Wednesday, April 4, 2018

What Was the Most Radical Thing Martin Luther King Jr. Ever Said?

4/4/2018—On this solemn occasion of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. fifty years ago today in Memphis, people all over the world have taken the opportunity to reconsider King’s life and contributions. Much of this is political—an attempt to enlist King in various causes.

Nothing wrong with that. If people don’t know that King cared deeply about militarism and poverty, they should be reminded.

But I doubt that this aspect of his life is the most important.

Not even his dedication to nonviolence and loving engagement, although the very core of King’s being, is the most important thing today.

For, before King could engage the world in that way, he had to believe something very specific. He had to believe, as he apparently often said, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

This is the message that our culture today desperately needs to hear. This is what we no longer believe. Sometimes, as in the case of the writer Rich Cohen in Vanity Fair, we actually say we no longer believe this. More often, we don’t think about it. We just assume in our materialism and nihilism, that the universe is cold and indifferent, if not hostile.

Not only confessed atheists doubt King. Plenty of people in the pews do also.

The reason that we today doubt King on this crucial matter is that God died. As Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw, that monumental death would take 1000 years to be understood and withstood. It is an open question whether a culture without a belief in God can survive.

It is because we no longer believe as Martin Luther King Jr. did that we hate each other. For if I believe the universe has an arc of goodness, I can, as King did, as Jesus did, love my enemies. For not only will I be vindicated, but I can hope realistically that my enemies will come to see the Truth of things.

But if, instead, the universe is forces and chaos, then it is my will to power versus the will to power of my enemies. We have to eliminate each other, one way or the other.

Of course, the catastrophe of the death of God does not reverse it. This culture will not just believe in God. I will not just believe in God.

That is not the end matters, however. For the question, as the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan saw, is not whether God exists. The first question is whether the universe is on our side. There is plenty of evidence that it is. We have not yet seen the necessity of investigating Lonergan’s question in a serious way. He and King were seeing the same arc. I can see that arc.

Do religious believers have a stake in this debate within secularism? Certainly. For, as CS Lewis argued, the fundamental divide is not between religious believers and nonbelievers. The fundamental divide is between those persons who believe that goodness, truth and beauty are real and those who believe they are merely human projections.

I line up here with Lewis. Our culture will not be healed until we decide where we stand—with Lewis, Lonergan and King or not?

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