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January 15, 2024

CRITIQUE Lecture – Alexander Livingston on Parable and Politics: Martin Luther King Jr’s Critique of Idolatry – 6 June 2024, 3pm

Parable and Politics: Martin Luther King, Jr’s Critique of Idolatry
Alexander Livingston (Cornell University)
Martin Luther King, Jr’s commitment to the claims of conscience has been a persistent source of fascination and discomfort for political theorists. Prioritizing conscience over law has made King an icon of civil disobedience while the religious terms of this vision of obligation have proven challenging to the discipline’s secularist conceits. Thinking of conscientious service as a practice of worship, this paper seeks to shed new light on the ways King’s public philosophy exceeds the familiar discourses of civil disobedience it has become associated with. In naming commitment to conscience as a means of worship I mean to highlight the ways King figured the sources of injustice he railed against – racism, materialism, militarism – as cases of false worship. One name we can give to such false worship is uncivil obedience. Another is idolatry. Affirming rather than avoiding King’s religious thought offers new insight into how King figured the problem of conscience as a challenge of reattuning and reeducating Americans’ alienated capacity for seeing and feeling the claims of equality. Taking the religious King seriously in this way means to challenge not just how political theorists read King but what we read. I argue that the hundreds of sermons he delivered offer the fullest and most important archive of King’s thinking on the meaning of conscience, obligation, and citizenship. Across this canon, King returned again and again to series of parables as the medium for articulating his moral and political thought. This paper focuses on King’s retelling of one such parable, the parable of the Good Samaritan, as a means of rhetorically unsettling idolatrous attachment and reeducating the proper democratic worship of the conscientious citizen.

Please join us 3 June 15:00-17:00 in the Violet Laidlaw Room