Last year I read Dr. King’s essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” originally from an article he published in The Christian Century in April of 1960. It was for a series the magazine was doing called “How My Mind Has Changed.” They asked for “statements by significant thinkers” reflecting their intellectual and spiritual development over the previous ten years. This essay has had a profound and lingering impact on me over the last year. You can find it and many other wonderful writings by Dr. King in the anthology A Testament of Hope. So in honor of Dr. King, here are a few of my favorite excerpts from this amazing essay:
“A large segment of Protestant liberalism defined man* only in terms of his essential nature, his creative capacity for good. Neo-orthodoxy tended to define man only in terms of his existential nature, his capacity for evil. An adequate understanding of man is found neither in the thesis of liberalism nor in the antithesis of neo-orthodoxy, but in a synthesis which reconciles the truth of both.”
“The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damned them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
“The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”
“I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness humans have cosmic companionship. To say that God is personal is not to make him** an object among other objects or attribute to him the finiteness and limitations of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest of our conciseness and affirm its perfect existence in him.”
*While I generally strive towards the use of gender inclusive language: e.g. humanity instead of man, I also take context very seriously in any theological articulations. To gender neutralize Dr. King’s statements would be to misrepresent his theological context as a male of almost any color or religious identity in the 1960′s. Today, Civil rights are still a work in progress. And I am so thankful that as Dr. King insists there is a personal God who cares about the whole human being and is also personally invested in the advancement of freedom for all
** Likewise, there is much good reason for us today to employ the broad range of names and titles for God from scripture, tradition and contemporary theology that don’t make excessive use of the masculine pronoun. At least as much violence has been done to women on account of a masculine pronoun as has been done to people from a kaleidoscope of skin color in the name of a white Jesus. But these are Dr. King’s words as they were; still incredibly powerful.
Several weeks of nights filled battling with a two year old over going to sleep in her own bed have had me asking: What are we so afraid of? She kicks, screams, cries and demands to snuggle with me or my wife, Erin in our bed or on the couch. She acts deathly afraid. She has asked for so many night lights that it looks like a planetarium in her room. But that does not seem to help. There is a door in her room that goes to the adjacent townhouse so that it can be turned into a three bedroom. She has asked eerily, “who has the key, nobody wont come in there will they daddy?” Where does she get this? We don’t watch Law & Order or even pg13 movies in her presence. Yet she acts like she is terrified. What indeed are we so afraid of?
Because I am weird like this, I find strange points of resonance in these kind of quirky every day life situations and all sorts of stuff I have been reading lately. The first thing I thought of was Marianne Williamson’s provocative words from A Return to Love: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.” I doubt that my two & 1/2 year old daughter is lying up late nights keeping us all awake because she is agonizing over here true potential.
So then I thought of these words quite to the contrary from Freud: “The patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and punished…It would be equally fruitless from a scientific and therapeutic point of view to contradict a patient who brings these charges against his ego. He must surely be right in some way…Indeed, we must at once confirm some of his statements without reservation. He really is as lacking in interest and as incapable of love as he says…It is merely that he has a keener eye for the truth than other people who are not melancholic” (Sigmund Freud – Mourning and Melancholia). But I really doubt this happy playful child who spent the day outside playing and celebrating her new Barbie bicycle and the fact that we finally had a day warm enough to play outside has a serious psychosis or melancholia.
Religion often offers us the same options. We are either told that we have been endowed with enough godlike ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps or we are totally depraved. But what if both are true? That might be something to be afraid of. What if in the same day, sometimes in the same breath we can swing from benevolent to malevolent? Don’t we? I do. What if we are so beautiful and powerful and at once so ugly and the web of connections that weave our lives together so fragile that it sometimes seems at any moment something could happen to us or we could do something to another that could irrevocably change our lives for better or for worse. This perhaps is something even a two year old could know intuitively. She has seen me kiss her mother and then grow irrationally irate when that driver next to me cut me off on the road. What other heights of good will or depths of inhumanity am I capable of?
Most of us probably don’t spend much time – if any at all – agonizing over such questions. And probably for the better. But I do think there is something to be said for holding our enormous capacity to do both good and evil in tension. I was reading an essay from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recently. He describes several shifts in his thoughts on humanity from his religious upbringing in “a rather strict fundamentalistic tradition” where he was taught we were essentially evil to his early theological training in the “liberal theology” of his day which he described himself as grateful to for waking him from a slumber. But in retrospect he said, “I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism.” He settled finally on the complexity of our situation and used his energy to fight for truth and justice through nonviolent means rather than spending too much time preoccupied with such questions.
I hope to do the same. But perhaps I am stricken with a bit of melancholy or even neuroses. I am always thinking about how incredibly good or bad my life could end up. I don’t want to turn my brain off. I just want to turn my heart on. So I – like Dr. King – can be consumed with making this place a bit better for others.
I actually think what I have on my hands is just a case of the terrible twos. But it has given me something to think about just the same.
Until next time,