One of my favorite concepts from Martin Luther King’s last few years is the concept of interdependence. King wrote and spoke about it in both his letter from Birmingham’s city jail (1963) and the Christmas sermon he delivered to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1967.
In the Birmingham letter he responded to criticisms of his multi-state activism. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” he wrote, “tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
In the sermon four years later, he repeated two of these sentences, but argued that it was more than organizing strategy: it was an ontological principle: “All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., December 1967
I remembered these quotes this week while working on a small editing project for a client. He’s been stewarding a book on fiscal responsibility. I edited the original manuscript about eight or nine years ago, and he recently updated a few sections of it.
Part of the update included new endorsements from local church administrators. No problem.
However, I recently stumbled across a newspaper article that cited one of those administrators as well as a former college peer of mine. Both argued for the continued criminalization and stigmatization of LGBTI people in Jamaica, and it caught me off guard to read that argument from an age-mate. As I wrote then and reiterated yesterday, bigotry doesn’t age out, especially not when your job depends on your promoting it and the job means that much to you.
So this week I found myself looking at the writing of one of the administrators in that article. It was writing that served the interest of my client: an endorsement for a project I’ve supported for almost a decade now and continue to affirm. It was writing that needed my contribution, and despite its writer, I gave it my full attention.
I doubt he’ll ever know who refined his work. I’ll certainly never tell him.
For the first time, I waived my client’s fee.
This wasn’t the kind of dilemma I expected at the start of the week. But given the “basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality,” I’m in the muck of this dilemma every single day, and I should expect to think carefully about my responses to people and systems. I’m more closely connected with more people than I imagine. We all are.
Interdependence isn’t abstract. As well as giving us the ability to support international liberation movements and trade ideas and strategies with people all over the world in an instant via social media, interdependence also means arms- and knees-deep relationship with systems, ideologies, and people who use their power to cause others harm.
Whatever choices we each make about our voluntary group memberships, we live in one world where we can get coltan from the DRC and phones assembled in China, where our hard earned money pays taxes that fund Medicare as well as the military’s M4 rifles. Complicity is inescapable and we’re all enrolled in this collective story. There’s no way to live in this world and come up clean.
Yet somehow we manage to live daily as if that isn’t the case.
There was another saying I remembered this week: “Yu cyaan siddung pahn cow bak cuss cow kin.”
It’s about the folly of cursing people while they’re supporting you, of shaking hands with one hand and stabbing backs with another.
Ultimately, we’re connected and can’t choose not to be. But we can decide whether to learn to treat one another with respect despite our differences or to keep fraying the only garment of destiny humankind will ever wear. As King realized nearly 60 years ago, the only possible outcome of continued fraying is war.
If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power…Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., December 1967