By John Graham
American historian Christopher Lasch wrote that when critics accused Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement of being “petit bourgeois,” many of King’s followers responded, in essence, “Yes, and what’s your point?”
The term petit bourgeois covers a multitude of sins and virtues. Among them is surely the desire to “do for myself,” or “do for ourselves”. King’s movement neces- sarily addressed larger issues of law and policy, but mostly in the service of opening opportunities for individuals, families and communities to “do for themselves”: address their own issues, provide for their own needs.
Recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond reflect this petit bourgeois aspect of the U.S. civil rights movement. The young man whose self-immolation catalyzed the Tunisian uprising was just trying to start a small business, so he could care for himself and his family. Government enforcers made it so difficult to do so that he found his life unbearable. Many of the Egyptian protestors were young people who just wanted to live honorable, decent lives; the regime that governed them made this modest goal ridiculously hard to achieve.
All of this might put us in mind of that avowedly petit bourgeois apostle, Paul. In the third chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians, he writes: “…we (Paul and his fellow-apostles) were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you.” He adds, here and in his second letter to the Corinthians, that we should not only work hard to avoid burdening others, but also so that we’ll have something with which help those in need when the occasion arises.
Some great movements have very modest goals. Paul’s mission, King’s movement, the Tunisian and Egyptian insurgencies: each embraced revolutionary change, but eschewed grandiosity. For this reason, perhaps, they reach across the centuries, or half-way across the world, to touch and inspire us.
The Rev. John Graham is rector of Grace, Georgetown in Washington, D. C. This article was previously published in Washington Window.