Martin Luther King Day: We share a Tradition that unites us

As a seminary student, I studied and was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King’s work. Dr. King proclaimed the ethics of freedom; he became a voice for millions unjustly denied the God-given rights guaranteed to every single citizen under our Constitution. This belief that man has inalienable rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from, the state is at the heart of our nation’s founding.

“God is not interested in the freedom of black men or brown men or yellow men. God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race, the creation of a society where every man will respect the dignity and worth of personality,” Dr. King so eloquently said.

As Americans, we share a tradition, and within that tradition we still have room to disagree. Political divisions become easier to navigate when we understand that we are united in that shared tradition, in freedom, and that our God-given natural rights are the source of our success.

More unites us than divides us, as they say.

Dr. King’s real legacy was changing hearts and minds, a much more profound transformation than any set of government regulations. His words and actions reminded us that the answers and solutions to our greatest problems are within us — not in a far-off Capitol.

One of the most unreported aspects of Martin Luther King is his theological background; he had a PhD in Protestant theology. His speeches reflected and were empowered by the Hebrew and Greek scripture that he knew so well. One of the things I admire most about Dr. King was his vision of Judeo-Christian love and responsibilities that make the nation work as a whole — in unity. Dr. King was not into sub-groups, he knew that a house divided against itself could not stand, and he believed that biblical love was the dominant factor by which we could overcome racial strife. “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that”. His “I Have a Dream” speech contains numerous references to Bible passages, like this one: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

This is a concept familiar to those in the Judeo-Christian tradition, as the theme echoes from the Prophets through the Gospels. We need each other. In tough economic times, it’s easy to fall prey to those who foment hatred and division as a way to move an agenda forward, and especially so in an age of moral relativism, which holds that there are no absolutes to which we can all be held accountable.
Moral relativism was far from Dr. King’s line of thinking, and he spoke often of absolute truth. In one of his works Dr. King writes:

“At the center of the Christian faith is the affirmation that there is a God in the universe who is the ground and essence of all reality. A Being of infinite love and boundless power, God is the creator, sustainer, and conserver of values….In contrast to the ethical relativism of [totalitarianism], Christianity sets forth a system of absolute moral values and affirms that God has placed within the very structure of this universe certain moral principles that are fixed and immutable.”

Today, no doubt we could use a bit more of the moral depth of prior generations. That will come by intentionally pursuing it, by educating the next generation that there is such a thing as truth and moral fiber and character and ethics — and their source is certainly not from government. Government is supposed to allow the freedom of conscience and space to pursue these virtues.

Dr. King believed education’s role was primarily to teach critical thinking and character, and that we owe that much to our kids to keep the American Dream alive. But years after King’s death, we find ourselves in a place where the same people who demand justice have deconstructed the term justice and say that it is meaningless. First, it was no God in schools, then it was no religion in schools, then it was no philosophy or ethics in schools, and now it is getting close to no reason or history in schools. Hard to imagine if it weren’t true.

Dr. King spoke the truth and he made it very clear what the truth was. We need to pass on what Dr. King knew to be true: “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice” — and that justice is bound to a certain moral tradition.

Let’s reflect on that today, as we honor and remember a man who gave his life to unite us, Martin Luther King, Jr.