Martin Luther King – not really all about me.

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).

Chapter eleven – Our God is able.

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.

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“Our God is able.”

Over the course of last spring, I periodically blogged about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Strength to Love. Then I stopped, largely because I’d hit a chapter that really didn’t speak to me — and as previously admitted, I sometimes have a hard time following through on projects.Then I started again, and after one more stab at it, stopped again — for, I believe, the same reason.

But what better day to go back to grappling with King’s legacy than his birthday? (Or, ok, not really his birthday, but the day on which we commemorate his birth.  You see what I mean). So here I am again. If you want to see the earlier posts, each can be read independently —  click here.

Chapter eleven – Our God is able.

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-describedbelieving 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 possibly 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 — both moments in African-American history in which I feel safe in assuming that members of this country’s black Christian community might well have needed reassuring.

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 discreet 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.

“How should a Christian view Communism?”

For a while there in the spring, I was periodically blogging about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Strength to Love. Then I stopped. I’m not entirely sure why, other than that I hit a chapter that really didn’t speak to me — and as previously admitted, I sometimes have a hard time following through on projects.

Be that as it may — that’s enough of that, then! Time to get back to it. Each post about the book can be read independently, but if you’re interested, previous installments can be found here.

Chapter ten – How should a Christian view Communism?

Well. Having initially swooned, and swooned again, and then kept right on swooning over Strength to Love — I sure did hit a brick wall with chapters nine and ten.

Chapter nine was, I’m sorry to say, just a little too Christian for me — and given that Dr. King was a pastor, and that “chapter nine” was initially a sermon, well, it takes a lot of gall for me to complain that chapter nine was too Christian, frankly.

Moreover, looking back at my notes, I find great wisdom to guide even so blatant a non-Christian such as myself — for instance:

Fatalism… is based on an appalling conception of God, for everything, whether good or evil, is considered to represent the will of God. A healthy religion rises above the idea that God wills evil…. The embracing of fatalism is as tragic and dangerous a way to meet the problem of unfulfilled dreams as are bitterness and withdrawal.

Or:

We Negroes have long dreamed of freedom, but still we are confined in an oppressive prison of segregation and discrimination…. Must we, by concluding that segregation is within the will of God, resign ourselves to oppression? Of course not, for this blasphemously attributes to God that which is of the devil. To cooperate passively with an unjust system makes the oppressed as evil as the oppressor. Our most fruitful course is to stand firm with courageous determination, move forward nonviolently amid obstacles and setbacks, accept disappointments, and cling to hope.

Or:

Our refusal to be stopped, our “courage to be,” our determination to go on “in spite of,” reveal the divine image within us.

Our refusal to be stopped, our courage to be, reveal the divine image within us — that is something, right there. It is our fight, our struggle to repair the world, that demonstrates God’s mark on us. Not our habits, not our sexual interests, not our willingness to read Scripture or pray — but our willingness to wrestle with imperfection and try to bring the world in line with Divine justice.

So, chapter nine wasn’t really all that bad, even for me.

But I’m supposed to be writing about chapter ten.

How is a post-Cold War semi-socialist Jew supposed to approach a chapter entitled “How should a Christian view Communism”?

As with chapter seven, I find Dr. King too glibly rejecting of non-believers (yes, I did just call Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “glib.” I’m not comfortable with this), too contemptuous of those who are not spiritual (“…humanism thrives on the grand illusion that man, unaided by any divine power, can save himself and usher in a new society…”). Plus which, there’s a whole lot of “we need to pledge ourselves anew to the cause of Christ” — and with all the will in the world, that’s kind of a problem for me, isn’t it? As a believing Jew and the wife of a deeply moral atheist, here, finally, is a place where I just can’t get on board.

