Sunday, October 16, 2011

Martin Luther King’s Inspired (Humanist) Life and Thoughts

By Gary Berg-Cross

Today marks the official opening of the MLK monument and it is a suitable time to reflect on the life, work and thought of this great moral, American voice. The Memorial, like the FDR complex, sits astride the Tidal Basin, across from the Jefferson Memorial and near to the Lincoln Memorial. It celebrates another step in our progress from the time of the Founders but also reminds us of these four giant’s unfinished dreams. I know that we’ll never get a Monument, but as Norm Allen and others have pointed out long before Martin Luther King, our Robert Ingersoll uttered similar words:

"I have a dream that this world is growing better and better everyday and every year; that there is more charity, more justice, more love every day. I have a dream that prisons will not always curse the land; that the shadow of the gallows will not always fall upon the earth; that the withered hand of want will not always be stretched out for charity; that finally wisdom will sit in the legislatures, justice in the courts, charity will occupy all the pulpits, and that finally the world will be governed by justice and charity, and by the splendid light of liberty...." (The Works of Ingersoll, (The Dresden Edition), Volume IX, p. 186)

King’s Monument involves both a “mountain of despair” and a “stone of hope” in which MLK’s likeness partially emerges dreamlike. In the context the Occupy movement the moment reminds us of unfulfilled democratic dream and King’ legacy as a polarizing figure in support of inconvenient truths. His has won begrudging support over time while the Occupy movement is still in its early phase. See my blog on the DC Occupy and Occupy the issue of objectives.

We all know that as a Christian King drew ethical inspiration from the Bible, and his speeches are full of these ideas and phrasing. An example is "We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

But non-believers joy in his Humanist spirit as well. As freethinkers, such as Susan Jacoby, have pointed out, King's moral appeal, while rooted in his own faith, transcended all religions and open to the participation of all. He was highly influenced by Humanists. One of these was the black humanist movement and several black atheist leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century. Norm Allen, in his speech for the Center for Inquiry entitled Martin Luther King, Jr. from a Humanist Perspective, argues that only later did churches provide organizational capacity that nurtured its form of Black activism. Jeff Nallin Remembering the Humanism of Martin Luther King provides several key quotes showing King’s pluralistic & religion-neutral positions. When asked how he felt about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision ruling school prayer unconstitutional his response was:

I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.

Another declaration on church-state relations was that the church "is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool."

As a truth seeker King was not hesitant to blame organized religion where it was due, one case being support of violent resolutions:

In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition." A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.

These are not the type of passages that earned a space on the Monument but 14 select passages are
enshrined there. As a humanist I find inspiration in the words and ideas which I find reflected in much of the discussion by the Occupy movement, starting with the idea of ultimate goals of things like Justice and Fairness in a Moral World:


"True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice." And

"We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

The Goals of a Moral Society

"We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience."


But other values that Secular Humanists might agree with, and sometimes make up topics on this Blog, include:

Generosity Towards and Love of Fellow Humans

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."

The Value and Role of Truth & Reality

"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."

Opposition to War and Militarism

"I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world."

"It is not enough to say, 'We must not wage war.' It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace."

Cosmopolitarianism’s Role in Peace

"If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective." and

"Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies."

Human Rights

"I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits."

The Virtues of Conviction, Fortitude and Thoughtful Action in Support of Inconvenient Truths

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

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