When I listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, I can believe in God. There may be other times I have, but I can’t remember them specifically. In discussions about belief or not, I’ve heard people say that their personal stories have been determinant. A lot of them include hitting some emotional or spiritual bottom, and hearing a message from God, then being reborn in some state that exemplifies grace, along with which comes both a knowledge of, and a belief in, God; sort of a personal relationship.
I don’t know this place; this state. Throughout the many dark nights of soul I’ve experienced, I never found that comfort or profound communication they describe. And yet I like to say prayers. The time spent in gratitude for my life, or mindful intentionality about my place and behavior in the universe can be nourishing, and requires no belief. It’s more an acknowledgement that it feels good to be part of something larger, to be connected, even if it’s just to all the best thought-energy sailing around in my local branch of the universe. You know; a hippie version of spirituality. What I mean to say is: Whether or not I believe in God isn’t a problem for me.
Last week I watched God on my teevee. Well, okay; it was part of a PBS series called God in America, which said America is the most religious nation on earth. Yeah; I blinked, too. I’d think if such a huge majority of us believe in God, and call ourselves religious, we’d be a hell of a lot kinder to one another, and hold better values. I guess it doesn’t work that way. . . .
When the MLK portion of American religious history highlighted MLK, I paid closer attention. I do love the man, and his speeches; his vision of a Better America. I love hearing his anti-Viet Nam War rhetoric, and his concepts of love and justice and true brotherhood among all humans, and how that needs to inform our politics. His story, of course, is not my story. But often when I hear him speak: his story makes me believe in God while I listen. In one speech he told about a night that one particular “Nigger, get out of town, or I will shoot you dead, and bomb your house” phone call brought his body and his soul to their respective knees. He considered leaving town, then heard God’s voice inside him telling him to keep up his righteous fight, and claiming he would never leave him.
This is an excerpt from his final speech to sanitation workers at Mason Temple in Memphis:
Some people say that he went off-script here, that The Voice of God came channeling right through him. And I can believe it while I’m watching or listening. He knew right then that he would be dead soon, and he was letting us know that it was all right. As it turned out, the following day he would be shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel, exactly a year after his Why I am opposed to the war in Viet Nam speech. The man’s story knocks me out. Listen to some things he said about war in ‘Beyond Viet Nam’ at Riverside Church:
Are we living his prophecy concerning American arrogance in his anti-Viet Nam War speech?
“I call on the young men of America who must make a choice today to take a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”
More from the April 4, 1967 speech:
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.
As we begin to consider advocating for principles that seem lost in the Democratic Party, and America as a whole, I’d like us all to consider how the Social Gospel of the ‘50s and ‘60s was embodied by Dr. King. And if you’re not a believer, at least try to suspend your disbelief for even short times in order to wonder if his visions and admonitions might not have been inspired by God. We can easily pose other theories of his revelations, but in this case Occam’s Razor theory seems easiest: believe that King knew, or believed, from whence the voice came.
And at least while you listen to MLK, then consider a new political statement or manifest that encompasses better lives for all Americans, and all people of the world, pencil into your mind that God may exist, and that people like King may be evidence for it. And since it’s only written in your mind in pencil…it can fade again, but the messages he gave us can remain. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to espouse them. For too long now, the Democratic Party has been trying to couch beneficial policy in economic enlightened self-interest concepts; it’s not working, and it misses the point.