Over the course of a few months in 2010, I periodically blogged about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Strength to Love. Last MLK day, I returned to the project and wrote the following (which I have very slightly edited), in an effort to remember that he was a flesh-and-blood human who first and foremost served a flesh-and-blood community. (The rest of the Strength to Love posts, each of which can be read independently, can be found here).
Given my powerful tendency to look at the world through my It’s All About Me glasses, you will perhaps understand (though not, I hope, condone) why I was disappointed (again) upon reading this chapter.
I struggled with chapter nine so mightily that I gave up my MLK blogging for not-quite four months; I struggled with chapter ten so mightily that I then gave it up again, this time going four and a half months. And dear reader, I like chapter eleven least of all.
As a self-described “believing Jew and the wife of a deeply moral atheist,” there’s just nothing for me here. This is a chapter — a sermon — written by a member of the Christian clergy in order to reassure his Christian flock. And a very particular flock, at that:
An evil system, known as colonialism, swept across Africa and Asia. But then the quiet invisible law began to operate…. The powerful colonial empire began to disintegrate like stacks of cards…. In our own nation another unjust and evil system, known as segregation, for nearly one hundred years inflicted the Negro with a sense of inferiority, deprived him or his personhood, and denied him of his birthright of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Segregation has been the Negroes’ burden and America’s shame.
God is able to conquer the evils of history. His control is never usurped. If at times we despair because of the relatively slow progress being made in ending racial discrimination and if we become disappointed because of the undue cautiousness of the federal government, let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able. In our sometimes difficult and often lonesome walk up freedom’s road, we do not walk alone. God walks with us.
So as I’m reading along, once again struggling with Dr. King’s easy dismissal of what he calls “man-centered religion” (“Man is not able to save himself or the world,” for instance), once again wishing that he could meet my husband (or, frankly, about two-thirds of the people I know and love, genuine or very-nearly atheists who are actively involved in matters of social justice and outreach to those in need), I finally have to realize: This man was talking to people who were, no doubt, genuinely terrified.
Many too terrified to join their brothers and sisters in the movement (many likely even angry that the movement was rocking society’s boat), many involved but terrified by the violence with which they were so often met, or absolutely discouraged by the slow progress that the movement was making, many looking back on their people’s long, nightmarish journey through the ugly woods of American history and coming away with the sure knowledge that hope was a fool’s errand.
To what extent can I — a white woman born two months after the Civil Rights Act was passed — possibly understand Dr. King’s audience here?
And the answer is that on a very real level, I can’t. The man was larger than life, larger than his position, larger than his community, he was a genius who offered all of humanity hope and guidance that we still desperately need — but he was also a pastor serving a very specific group of people, people who needed his service and his ministry. He would not have been fulfilling his mission had he not ministered to the people before him in the way that they needed him to.
Or, in other words, Dr. King cannot be all about me. Even if I want him to be.
When I gave myself this project, I consciously decided not to learn about the book, but rather to study Strength to Love itself, in isolation. Dr. King’s words in isolation — to hear them reverberate in my head, and to hear how I respond. We are surrounded by so much context on Dr. King — nothing he ever said or did is allowed to just be — that I wanted to enjoy this personal discovery on my own terms and in my own time.
Today, though, under the circumstances, I realized that I should look into the timing of “Our God is able,” and quickly found the King Papers Project at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute — and thus discovered that this sermon, as presented in Strength to Love, was based on a sermon Dr. King first gave in 1956, and the version we know it in was crafted sometime between July 1962 and March 1963 — a time frame in African-American history in which surely the members of this country’s black Christian community had great need of reassurance from their spiritual leaders.
As humanity-spanning, I remind myself, as his mission became, Dr. King’s ministry began as one focused on the very tangible struggles of a very discrete community, one of which he was a member. I claim him for my own, but perhaps on the very day that we celebrate his birth, it’s worth remembering that at a certain point, he is not mine to claim.