Monday, January 17, 2005

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Martyr to Liberty

In honor of today's holiday, I thought I would recall an essay I wrote back in college for the student newspaper, San Francisco Foghorn. If only we kept to the principles advocated by the reverend.

15 Jan 95

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr: A Martyr to Liberty

I have a dream ...

Thus spoke a man of the cloth, a martyr of liberty, delivering one of the greatest speeches in American history. As the country recognizes the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday, it is important to reflect upon what drove this man. What laid the seeds that grew and sprouted a dream which rang the bells of freedom? What kept the flame of this dream alive as it endured, burning throughout the showers of injustice, prompting this man to recognize that “social change cannot come overnight,” and at the same time persevere as he hoped it would cause “one to work as if it were a possibility the next morning”? What we find is a side, perhaps a deeper, more personal and spiritual side, to a man many may not truly know.

Through a reading of King's writings, we are led to the door of Truth and the Truth shall set us free. This door opens on the fundamental source of enlightenment for King. He tells us that this source is a law that binds all men. He appeals to this subjection to a law outside of man as he quotes Gandhi's affirmation that endured suffering will outlast inflicted suffering: "And in our winning freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process." Whether one believes in God or not, it does not matter, for the law which he speaks is knowable to all men. Apostle Paul wrote that "what this law requires [of men] is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness." (Rom. 2:15)

It is this conscience that leads men to two civil actions: obedience or disobedience. The Reverend King believed in obedience to laws that were rooted in “the moral law and the law of God.” What to do if laws are not so rooted?

King writes that disobedience is morally justified since “there are two types of laws: just and unjust laws.” Our conscience is not the standard and authority on such a matter, only the medium. How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? King answers, "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law." He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas by stating that "an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law." In addition, he praises measures taken by Christians who are “called to obey God rather than man.”

Understanding the necessity of law, King explains how and when one is to break an unjust law. He writes, "One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law." (Emphasis added.)

He was disappointed, however, by Christians who didn't heed the call. He urged a return to the traditional Judeo-Christian ethics. His warning was strong as he observed, "If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century."

The nonviolent civil disobedience that King advocated was nothing new. He tells how "it was 'illegal' to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers ..."

This extremism, of sorts, was also nothing new. King identifies his brand of extremism—civil disobedience—with Jesus, Amos, Paul, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson. The question, King says, "is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be." If a man is not willing to act on his love, then is it love? "To suffer in a righteous cause is to grow to our humanity's full stature." To what point do we struggle? King tells us that if a man "has to go to jail for the cause of freedom, let him enter it in the fashion Gandhi urged his countrymen, 'as the bridegroom enters the bride's chamber'—that is, with a little trepidation but with great expectation."

Without such love, there can be no struggle resulting in joy and liberty. "There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church; I love her sacred walls. ... Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists." His deep love is not only for the church and ethics set down by the two Covenants but for humanity and natural rights (especially those reaffirmed in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence).

Phaizon Wood, Director of Multicultural Student Services, recently reminded us in USFnews that Reverend King was deeply concerned "about a capitalism without a moral center." A moral center? Yes, King did profess a strong belief in what he deemed "the moral way." Such a way is pursued through dreams. Not unattainable dreams, but dreams that take us to the mountaintops. Dreams that cause us to look from the heights of the land into the stars and proclaim, as King did, "I've seen the promised land." It is a dream that, despite the conditions and limits of man, is limitless. It is like a rock that stabilizes the passions and frustrations of a people as they see around them a world parading liberty, while the homeland of such a possession floated in the pools of injustice saying, "Wait." King voices this frustration from a Birmingham jail as he reminds “fellow clergymen" that "the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter."

It is a dream that, amongst the strife, tension, and injustice of his day, instilled a happiness with no worries: "But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God..." As the Psalms sing of trust in God despite the wickedness of man, "I praise your promise; in you I trust, I do not fear. What can mere flesh do to me?" so does King, "I'm not fearing man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

Without these dreams rooted in the "moral way," our ethical center rots. If we separate ourselves from the center, from what King called "the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage," then we will, as other societies who have neglected such permanent things, fall into "a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.” Whether intentional or not, King here reminds us of a vision from Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

King calls on us to reclaim our center: to wake from our moral slumber, break out of the nightmares of immorality, and carry forward the dream of our forebears, "a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed--we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

King’s dream contains a "promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." A dream that yields "a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

It is a dream that "the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together." This glory is manifested in the faith that instills in man "a stone of hope" transforming "our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood." "With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning--'my country 'tis of thee; sweet land of liberty; of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride; from every mountain side, let freedom ring;--and if America is to be a great nation, this must become true."

King's remembrance of the bells of freedom stirs what he says is a people "seeking to save the soul of America. They are taking our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers," as these "architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."

This ringing, which resonates a thundering sound of sweet liberty through the hearts and souls of all men, is grateful not to a law, not to an ideology, not even to man, but to God Almighty:

And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants—will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’

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