The Meaning of Mutuality

Alissa Jones Nelson

The criticism of being “unwise and untimely,” the criticism Dr. King faced from his fellow clergymen while he was imprisoned in Birmingham, is one too often leveled at those who refuse to operate within the accepted boundaries of established mechanisms for change. This is a criticism usually directed at us from within our own communities, places where we expect to feel safe, and this is precisely why it hurts. It’s a criticism directed at Catholic liberation theologians from within the Church hierarchy, beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the present, with the recent example of the silencing of Jon Sobrino. It’s a criticism directed at women who are “extremists” for gender equity, and it comes most often from other women. It’s a criticism leveled at Native Americans by other Native Americans, as in the case of the Fishing Wars of the Puyallup tribe in the Pacific Northwest against state restrictions on their fishing rights. It’s a criticism leveled at so-called “illegal” immigrants by other immigrants, at stateless Palestinians by other stateless people, and at “radical” LGBTQ activists by other groups within the LGBTQ community. It stings because it comes from our own, because it blindsides us, because where we thought we had learned to stand up and face down such criticism from without, we find we are still vulnerable from within.

I think this is one reason why Dr. King chose to respond to this particular criticism, although he indicates in his letter that he doesn’t usually do so. In his response, he notes the “interrelatedness of all communities and states,” the “inescapable network of mutuality.” In this context, he advocates the creation of tension as the impetus for change.

This is another way to see the hurt that comes with the sort of insider criticism Dr. King faced; it is an opportunity for change within our communities as well as between them. It is a chance to see each other as more than a means to a mutually desired end. It is a chance to critically engage our differences so that we learn how they might serve our common goals rather than hinder them.

If Dr. King was right that the great stumbling block to progress is the misunderstanding of moderates rather than the outright opposition of extremists, then I think we will find that efforts to obscure our differences in the name of preserving order will serve our causes badly. I believe, as I think Dr. King did, that an honest acceptance of and wrestling with these differences will make our perspectives more complex, our actions more robust, and our progress more enduring.

This is one of the reasons I agreed to respond to Rev. Sekou. Although I was raised in the church, I am not a Christian. Although I study the Bible, I do not believe that it is the ultimate arbiter of truth. But I do believe that people of all faiths and none need to work together to achieve common goals related to issues of social justice. Some of the most impressive and world-changing work I know in this area comes from people of faith, people like Dr. King and Rev. Sekou. I’m honored to have been invited to engage with both of them, and I hope our differences will be productive. Perhaps as a result of our conversations, we can carry forward some of the illumination “of love and brotherhood,” and of course “sisterhood,” which Dr. King hoped for at the close of his letter.

Dr. Alissa Jones Nelson is the Acquisitions Editor in Religious Studies at De Gruyter, and received her Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews. She is a member of the CLBSJ Board, and wrote this reflection for us in advance of our November 2 seminar, Birmingham and the Bible. Be sure to check out her reflection, and join us on November 2 for a remarkable conversation!