I. I must have been around 12. Still a new fixture in our home, our family’s first PC (a Compaq Presario) received an upgrade: Encyclopedia Encarta on CD-ROM. I remember perusing the “pages” — full of colorful photos, and even sound clips. I remember the excitement of finding a sound clip tucked away in the digital entries. One had a particular impact on me. I can still hear the distinct, bellowing cadence: “I have a dream. That my 4 little children. Will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
That was my first introduction to America’s most beloved public theologian, Martin Luther King, Jr.
The “I have a Dream” Speech is synonymous with Dr. King. It is also what King was known to live for. 10 years, the Reverend committed his life to living out that “Dream.” And while this is nothing new to most, it nonetheless is only a barely-scratched surface behind Martin King’s depth of character.
Two months prior to the March on Washington, King joined a march on Detroit. There, he stated, “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” On April 4th, 1968 — 48 years ago, tonight — King proved he was fit to live. Our cursory knowledge of King gives us pithy responses to the question “What did he live for?” But we must also remember what King died for.
II. To speak of what is worth dying for seems anachronistic. But in the case of King, it is possible to look back and see if what he lived for carried through to the end.
In April of 1968, King detoured from his agenda to go to Memphis in support of the city’s sanitation workers who were on strike. You see, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed and many people thought that would be the last of King. He won the right for people of color in the South to vote unobstructed by systematic discrimination. The nonviolent campaign of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its allies was won.
But, on January 7, King announced the launch of his attack on the limiters of liberty to the North; the Chicago Campaign began to show the world that the prophetic imagination of this Southern preacher was larger than the Confederacy. In Chicago, King addressed the disparaging conditions of the “black ghetto,” which “is confined by the conspiratorial noose confined by the racists attitudes and actions of the real estate interests and white residents with their restrictive covenants and (un)gentleman(ly) [sic] agreements, abetted by the prejudicial practices of the mortgage-money lending institutions.” And it was there in the North, he said, that he faced his most violent and dehumanizing resistance.
On the 4th of July of that year, King leveled an indictment in his speech entitled “The American Dream”:
I started thinking about the fact: twenty million of my brothers and sisters were still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in an affluent society. I started thinking about the fact: these twenty million brothers and sisters were still by and large housed in rat-infested, unendurable slums in the big cities of our nation […] If we are going to make the American dream a reality, we are challenged to work in an action program to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination.
Deep within his bones, King knew that the well-being of the country depended on the status of the most vulnerable. But the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s imagination for well-being did not know national borders. From April, 1967 to a year later when he was murdered, King continually spoke out against the war in Vietnam. A recurring theme? The war’s effect on the world’s most vulnerable:
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village.
The litmus test for the holistic health of a people is their care for the most vulnerable members. And in an atomic, globalized world, King knew that no one is outside our reach. Not voiceless villagers-turned-refugees in Vietnam. Nor 1300 “public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers” in Memphis.
King knew not only what, but who, he would live and die for: those that the hegemonic society—be it fueled by forces of white supremacy, or unrestraint capitalism, or rampant militarism—left at the wayside of progress and freedom.
III. In his famous last sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King reminded his audience of the Good Samaritan. His words could be directed toward us today:
And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight.
King lived and died for the one society rejected. He acted neighborly to those who only knew the incivility of others. He was a modern day Good Samaritan who, in his own words, “was the great man because he had the capacity to project the ‘I’ into the ‘thou,’ and to be concerned about his brother.”
So, tonight I on the 48th anniversary of his death, I’m thinking about King’s life. What he lived for, what he died for. And I’m thinking about mine.
As a public intellectual, King challenges me to realize that no philosophy exists in a vacuum. Conquergood’s Intellectual Error is rancid on those who talk about a way of life without living it.
As a public theologian, King challenges me to realize that all theology must put on skin.
IV. This is important to bear in mind as I press publish on something as trite and cliche as a new blog. As a Christian in the 21st Century, someone who cares about ethics and is deeply interested in how we communicate our world views, I am attracted to King’s contemporary contextualization and application of Jesus’ teachings; I’m convicted by how he tended to his audience, even when they were against him; I’m inspired by his unrelenting pursuit of a society where all thrive.
But if this blog is only a place to theorize about that, and never becomes a springboard to live it out, this blog is empty chatter; just another post in the ether.
What I die for will be decided by those who out live me, hopefully a long time from now. In the mean time, I hope this space will be a place where I flesh out what I’m living for.