During this week of civil rights history awareness, writer Stephen Lynch offers a reflection on the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1986.
Jesus stressed the importance of people doing good and loving one another. But he also taught that even good people must suffer. While Jesus reached out to others in healing compassion, he was also crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem. John the Baptist was chosen by God to baptize Jesus Christ, but he was also beheaded by Herod less than 20 miles away, in the prison fortress of Machaerus. Both Jesus and John were executed within a year or so of each other for their fidelity to God’s values.
St. Francis of Assisi reminds us that what we suffer is in God’s hands; how we deal with our suffering is in our hands. Not all suffering is a punishment for evil. We are left with the great mystery, why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?
On Jan. 19, we celebrated the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. He was to lead a march of sanitation workers protesting against low wages and poor working conditions. He was 39 years old at the time of his death.
King was focusing on a nationwide campaign to help the poor at the time of his assassination. He had never wavered in his insistence that nonviolence must remain the central tactic of the civil-rights movement, or in his faith that every one in America would someday attain equal justice.
King stands as a courageous proponent of Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent social protest in terms of the struggle of oppressed people for freedom and justice. A man of peace, King was also assassinated in his struggle to promote nonviolence.
Most of the world is quite familiar with King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, or a “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” But a work that is virtually unknown is his, “The World House” essay, which is based on his Nobel Peace Prize lecture delivered at the University of Oslo on Dec. 11, 1964. In “The World House” essay, King calls all people to transcend tribe, race, class, nation, and religion to embrace the vision of a world house to eradicate racism, poverty and militarism.
King insisted: “Save the soul of America with the ammunition of love. Nonviolence is the answer. Anti-social behavior is not the way. Resolve problems without violence. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. The deep rumbling of discontent that we hear today is the thunder of disinherited masses determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands. One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. But today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to face the challenge of change. Together, we must learn to live as brothers and sisters, or together we will be forced to perish as fools.”
“Every human being lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. Without spiritual and moral reawakening, we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments.”
King also advocated a new Marshall Plan to eradicate global poverty around the world. He said: “The wealthy nations of the world must promptly initiate a massive, sustained Marshall Plan for Asia, Africa and South America. A genuine program on the part of the wealthy nations to make prosperity a reality for the poor nations will, in the final analysis, enlarge the prosperity of all. The ultimate measure of a person is not where he/she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he/she stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
The final words of King stand as a challenge to us all: “Man’s inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad. It is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good. The happiest of people don’t necessarily have the best of everything, they just make the most of everything that comes their way.”
— Stephen, a resident of St. Francis Friary in Providence, R.I., writes frequently for this newsletter and other publications. His past essays can be found by using the search feature on Holy Name Province’s Web site.