Carousel Ride #3

“Carousel Ride” ( is partly about time–how it weaves itself around our lives and shapes our relationships and hopes and dreams. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe time as a character in this story rather than a theme–it has both depth and a kind of personality, and is ever-changing.

Time is a character at the National Mall in Washington DC as well–you see it (let’s not skew the noun with a gender-specific pronoun) everywhere you go, interspersed among the monuments and the tourists of every nationality and race. One place you see time is in the changing, or unchanging, meaning of the words and sentences engraved into the stone monuments and friezes. One sentence that caught my eye on a recent visit was on the right-hand wing wall to the Martin Luther King Memorial. The sentence is: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” It is excerpted from the text of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech given in Oslo, Norway in 1964.

The phrase “unconditional love” is what first caught my eye. The word love is rarely used in public speeches these days. I think the reason for this aversion is obvious–the word has taken on a dual meaning of polar extremes, with neither meaning appropriate to mainstream public discourse. On the one hand, the word has been watered down by sentimentality and commercial interests to the point of meaninglessness. Can any word that appears at least five times on every greeting card still hold any relevance or weight? On the other hand, the word has been seized and hardened by conservative religious groups of various backgrounds and come to be associated with intolerance and extremism. Is it any wonder then that “love” is rarely heard in mainstream discourse?

Yet Martin Luther King planted it squarely in the middle of one of his most important speeches. But this was hardly King’s only public use of “love.” He uses the word throughout his speeches and sermons and interviews and writings. One must conclude that the word, and the emotion or concept it represented, was central–perhaps even the center of his mission and message. Clearly, for King “love” was neither greeting-card sentimentality nor strident intolerance. Which raises the question: just what did King mean by “love”?

One way to approach this question is to look at the other nouns used in the sentence: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” All of these nouns are loaded with ponderous meaning and far-reaching nuance. But are they related? And if so, does that relationship shed light on their meaning? While King was delivering this speech on an international stage to a cosmopolitan audience (and sprinkled the speech with quotations and allusions from numerous cultures and periods), he was still the same preacher, the same Reverend King he’d been from his earliest public life. And to the Reverend King, the world was shaped in a Judeo-Christian context. And in that context all of these nouns could be, perhaps should be, capitalized as proper nouns, names for the same manifestation: the coming reign of God. To King, Truth, Love, Word, and (final) Reality define God’s eventual reign on earth, a new kingdom where there will be no more hatred or intolerance or injustice. It’s a vision to match that of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Amos precisely because it is the vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos. King simply extends this vision into a new society and era. Another beautiful and poetic passage from his acceptance speech affirms this view: “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.” He then concluded the paragraph: “The foundation of such a method is love.”

For King, “love” is both the ultimate and inevitable reign of God and the means to its realization, a reign and a striving characterized by justice, peace, and harmony. It is a vision he not so much hastened as simply proclaimed and lived, letting that proclamation be his legacy. It’s a rich meaning for the word that one wishes could be reclaimed–in our public discourse and for our world. 

In that meaning–




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