But I think I have to understand that that’s just the way it is. I think that we (I) need to learn to be more comfortable with the fact that we speak differently with different audiences. As genuine as Dr. King was being with his own congregation, he would never have exhorted me to pledge myself anew to the cause of Christ — much as I can only imagine he didn’t exhort his good friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the giants of American Jewish thought. I think also that we (I) need to learn to be more comfortable with the fact that, occasionally, those whom we admire greatly will say things with which we entirely disagree — that such is human experience.

And even so, even here, where I have jumped off the train for a station or two, I find words that I want to hold close and knit into my synapses:

Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and yet is not concerned with the economic and social conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is the kind the Marxist describes as “an opiate of the people.”

And:

Destructive means cannot bring constructive ends, because the means represent the ideal-in-the-making and the-end-in-progress. Immoral means cannot bring moral ends, for the ends are pre-existent in the means.

To both, I can only say: amen, amen — and endeavor to act on humanity’s spiritual duty to engage directly with the reality of human suffering, in my life, my political activism, and my Judaism.

Surely Dr. King would not argue with that.

Shattered dreams.

I’m periodically blogging about Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love. Each post can be read independently, but if you’re interested, previous installments are here.

And what better way to mark the end of Confederate History Month (aka April), than to get back into Dr. King!

Chapter nine – Shattered dreams

I’ve spent some time away from Strength to Love, and yesterday had a kind of first-day-of-school excitement to get back into it. And yet — chapter nine? Meh.

Yeesh, I can’t tell you how wrong it feels to write that.

Dr. King has become something of a guru for me. I refer to this book all the time now, quoting him to myself and others, looking for ways to integrate his thinking into my life and worldview. Just today, I was (of all things) Tweeting with him in mind (no – really! Sort of: WWMLKT?).

But “Shattered dreams” says little that is particularly unusual or unusually phrased, boiling down to this quote (which is repeated in two or three iterations): “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”

And while this is a beautiful idea, it’s similar to something King said better in an earlier chapter: “The transformed nonconformist… recognizes that social change will not come overnight, yet he works as though it is an imminent possibility” — it’s not enough to have hope, after all. You have to take action from within that hope — even if the action is merely getting up and facing the day without bitterness or fatalism.

At the point of the finite/infinite quote, though, I felt myself responding more, as King began to speak of those who lived all those long, horrific years as slaves in the American South:

Some of us, of course, will die without having received the realization of freedom, but we must continue to sail on our charted course…. This was the secret of the survival of our slave foreparents. Slavery was a low, dirty, and inhuman business…. Yet in spite of inexpressible cruelties, our foreparents survived…. They had no alternative except to accept the fact of slavery, but they clung tenaciously to the hope of freedom. In a seemingly hopeless situation, they fashioned within their souls a creative optimism that strengthened them.

First, it’s worth noting that it was only when  I started taking notes that I went: “Hold on. Dr. King was one of those people who died ‘without having received the realization of freedom’…!” He has come so alive to me in this reading/writing process that, somehow, the man I read on the page has come decoupled from the martyr who is no longer with us. What an odd thing to be surprised by.

Second — and somewhat more to the point — I am really fascinated by King’s regular return to the word “creative.” I wish I could ask him what he means by “creative optimism.” At other times, he’s talked about “creative, redemptive goodwill for all men,” said that the Peace Corps “will succeed if it seeks creatively to do something” with the world’s underprivileged, and written that “God combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice.” On and on. “Creative” is in every chapter, at least once, I think — searching for it on Google Books turns up 19 hits, in a book with 15 chapters and a preface.

The idea, I think, is to build up, rather than tear down; to act, rather than to wait to be acted upon; to seek the ingenious and new, rather than the traditional but unproductive.

But I sense that there’s something else, just beyond my grasp, something he had in mind all the many times he used that one word. I find myself reading these passages over and over, turning them over in my mind. What did King see when he reached into the inordinate depths of his rhetorical bag and pulled out “creative” again, and again, and again?

Yet: Just as I was beginning to be drawn in again, I very quickly ran into a problem — one that’s come up before, if to a lesser degree, as I’ve worked through these readings: The man was, honest-to-goodness, a Christian.

