Pam and I were talking about MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail this morning and what a remarkable piece of writing and thought it is. If you haven’t read or listened to it lately you can find it at this link from Stanford University (among many other places). The bonus here is that the audio recording is MLK reading the text himself.
There is so much that is challenging in MLK’s letter. I want to briefly focus on his use of Martin Buber’s I/Thou argument. The basic premise of Buber’s argument is that humanity far too frequently finds itself in I-it relationships with each other, a relationship between a subject and an object, or even worse in it-it relationships, a relationship between two objects.
Objects are things we use. We don’t have true mutual relationships with objects. They are for our use, our enjoyment, or production.
Far too often humans see other humans as “it”s. Creatures that are less than image-bearers. Not really worthy of respect other than the respect we may give to a tool that we really enjoy. Any respect we give to an ‘It” comes from its value to us, not from any value that is possessed inherently within itself. You can treat an “it” in any manner that you want because, after all, an “it” is nothing more than an object to be owned and used. When we begin to view a person created in the image of God as an “it” we are at best missing the mark of what is best and very likely sinning.
Instead, we were meant for I-Thou relationships, subject to subject relationships. You have mutual relationships with subjects, even when you strongly disagree with them or they are your enemy. You see the image of God on them no matter how you may feel about the person. Such knowledge restrains and directs how we respond to a person when we are angry or disagree with them. They are always subjects and we must continue to relate to them as subjects worthy of respect.
Most times our us-vs-them relationships are I-it relationships. We disagree with them, perhaps rightly so, and begin to view those we disagree with as evil and less than human. Thus we are justified in any actions we do towards them. We don’t see our counterparts as humans and image-bearers first and foremost. Instead, we merely see them as an object to be defeated. This makes it easier for us to justify a whole “Flight 93 mindset” – they are evil and we have to take them down no matter the cost before they do real harm.
MLK saw Buber’s i-it relationships in racism and realized that was what needed to be fought against. To treat an image-bearer as an “it” hurts both the one viewed as an “it” and the one doing the viewing. It is thus a loving act for your enemy to confront this evil. MLK loved his oppressor and the most loving action he could do for his oppressor was to point out the harm that such i-it relationships did to all of humanity.
I believe we need to do the same with so many of the i-it relationships that still regularly continue as a part of our world, and sadly our faith.