Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlking.gif39 years ago, today, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was assassinated in Memphis, TN.  What would he say to us, today?  Would he still say, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world is my own government?” What would he say about the gap between rich and poor, about how there are more African-Americans in prison than in college, about the failures of all political parties and ideologies? What would he say about Christians who endorse torture in the name of fighting terrorism?  Would the King who said in 1964, “I have watched my dream become a nightmare” denounce the nightmare of today’s American business imperialism? Would the King who spoke of how bombs dropped in Vietnam explode in U.S. ghettos speak of how the war in Iraq has drained resources for rebuilding New Orleans?

Would the King who was so excited about movements of African independence from colonialism in the ’60s have harsh words for the many corrupt regimes in Africa, today? What would he say to Zimbabwe or Nigeria or Sudan or Rwanda or Cote d’Ivoire?  What would he say about how global corporations make those situations worse rather than better?  What would he say about the Caribbean, especially Haiti?

What would the King who marched alongside rabbis and imams have to say about the Palestinian-Israeli crisis?

In 1963 while sitting in a Birmingham city jail, King asked about the white churches which either supported segregation openly or were silent, “Who is their God?” Would he today ask about the “god” worshipped by white Christians who deny there is still racism (or reduce it to “feelings of the heart” and deny institutional dimensions) or who foster anti-immigrant policies, or who support the death penalty?

Today, a tamed, watered down version of Martin Luther King is widely admired.  The real King was no plastic saint. He had faults–including a series of extramarital affairs, an addiction to tobacco (kept off camera), and doubts as his faith was tried in a crucible. But the real, flawed, Martin King was also the radical disciple whose radical challenges have hardly been heard by Christians in the U.S. We prefer the tamed Dreamer.

April 4, 2007 - Posted by | economic justice, heroes, human rights., MLK


  1. A very fine – and very disturbing – tribute. Thank you, Michael.

    Comment by kim fabricius | April 4, 2007

  2. We cannot forget that our prophets have always roared like lions, though history afterward would like to make them into kittens.

    Comment by Aric Clark | April 4, 2007

  3. “I hope he’d wonder why the poor aren’t learning the lessons of the rich.”

    What lesson is that – How to get stinkin’ rich? Or are you advancing that bit of fiction that the rich have simply been honest and worked harder to acquire all they have?

    No one works harder than the working poor with whom I’m familiar. King, being a man of the Bible, would be well acquainted with biblical warnings against wealth as a trap as a hindrance to salvation and decency. I’d suppose that the “lessons of the rich” that King would have us learn are those in the Bible.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | April 5, 2007

  4. The choice of one’s heroes says a lot about a person, Marshall. You seem to reject King. How do you feel about Mother Teresa? Gandhi? Sojourner Truth? Helen Keller? Jesus?

    Comment by Dan Trabue | April 5, 2007

  5. I will not engage in polemics with you, Marshall. King’s comment about our government’s violence was part of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech given one year to the day before his assassination. He said that every time he tried to convince young, black gang members to convert to nonviolence, they pointed to the Vietnam War and said the U.S. government clearly believes that violence works, so why shouldn’t they use it? King then said that never again could he tell such young men to forswear violence without confronting the U.S. government as the “greatest purveyor of violence.” It was a kinder, gentler, rephrasing of Malcolm X’s own comment that JFK’s assassination was “chickens coming home to roost,” since throughout U.S. history, violence was as American as apple pie.

    I think those comments were true, then, and are true, still. I think the challenge of changing that remains as true for U.S. Christians now as then.

    I will not even engage your polemics about wealth and poverty. King led a Poor People’s Campaign because the richest nation on earth can and should create a system in which all poverty is erased and everyone has enough to live on and meaningful work. It is unjust not to create such a system. The point is not about hating the wealthy or suspecting all of them of evil or believing the poor are automatically saintly. That you could be so completely off-target says far more about you (and the way you completely miss the Biblical perspective on wealth, poverty, and possessions) than it does about Dan Trabue or Martin Luther King, Jr.