St. Paul was a spiritual role model for Dr. King, and his dream to bring the gospel to Spain serves as the frame for this chapter, because it was a dream that was to be shattered. Paul never gets to Spain, instead living out his final days in a Roman prison — indeed

his life was a continual round of disappointments. On every side were broken plans and shattered dreams…. His gallant mission for Christ was measured ‘in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers….’

[And yet] as Paul testified, in life or in death, in Spain or in Rome… ‘all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.’

And, of course, aside from anything else, even if Paul were not a spiritual hero, Dr. King quite genuinely held to Christ:

Our capacity to deal creatively with shattered dreams is ultimately determined by our faith in God…. God through Christ has taken the sting from death by freeing us from its dominion. Our early life is a prelude to a glorious new awakening, and death is an open door that leads us into life eternal.

And here I am, The Reader: a Jew who’s not only made a bit nervous by the historical figure of Paul (as Jews often are), but a Jew who became a Jew when she rejected the theology (and Savior) of which King speaks.

Perhaps this is to be expected when one is reading a collection of what are, after all, sermons. Perhaps one unwittingly wanted her guru to be speaking directly to her personal heart at all times.

Next up: “How should a Christian view Communism?” — perhaps a more anthropological approach would be useful….

The death of evil upon the seashore.

I’m periodically blogging about Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love. Each post can be read independently, but if you’re interested, previous installments are here.

Chapter eight – The death of evil upon the seashore

Forty-two years ago today, we lost Dr. King. I lit a yahrzeit candle, as is the habit of the Jews, and cried while listening to “Pride (In the Name of Love),” as is the habit of Gen X-ers. I sat the kids down for a bit, and we talked about why Dr. King was in Memphis that day, and we watched the Mountaintop Speech. “Wow…” my big boy said. Wow, indeed.

The loss of Dr. King always feels very recent to me, very sharp. As a result, I’m always weepy on this day, as the radio tends to remind me again and again that – yup, he’s still dead, still brutally murdered for doing God’s own work. That he had enough time to point us toward the promised land, but not enough time to lead us there. As with the assassination of Mr. Lincoln, I cannot help but wonder what this country would look like, had we not failed ourselves so miserably.

And yet this year, because of my exposure to Strength to Love, Dr. King is more alive to me than he has ever been and I confess that as I sat down to read in preparation for today’s post, I felt far more celebratory than mournful. What a gift it was to have him, even for so short a time.

And in a truly odd set of coincidences, this chapter deals with the final chapter in the Passover saga, wherein the Israelites cross through the Red Sea and turn to see their Egyptian pursuers “dead upon the seashore” (Ex. 14:30) — the very event that Jews will be marking tomorrow, in the Passover week’s final holiday. (And he even mentions Easter! Even meaningless coincidences give me goosebumps, what can I say).

I say that Jews will be “marking” this event, but you’ll note I don’t say we’ll be “celebrating” it. Jewish thought holds that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, does not rejoice over the deaths of His children, even when they’ve strayed so far from holiness, for they are always His. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr. King’s approach to the notion of turning to see your enemies killed, their bodies scattered across the sand, is very similar:

The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this story symbolizes the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and unjust exploitation.

The death of the Egyptians upon the seashore is a vivid reminder that something in the very nature of the universe assists goodness in its perennial struggle with evil.

Of course, traditional Jewish thought holds that the “something” is not just “something” but rather Almighty God, who freed us from Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” — and Dr. King is pretty clear that he thinks so, too. He later says:

Above all, we must be reminded anew that God is at work in His universe. He is not outside the world looking on with a sort of cold indifference. Here on all the roads of life, he is striving in our striving…. As we struggle to defeat the forces of evil, the God of the universe struggles with us.

But I am struck by how here, King allows for a range of thought about God and His ways. Today, many Jews (myself included) tend to think of God as present in our acts, not as a force that comes along from outside. He strives in our striving, He doesn’t strive for us. In our Friday night prayers, in fact, we have always quoted the first few verses of the second chapter of Genesis, wherein we read that God “ceased from all the work that he had created to do” — tradition teaches that this means we’re meant to continue His work, to claim our responsibility to work with Him in repairing the world. He didn’t just create us, He created us to do.

For, as King writes,

Is anything more obvious than the presence of evil in the universe? Its nagging, prehensile tentacles project into every level of human existence…. Evil is stark, grim, and colossally real.

…[The struggle between Moses and Pharaoh] tells us something about evil that we must never forget, namely that evil is recalcitrant and determined, and never voluntarily relinquishes its hold short of a persistent, almost fanatical resistance.

If evil is to be defeated, even a bit, we must be persistent, almost fanatical in our resistance. We’re not required to complete the task, as Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirkei Avot — but neither are we free to desist from it.

But, lest we despair, we’re not abandoned to eternal struggle, evil forever lapping at our shores, humanity endlessly pushing against it. As Dr. King says:

There is a checkpoint in the universe: evil cannot permanently organize itself.

…Evil carries the seed of its own destruction. In the long run right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant…. [Evil] can go a long way, but then it reaches its limit.

… As we struggle to defeat the forces of evil, the God of the universe struggles with us. Evil dies on the seashore not merely because of man’s endless struggle against it, but because of God’s power to defeat it.

When we choose to allow God into our hands, when we choose (as Dr. King’s good friend Rabbi Heschel once said) to pray with our feet, we are not just endlessly struggling — our acts are infused with Divine power. The Holy One created this world to do — it is our responsibility to do.

I look at the world as it was in 1968, the moutaintop from which Dr. King saw the promised land, and then I look at the world as it is today. Evil is not defeated. Its tentacles continue to dig and torment, and we are still required to apply ourselves to the task.

But the world is not now as it was then. The President of the United States of America — arguably the most powerful person in the world — is a Black man. A woman directs this country’s foreign affairs, and a woman is largely responsible for the passage of health care reform. We now question things, and demand truth, in a way that we once did not, and though many still suffer hunger, oppression, and unjust wars, there are now more answers than ever before, and (I believe) a much greater hunger to achieve real justice across the globe.

Had Dr. King not been cut down, we would be closer to that justice than we are now.

But because we had him, even for as brief a time as we did, we are far, far closer to the promised land. We have crossed through the Red Sea, and many of our enemies lie dead behind us. Jews know that the escape from Egypt was just the beginning, and that a freed people is not necessarily yet a holy people.

So we continue to build the beloved community — and whatever success we have had to date is due in no small part to the fact that Dr. King gave us the tools, and showed us how.

May his memory forever be for a blessing.

יהי זכרו ברוך

Saturday night brief: We still need him.

I’ve been confused about the date since sometime in early March. Just today I thought, well, we must be a few days into April because April 1st was… recent?

I think this may be why I forgot that tomorrow is the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. I promised dmf yesterday that I would finally get back to my Strength to Love blogging “on Sunday or Tuesday” — but now that Twitter has informed me of the date (really. I remembered only upon reading someone’s tweet about the anniversary), I will most certainly do it tomorrow.

In the meantime, here’s a piece of the Mountaintop Speech, forty-two years ago tonight:

“I’m not fearing any man.” Words fail.

Thank you, Dr. King.

The man who was a fool – part B.

I’m periodically blogging about Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love. Each post can be read independently, but if you’re interested, previous installments are here. Unless otherwise noted, emphasized passages are Dr. King’s.

Chapter seven – The man who was a fool (Section III).

As I wrote in my last MLK post, I was entirely of two minds as I read this chapter — or, rather, as I moved into its third section.

