr. King was a true leader but not a consensus builder in the normal sense, even though he did build a growing consensus about civil rights. He was a man of conscience. The older I get the more I realize how important this is for the well-being of church and society.
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John thanks for this thoughtful and thought provoking blog. I’m not entirely convinced that conscience and consensus are necessarily mutually exclusive ideas – it entirely depends on what compromises are being called for and whether differences of opinion and approach are actually differences of principle.
Interestingly, Dr. King’s comment is similar to the the title of a book containing four pieces written by John Henry Newman, “Conscience, Consensus, and the Development of Doctrine” (New York: Image Books, 1992). Have any of the readers of this blog read it, and has it anything relevant to say to this discussion?