Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived in an age of violence, during which more race riots occurred than at any other time in our history: Birmingham, 1963; Harlem, 1964; Watts, 1965; Chicago, 1966; Tampa, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Newark, Plainfield, New Brunswick and Detroit, 1967. And then, in 1968, the night following his assassination over 100 riots in as many cities.
The irony has been pointed out more than a few times of how a man whose life bespoke peace was yet dogged by violence until the final moments of that life. We still live in a dangerous country. Race riots, though not as ubiquitous, still break out, but our latest plague is mass shootings—at schools, nightclubs, synagogues, shopping malls, supermarkets, public gatherings—prompted by hatred of this group or that group, this race or that race, this religion or that religion.
What would Dr. King say to us on his day—Martin Luther King Jr. Day? What would he think of us now? Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is unique among our national holidays because, unlike the others, it commemorates an individual whose living voice has been preserved, whose movements have been recorded on film and whose forebears were treated as property and not as human beings.
One of his earliest sermons, delivered at age 24 in 1954 reads:
I’m here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It’s wrong to hate. It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong! It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, it’s wrong in China! It was wrong in two thousand BC, and it’s wrong in 1954 AD! It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong!
The young preacher reminded his listeners of the story of Mary and Joseph who set out from Jerusalem to Nazareth and were quite a way on their journey before they realized they’d left their son behind. So before going a step further, they turned around back to Jerusalem to retrieve him.
Now, the real thing that is to be seen here is this: that the parents of Jesus realized that they had left and that they had lost a mighty precious value. They had sense enough to know that before they could go forward to Nazareth, they had to go backward to Jerusalem to rediscover this value. They knew that. They knew that they couldn’t go home to Nazareth until they went back to Jerusalem. Sometimes, you know, it’s necessary to go backward in order to go forward. That’s an analogy of life.
King used the analogy to stress the importance of going backward in order to rediscover and retrieve certain things of value we may have forgotten:
The first is this—the first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this—that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe, just as abiding as the physical laws. I’m not so sure we all believe that. We never doubt that there are physical laws of the universe that we must obey. We never doubt that…. And so we just don’t jump out of airplanes or jump off of high buildings for the fun of it—we don’t do that. Because we, we unconsciously know that there is a final law of gravitation, and if you disobey it you’ll suffer the consequences—we know that. Even if we don’t know it in its Newtonian formulation, we, we know it intuitively, and so we just don’t jump off the highest building in Detroit for the fun of it—we, we don’t do that. Because we know that there is a law of gravitation which is final in the universe. If we disobey it, we’ll suffer the consequences. But I’m not so sure if we know that there are, are moral laws, just as abiding as the physical law. I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure we really believe that there is a law of love in this universe, and that if you disobey it, you’ll suffer the consequences. I’m not so sure if we really believe that.
Dr. King might look at these past few years of surging violence—much of it motivated by the enabling of hatred on social media platforms—and still have his doubts that “we really believe that there is a law of love in this universe.”
Is it too late to go backward, as he exhorted us to do, and rediscover the simple fact that “all reality hinges on moral foundations?” The answer to that lies in each individual heart, and hearts can change. As King said later in his life, “Naturally, I believe in changing the heart. I happen to be a Baptist preacher and that puts me in the heart-changing business....”
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