There I am, trundling along, wrapping myself in words like

the answer is simple: we can store our surplus food free of charge in the shriveled stomachs of the millions of God’s children who go to bed hungry

and

all men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny

when Dr. King — this man whose words I now quote daily, this man who I have come to not just admire but revere, this man who has become a spiritual guide and touchstone — starts to talk about materialists and nontheistic humanism, and well, breaks my heart.

Well, now, I suppose I shouldn’t say “breaks my heart.” That’s over-stating it by a long shot, and isn’t terribly fair, because the only reason my heart hurt was because my own need for him to be flawless was so high. And, if I were to be really honest, he didn’t so much break my heart as piss me the hell off.

Jesus called the rich man a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God…. He had an unconscious feeling that he was the Creator, not a creature.

This man-centered foolishness has had a long and ofttimes disastrous reign in the history of mankind. Sometimes it is theoretically expressed in the doctrine of materialism, which contends that reality may be explained in terms of matter in motion…. Having no place for God or for eternal ideas, materialism is opposed to both theism and idealism.

This materialistic philosophy leads inevitably into a dead-end street in an intellectually senseless world…. Materialism is a weak flame that is blown out by the breath of mature thinking.

(“Mature thinking”? Mature thinking?)

Another attempt to make God irrelevant is found in nontheistic humanism, a philosophy that deifies man by affirming that humanity is God. [lists many ways in which humanity has tried to put its faith entirely in human achievement and “a sociological law of progress which is as valid as the physical law of gravitation”].

Man’s aspirations no longer turned Godward and heavenward. Rather, man’s thoughts were confined to man and earth….. Those who formerly turned to god to find solutions for their problems turned to science and technology, convinced that they now possessed the instruments needed to usher in the new society.

Then came the explosion of this myth. It climaxed in the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima…. Why fool ourselves about automatic progress and the ability of man to save himself?

Without dependence on God our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night. [emphasis mine]

Ok, A) sorry for the extremely long block quote.

And B) holy crow, but the arrogance and the dismissiveness and the hubris!

Some of my best husbands are nontheist humanists, not to mention some of my best friends, and I am here to say: Their efforts will not turn to ashes, nor are they in need of mature thinking. Their thinking is, indeed, fully mature (well, most of the time) and they do good works because they know that they must. Not because they were told to by a God in whom they cannot believe, but because they know right from wrong.

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point — in no small part because Dr. King was hardly the last guy to suggest that atheists are morally bankrupt. But the vitriol he expresses here is just striking, given his gentleness elsewhere, and his dedication to building the beloved community. Is there no room in the beloved community for moral, upstanding godless heathens?

I suspect that what we see here is, essentially, a reflection of the time in which Dr. King lived (much as is his constant —  and to 21st-century me, jarring — use of the words “man,” “men,” and “mankind”).

As a person of deep faith, as (indeed) a shepherd of the church, I would expect King to feel strongly that faith in the Divine is a crucial element of a life well-lived — but the sheer contempt with which he expresses his anti-atheism is, I think, a result of when he lived and died. I think that he might have worded all this differently had he had the chance to live long enough to do so.

It’s funny to think that, though he was a great man, King was, like the rest of us, an imperfect man, and at 30-something years old (or possibly late 20-something), still had room to mature and grow.

Like the rest of us.

The man who was a fool.

I’m periodically blogging about Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love. Each post can be read independently, but if you’re interested, previous installments are here. Unless otherwise noted, emphasized passages are Dr. King’s.

Chapter seven – The man who was a fool (Sections I and II).

This chapter hit me hard, in two entirely different ways. In fact, the difference in my internal responses is so profound that I’ll split this chapter into two posts, because they really are two very different discussions.

So: Sections I and II

Here Dr. King refers to a New Testament story in which Jesus calls a man of great wealth a “fool.”

King hastens to say that the story is not meant to condemn wealth, per se: “Nothing in wealth is inherently vicious,” he writes, “and nothing in poverty is inherently virtuous.”

Why, then, is the man a fool?

