Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The following is a talk given by David Fishback at Temple Emanuel on January 14th, in honor of Martin Luther King's birthday.

Theology, Morality, and Faith: A Legacy of Dr. King

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was the preeminent American religious figure of the 20th Century. In recent years, others have sought to apply their religious beliefs to the realm of public policy. Some, like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell, have sought to impose very conservative religious doctrines on the laws of our nation. When people say this is improper, the reply is often essentially this: "Well, look at Dr. King. He sought to impose religious values - and liberals applauded then, and we all applaud now."
That is a point well taken, but it is only the beginning of the conversation. I have read Dr. King's words carefully, not just for inspiration, but for understanding. How, in a diverse society, with many religious traditions that often disagree with each other, were we ultimately able to come together in the successful campaign to dismantle American apartheid? And what is the legacy of Dr. King as we deal with our religious beliefs in the context of the contentious social issues of our own time?

I believe that we start this conversation with an understanding that theology, morality, and faith are not concepts that are completely coextensive with one another. They overlap, they are connected, but they are not the same.


First, THEOLOGY: My dictionary [American Heritage Dictionary] provides this definition of theology: "An organized, often formalized body of opinions concerning God and man's relationship to God." This encompasses quite a lot. For some, these formalized opinions include compliance with a comprehensive set of unbending, unquestioned rules governing all human conduct which adherents believe constitute the absolute word of God. Dr. King himself wrote that he had "been raised in a rather strict fundamentalist tradition." His writings, however, reveal his intense interest in theology not as a search for unbending rules, but, rather, as a search for an understanding of "man's relationship to God." He described his theological studies, once he left home, as a "pilgrimage." (p. 35, 1960).
Dr. King wrote at length about his theological studies, during which he adopted much of what was known as "liberal theology." He became concerned, however, that liberal theology might assume too much regarding the inherent goodness of man. He wrote that a "large segment of Protestant liberalism defined man only in terms of . . . his capacity for good," while opposing views "tended to define man only in terms of . . . his capacity for evil." Dr. King concluded that an "adequate understanding of man is found . . . in a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both" views. (p. 36). He went on to add existentialism to the mix, observing that "history is a series of unreconciled conflicts and man's existence is filled with anxiety and threatened with meaninglessness." (p. 36). No where in Dr. King's writings do I find an insistence on the literal acceptance of every word in Scripture as a command from God.
So this is what, at the outset, separates Dr. King from those today who purport to bring God's literal word to our laws and our culture. The difference between scriptural literalists and modern theologians is enormous.

While the former focus on the literal terms of the Koran or the Bible (or their translations thereof), the latter focus on the developing effort to understand the relationship of humankind and God.

The former focus on absolutes as they see them, without reference to our developing perspectives on the nature of the human race. The latter understand that we have learned much, and still have much to learn in our ongoing conversations with each other and in our private conversations with the Almighty.
I suspect that much of this division has to do with feelings about the ability of human beings to make good use of freedom. There are those who fear that if people do not have absolute, unbending rules about human behavior, then they will make bad choices. On the other hand, there are those who believe that people do have the capacity to make wise choices.

Dr. King demonstrated his belief that human beings have the capacity to use freedom wisely, to use freedom to achieve justice. He recognized man's capacity for violence, yet worked tirelessly to convince people to use non-violence to combat segregation. In community after community, he succeeded. Dr. King believed, and demonstrated, that people can use freedom wisely. Obviously, he did not, and could not, premise this on an insistence on following every word of Scripture, which is filled with violent responses, including violent responses to injustice. Rather, Dr. King looked to the essence of what he saw as good in religious tradition, and applied it to the problems we faced. And this leads is to the definition of MORALITY.


My dictionary defines MORALITY as the "quality of being in accord with standards of right and good conduct," and defines "moral" as "the judgment principles of right and wrong in relation to human action and character."

But how do we determine what is "right and wrong"? The simple way is to look at every single statement of what constitutes acceptable behavior in Scripture and to follow those statements uncritically.

But we know that that will not work: We no longer believe slavery is moral; we no longer believe that stoning to death adulterers is moral; we no longer believe that viewing women as property of men is moral; we no longer believe that execution of men who engage in homosexual activity is moral; we no longer believe that wearing garments that mix certain fibers is immoral; most of us no longer believe that doing any kind of work on the sabbath day is immoral. None of us really take every word of Scripture literally, and each of us who accept the Bible as part of our religious tradition must decide what in Scripture is useful and humane and, in the broadest sense, Godly.

This places a great responsibility on every human being. Freedom can be a scary thing, but it is what America is based upon. We cannot, in good conscience, simply say, "well, the Bible says so," without further exploration unless, for example, we are ready, to condone slavery. We really do have to use the brains God has given us.

So how did Dr. King, who was not a scriptural literalist, make his own judgments about what was moral? He did not simply take isolated passages from Scripture and then turn them to direction he wanted to go anyway.

To some extent, Dr. King's approach was an application of the moral principle that, I think, all people of goodwill apply: The Golden Rule. In both Leviticus (19:18 and 19:34) and in the Christian Book of Matthew (19:16), that rule is expressed as "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Another version in Matthew (7:5) is "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." In our Jewish tradition, perhaps the best formulation is set forth in the in the story of the cynic who is said to have approached the great philosopher Hillel and challenged him to summarize the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary. Go and learn."

But how do we learn? If the Golden Rule is just the starting point, how do we decide, in each instance, what is moral?

Dr. King addressed this question in a 1961 discussion of the difference between just and unjust laws in the context of segregation statutes.

"What is the difference" he asked,"between a just and an unjust law?" "I would say," he answered, "that an unjust law is a code that the majority inflicts on the minority that is not binding on itself" (p. 49). But this was not the end of his analysis. He elaborated on the question in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963: "How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? . . . . Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

There, I think, is the core of how we assess what actions are moral and what actions are not moral. Dr. King went on to explain that "[a]ll segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an 'I-it' relationship for the 'I-thou' relationship, and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong and sinful." (p. 293).

This is the point that gives so much force to Dr. King's message. He did not stop with the simple statement that the same laws must apply to everyone. He understood the impact of the words of Anatole France when that French author wrote, "The law, in its majesty, forbids rich and poor alike to beg in the streets and sleep under bridges." The key to just laws - and, I would posit, moral behavior - is, in Dr. King's words, the "uplift of human personality."

Dr. King knew that this understanding was not the exclusive preserve of any particular theological system. In 1967, he called "for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation," and that this call "is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men." Dr. King explained that "[w]hen I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality." He concluded that "[t]his Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up" in these words: "If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us" (p. 242).


But how does FAITH connect to Dr. King's message? My dictionary contains many definitions of faith, including (1) a "system of religious beliefs," (2) a "belief and trust in God," and (3) a "[b]elief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." The first definition - a "system of religious beliefs" - may well be the one that has the most cachet in the current public discourse. When politicians speak of "people of faith," however, the phrase unfortunately often is used to connote only those from organized religions whose tenets are fundamentalist absolutes. As the broad ecumenical expressions of Dr. King demonstrate, his view of faith was not so narrow. The words he used show that his focus was "a belief and trust in God." And, I suggest, a "belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence." Yet, it was a belief that, if acted upon, could create the evidence to support his faith.

Dr. King repeatedly preached that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Did Dr. King believe that he had objective evidence for this proposition? One could argue that the history of the human race provides plenty of evidence to the contrary. But Dr. King saw the progress we had made, and believed - as an article of faith - that we could continue to make more: To accomplish, to use our term, Tikkun Olam - repair of the world.

This was faith, not clear objective evidence. In explaining his philosophy of non-violent direct action in opposition to segregation, Dr. King said that the "method of nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. It is this deep faith in the future that enables the nonviolent resister to persevere. " (p. 9, 1957)

In discussing the successful Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, Dr. King stated his belief "there is something unfolding in the universe, whether one speaks of it as an unconscious process, or whether one speaks of it as some unmoved mover, or whether someone speaks of it as a personal God. There is something in the universe that unfolds for justice and so in Montgomery we found somehow that as we struggled we had cosmic companionship. And this was one of the things that kept the people together, the belief that the universe is on the side of justice." (pp. 13-14, 1957).

Thus, he wrote in 1958, "the believer has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole." (p. 20).

Dr. King wrote that he was "convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power. To say God is personal . . . is to take what is finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm its perfect existence in Him." (p. 40, 1960).

While Dr. King expressed faith in the view that the "arc of the moral universe bends toward justice," he recognized that that could only be made reality through the work of people: As he said just a few miles from here at the National Cathedral only days before his death in April 1968, "[h]uman progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God." (p. 270)

In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King asserted his "abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him." (p. 225).

And that was why his vision was not just of the end of segregation, but the end of poverty and war, as well. Dr. King's expression of faith took him back to his view of morality:

He believed that "[a]ny religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial." (p. 38, 1960).

He preached that "if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. . . . 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. . . . [W]e must either learn to live together as brothers, or we are all going to perish together as fools." (p. 253, 1967).

In sum, Dr. King's faith was a faith in the future. He observed that the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement had as its key words "deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome." He explained that "out of this deep faith in the future [we] are able to move out and adjourn the councils of despair, and to bring new light in the dark chambers of pessimism." We "had faith in the future . . . [T]he movement was based on hope, that this movement had something within it that says that somehow even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. . . . With this faith in the future, with this determined struggle, we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice." (pp. 52-53, 1961).

So Dr. King's legacy is not a faith in a particular theology or in a particularized, laundry-list set of rules for morality. His lesson is that we are in an ongoing relationship with God and with each other; that we are all connected; that we should act in a manner which enhances the dignity and worth of all humankind; and that if we so act, the moral arc of the universe will surely bend toward justice. All the rest is commentary, and it is our challenge and responsibility to learn.

David Fishback
Temple Emanuel
Kensington, MD
January 14, 2005

NB: Page citations are to materials found in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (edited by James M. Washington).


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