    But this is to be expected of someone who put a completely unacceptable sexual “joke” on another post of mine which had to be removed because this is a family friendly blog!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 5, 2007

  6. Ignoring everything else, Marshall, I see that you fail to distinguish between private charity (no matter how generous) and public justice. Justice creates the kind of society where such private generosity is not necessary.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 5, 2007

  7. What about the hogging the conversation rule? Why don’t you just shut up for awhile and let someone else talk, eh?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 5, 2007

  8. Marshall,

    You say, “The truth is simple: The successful do what the unsuccessful won’t do, don’t do, or haven’t yet learned how to do. Your public justice might make you feel good about yourself, but it doesn’t do any lasting good for the people about whom you claim to care.”

    I’m afraid you have swallowed whole one of the greatest lies ever told – that people can just pick themselves up by their boot straps, that personal responsibility is the gospel, that we have a country or a society or an economy or a world where such things are even possible.

    You speak of the truth, but there is nothing further from it. You speak of the truth, but you clearly haven’t met it, or if you have you don’t recognize it.

    The gospel truth is this: none of us is capable on our own of effecting our salvation. We are all implicated in systems of injustice (some of us more than others) which make any claim of righteousness, or production, or fairness into a bald faced lie. None of us merit what we have. It is all gained by grace. It is the duty of every Christian, fearing the righteous and holy God of the prophets, to be with the poor. For the poor. Striving everyday for justice because that is where God IS.

    The world you talk of is a nightmare realm where holiness is divorced from justice. Where wealth – which ALWAYS depends upon the poverty of others no matter how it was gained and is therefore ALWAYS injust – is deserved and suffering is blamed on laziness. It is idolatrous American Civil religion not Christianity at all.

    Dr. King spoke and worked and thought as he did precisely because he was a Christian and he knew that it was the only choice.

    Comment by Aric Clark | April 5, 2007

  9. OK, Michael. I’ll abide your kind and loving request and “shut up” for awhile. You’ve hurt me deeply.

    Comment by Marshall Art | April 6, 2007

  10. I would not go so far as you, Aric, and claim that all wealth is a result of injustice. I am not sure that would stand up to either empirical verification or biblical investigation. But that seems to be the case more often than not. This also reflects the perspective of the Church Fathers, e.g., Augustine’s calling of all wealth and empires as “great robberies” and robberies as “little empires.”

    Our current global economy is structured as a zero-sum game: for someone to win, others must lose. But this isn’t a law of nature–it is the result of human decisions. We can make other decisions: fostering an economy of “enough” and of sharing and of making sure that all have enough to live and have meaningful work, while none have too much.

    Muhammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, is known globally as the banker to the poor. In his home country of Bangladesh, he created the practice of micro-loans to poor people with little or no capital. They use these micro-loans (most at zero interest) to create or expand small businesses. This “development from below” is working to eradicate poverty and has been copied in many other places. The Grameen Bank, btw, has over 90% repayment rate–which is a lower default rate than most for-profit banks. In his Nobel Lecture[http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2006/yunus-lecture-en.html], Yunus talks about how poverty is a threat to peace and to the environment, and about the creation of “social businesses” alongside for-profit enterprises. The purpose of social businesses is not to maximize profit (although they work hard to prevent losing money), but to reduce poverty. They use the power of the marketplace in new and creative ways.

    Another alternative business model is that of a member of my church. Along with a partner, he has taken a closed hydroelectric dam in Kentucky and reopened it. It will provide cheap, clean electric power as an alternative to coal-powered plants. Plus, with the revenue generated from this plant, they plan on investing heavily in solar power. They know they will lose money on the solar, but they don’t care as long as the revenue from the hydroelectric keeps up. Their business model is not to maximize profit, but reduce carbon emissions and offset those which are emitted. They measure their success in tons of carbon taken from the air.

    These kinds of creative models can build a just and sustainable economy–one that would reflect the best of Dr. King’s legacy.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | April 6, 2007

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: