Forty-six years ago this month, Robert F. Kennedy surprised a campaign crowd with the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee.
Reaching for words capable of bearing the weight of the murder, Kennedy did not turn to contemporary platitudes. He did not try to evade the reality of America’s political misery.
Nor did he launch into partisan rhetoric. He did not even give the impression that, however upsetting King’s murder might be, leadership would live on; justice would live on. He did not say that politics, tomorrow if not today, would save us.
And yet Kennedy did not theatrically utter a prayer—not as we acknowledge it these days. He did not speak words meant to soothe a “fundamentalist” audience. He did not speak to soothe a “secular” one, either. He did not opt for the abstract phrases of the Founders. He did not even lead the assembled through a moment of silence.
Instead, he spoke of love.
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus,” he said. “He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”
This was not a prayer. It was a confession. Kennedy asked America to accept the death of King by telling America how, against his own will, he accepted the death of his brother.
This is how Kennedy spoke of love. This is how he urged us “to make an effort in the United States,” to “make an effort to understand, to get beyond these rather difficult times.”
He spoke specifically to the black Americans in the audience. He told them that if they felt as if they had to revenge King’s murder against white America, he felt, when his brother John was murdered, a wish to revenge John’s murder against the world.
Rather than saying a prayer, he asked those with ears to hear to say a prayer in his stead. He said violence and disorder would not, repeat not, end. But he said the “vast majority” of whites and blacks—the two groups in America then most bitterly turned against each other—“want to live together,” indeed, “want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.”
He left the crowd with a Greek aphorism—“to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Today, no Democrat would claim to be a bigger liberal than Robert F. Kennedy. Yet where is their rhetoric of love? Where is their moving insistence that, whatever our hatreds, however permanent the misfortune of man, the vast majority of Americans desire little more than to share in one another’s company?
Is neighborliness truly so dead in America? Has the true essence of patriotism been sucked dry—not love for one’s country, but for its people?
Today, conservatives look upon liberals given in to hate and bitterly laugh. In a pungent symbol of the times—that is, of us Americans—Kevin Williamson writes at National Review of the “Liberal Gulag,” a perverse place of the soul in which political opposition is viewed as moral failure, and political punishment, including jail time, is prescribed as the only fitting form of moral education.
On the left, where—surprise—people do not like to be caricatured into an anonymous, depersonalized monolith, Williamson’s anger and disappointment were met with, yes, anger and disappointment. And so the cycle continues.
“And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”
Is even this Bible verse a political football? The prevailing attitude is that Lincoln might have quoted Matthew 12:25, but then look what he did. War, total war, war unto the complete defeat of the enemy.
Only that isn’t what happened at all. For all the fury and hatred of the North, no matter how holy the Civil War, no matter how just, the Union failed to win the peace. The real enemy was not the South. The real enemy was not even slavery. Those were outgrowths of a deeper enemy. Are we not allowed to talk about our deepest human adversary without being sucked back into a political controversy?
The Confederacy was destroyed, but love was not sown. We have suffered and struggled in the absence of that love, ever since, and the words and the reality of that love are there for us, on YouTube even, uttered perhaps forever now by Robert Kennedy’s ghost.
Yet the most we do is nod along, only to return to the unending toil of making our neighbor into our enemy.
Why does the work never cease? Because, as Shakespeare knew, our enemy has already been made for us. “Then Hamlet does it not,” Hamlet says, “Hamlet denies it. Who does it then? His madness. If’t be so, Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged. His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.”
To stop the madness in America, we first must stop ourselves.