The rich man was a fool because he permitted the ends for which he lived to become confused with the means by which he lived. The economic structure of his life absorbed his destiny.

The rich man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others…. A victim of the cancerous disease of egotism, he failed to realize that wealth always comes as a result of the commonwealth. He talked as though he could plow the fields and build the barns alone. He failed to realize that he was an heir of a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead had contributed.

King is speaking here of the individual, of course: Each of us needs to understand the extent to which our lives are endlessly entangled with and dependent upon those of others.

But as is his way, he is not content to call on individuals to be right — no, King always takes our personal responsibility to live well, and turns it outward, toward our collective endeavors. The very next line after the above quote makes this abundantly clear:

When an individual or a nation overlooks this interdependence, we find a tragic foolishness.

…Our nations’ productive machinery constantly bring forth such an abundance of food that we must build larger barns and spend more than a million dollars daily to store our surplus. Year after year we ask, “What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?” [a quote from the parable] I have seen the answer in the faces of millions of poverty-stricken men and women in Asia, Africa and South America. I have seen an answer in the appalling poverty in the Mississippi Delta and the tragic insecurity of the unemployed in large industrial cities of the North. What can we do? The answer is simple: we can store our surplus food free of charge in the shriveled stomachs of the millions of God’s children who go to bed hungry at night.

I have been struck, time and again, by how powerfully King was digging into not “just” the issue of segregation as he attempted to lead us to his beloved community, but rather was grabbing hold of injustice on scales large and small, global and local, seeing the all-in-all, from the earliest stages of his work — a fact made even more remarkable when one considers the yoke of violent, soul-crushing segregation under which he and his community lived. The American Right often tries to co-opt King, yanking an often distorted version of his message of racial equality from the larger message that represented his life’s work, and it’s just so clear that they couldn’t be more wrong-headed. I’m planning on getting into this more when I’ve finished the book, but this passage is just such a powerful example of the breadth of his vision that I couldn’t leave it unmentioned.

And then, this:

In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

“All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” — the beloved community will be built by individuals who see that they are bound in that garment.

A knock at midnight.

I’m back to blogging about Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love. Each post can be read independently, but if you’re interested, previous installments are here. Unless otherwise noted, emphasized passages are Dr. King’s.

Chapter six – A knock at midnight

In Luke, Jesus tells the story of a man knocking on a friend’s door “at midnight,” looking for bread with which to welcome unexpected guests. Dr. King hears the knock down the ages, and writes:

Although this parable is concerned with the power of persistent prayer, it may also serve as a basis for our thought concerning many contemporary problems and the role of the church in grappling with them. It is midnight in the parable; it is also midnight in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn.

This chapter (as much of the book) is heavily influenced by Dr. King’s deep concerns over the then-growing American and Soviet stockpiles of nuclear arms. But surely one needn’t be living in dread of nuclear holocaust to feel that “the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn.”

I have felt this way so often over the past decade — as an Israeli, as an American, as a human looking at the suffering we’ve inflicted on the earth, and the apparently bottomless wells of misery in which some humans still live. At Haiti. At Chile. On some days, I can hardly see which way to turn.

At such a midnight, King turns to the church and calls it to account:

In the terrible midnight of war, men have knocked on the door of the church to ask for the bread of peace, but the church has often disappointed them…. In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent.

….And those who have gone to the church to seek the bread of economic justice have been left in the frustrating midnight of economic privation…. The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.

King was of course speaking as a Christian and as a member of the clergy — and was, furthermore, delivering these words in a church, as a sermon.

But we know him to have been a man who threw his arms wide, seeing the good and the limitations in all of humanity. A few years later, in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967), Dr. King would write “I have worked too long and hard now against segregated public accommodation to end up segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible,” adding that his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize was “a commission – a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the ‘brotherhood of man’.”

And so, I feel safe in substituting, in my mind’s ear, the word “synagogue” wherever he says “church,” considering my own faith community and the ways in which we have, too often, endorsed war and “chauvinistic passions,” perpetuating darkness and pushing away the light. And yes, of course, I mean Israel.

I do not now, nor have I ever, doubted Israel’s right to defend itself and its citizens. I am not a pacifist.

But at what point did legitimate self-defense become a cudgel that we picked up in willed ignorance? At what point did the religious imperative to not forget Jerusalem become an edict to pound the Palestinians into doing just that? At what point did our blood become more precious than anyone else’s — at what point did we forget that we were once strangers in a strange land?

For far too long, the Jewish community, writ large, has made the unthinking support of Israel’s military policy an article of faith. It matters not if one keeps kosher, works for social justice, davens, lights candles, keeps holidays — what matters is that you defend Israel’s right to bomb Gaza and starve its people. Unquestioningly.

I don’t mean to hijack Dr. King’s words, but I am not a Christian, and I do not live in fear of nuclear annihilation — I am a Jew, who looks at her community and her homeland, and hears too clearly the echo of his words in my own time and place:

If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority….But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace.

Or, in the words of one of our own prophets:

Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn! Declare to My people their transgression, to the House of Jacob their sin.

To be sure, they seek Me daily, eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God…. “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”

Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?… No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.

Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; your Vindicator shall march before you, the Presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:1-8)

It’s midnight, and there is a knocking at our door. If we continue to shut our ears and turn from our moral path, I fear we will lose not just Israel, not just Palestine, but the very faith community we claim to be protecting.

How many young Jews do you know, rushing to join a shul?

Loving your enemies.

I’m blogging about Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love. Each post can be read independently, but if you’re interested, previous installments are here. Unless otherwise noted, emphasized passages are Dr. King’s.

Chapter five – Loving your enemies

Another one of the chapters written while Dr. King sat in a Georgia jail. “Let us be practical,” he writes, “and ask the question, How do we love our enemies?”

“How,” indeed. I often say about Israelis and Palestinians (and anyone else whose relationship is controlled by hate) that the search for a kumbaya co-existence is at least occasionally wrong-headed. I don’t need to love or even like the Palestinians to recognize that they are deserving of human dignity — and I would be wise, I think, to not wait for the Palestinians to love me before trying to stop the killing.

But Dr. King is not talking about what we usually talk about when we use the word “love”:

The meaning of love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring. Love is something much deeper than emotional bosh….

First of all: “Emotional bosh”? I love these little moments where you can hear the humor and the intensity behind the carefully measured words. (My favorite example is in chapter three, when King ponders where the priest and Levite may have been going when they fail to stop for an injured man: “Perhaps they were on their way to an organizational meeting of a Jericho Road Improvement Association.”)

But more importantly, Dr. King now reminds us of three Greek words that translate to “love” but mean very different things: eros, philia, and agape:

[When we feel philia] we love those whom we like, and we love because we are loved…. [But agape is] understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart.

King often uses the word “creative,” and here I find it especially compelling. This love that we must feel for our enemies is neither passive nor detached — it’s “creative.” It not only refuses to go further down the cavernous hole of hatred, it builds up. It creates something where before the vista was “unformed and void” (Gen. 1:2).

And neither is it an act of ignorance. King’s immediate response to his own question (“how do we love our enemies?”) is clear: “First we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.” [emphasis mine]

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or  putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship…. It is the lifting of a burden or the cancelling of a debt.

I’m reminded of Kol Nidre, the annual ritual with which Jews open Yom Kippur: Religious vows that we might regret (the prayer dates back to a time when Jews were sometimes forced to convert to Christianity) are forgiven en masse. The debt to our faith is cancelled – gone. But we cannot go on to pray for atonement and a renewal of God’s presence in our lives until that debt has been removed.

“Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer,” though, “the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival.”

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that…. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity.

“Of course,” Dr. King acknowledges from deep within the segregated American south, with its Whites Only signs and its police torture, “this is not practical.”

My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos.

For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way.