Inhabiting the World House: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Vision in Today’s World
Saturday, 15 January, was the anniversary of of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my personal heroes and one of the largest influences on my theological ethics. (Indeed, one-third of my Ph.D. dissertation dealt with King’s life and work and I have written several articles on King. Moreover, even when not cited, King’s life and work is often in the background of my writing and my preaching. I say this not in an uncritical fashion: I find some influences on King (Wieman, Tillich) to be unhelpful; I find King–like his mentors in American theological liberalism–to be too dismissive of influences which would have greatly aided his work, like that of Karl Barth and the Biblical Theology Movement; And I find some aspects of King’s moral practices, especially his serial adulteries, to undermine his witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. All our heroes have feet of clay and we should not hide their frailties, shortcomings, misdirections, or even sins. )
Since today in the United States is the national holiday in King’s honor, many are writing reflections on his life and work. Many of these are terribly wrongheaded, such as the claim by a Pentagon lawyer that King would support the current U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan! (For an excellent rebuttal to this absurdity, see Cynthia Nielsen’s reflections on King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in NYC one year to the day before his death.) The infamous American short-term memory and lack of historical consciousness, combined with a deliberate tendency to “tame” King and others who challenge the status quo, have led to a reduction in which King’s Dream is viewed only as ending racial segregation, so that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency is the fulfillment of King’s Dream or even that King, a self-declared democratic socialist who died marching with and for garbage collectors, should be an icon for Glenn Beck and the rightwing, libertarian “Tea Party” movement!
Every year at this time we distort King and twist his legacy in the name of celebrating it. Mostly, we do it by showing carefully edited snippets of the 1963 “I Have a Dream” Speech and presenting King as the “great Dreamer” of racial harmony without ever carefully examinging his thought–leaving out completely his solidarity with the poor and strong critique of U.S. capitalism (his demand for a Living Wage for all citizens, his admiration for the democratic socialism of Norway, his acceptance of Marx’s critique of capitalism even as he rejected Marxist materialism and historical determinism, and, most of all, his attempt to forge a multi-racial, multi-cultural “Poor People’s Movement” which would radically reshape U.S. society), along with his commitment to gospel nonviolence and his absolute opposition to imperialist militarism, not least the imperialist militarism of the United States. Most of those born since King’s death in 1968 have no idea that he referred to the U.S. government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” something I fully believe he would find equally true today. For these reasons, I am among those who would like to see a 5 year halt in talking about the “I Have a Dream” speech– and to reorient our reflections on King to his later, more radical, speeches and writings. (In this, I recommend especially a pamphlet put out by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and written by former Executive Director, Gary Percesepe, Seeing Beyond the Dream Speech. )
In 1967, King published Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, his last book before his death. (His final book, also very germane to our times, The Trumpet of Conscience, was published posthumously.) I think Where Do We Go From Here? is among the least read of King’s writings, some of the most radical of his reflections, and the most useful for our own context in the early 21st C.–since we have not faced squarely the problems King was dealing with, even since. I take one section from that wonderful book for these reflections: The concept of the “World House,” a term less familiar to us than King’s characterization of the Kingdom of God (being born into the world) as “the Beloved Community.”
King tells a parable that he read somewhere: A divided and long-separated family find that the head of this clan has died and they have all inherited a mansion. The catch: They cannot sell it, but must live in the house, putting away their differences and learning to live together. King turns this story into an allegory: All humanity is the separated and estranged (even warring) family. God, though far from dead, is the Parent who had given humanity a House. The World, the planet Earth, is the House and humanity must learn to live in it together, sharing its resources, working for its upkeep (rather than ecologically destroying it), and learning to live together as one family. We want to divide into warring nations or tribes. We want to be concerned only for our own racial or ethnic or language group or only for our own religious group. (Expanding beyond King’s view in 1967, we want to be concerned only for those of our own sex, our own sexual orientation, or our own gender identity, too.) We want to be concerned only for those of our own economic class (or, to claim that there are no classes, that anyone can become wealthy, that the wealthy have earned their riches and should not be asked to share them–even if the rest of us have to bail them out from their own foolishness–or to claim that the interests of the wealthy naturally “trickle down” to help the rest of us–NONE of which is supported by a shred of evidence) and let those who are weaker or more vulnerable fall by the wayside.
In all these ways and more, we deny that we are one family. King insists (with his own/my own Biblical tradition) that this is false. We are all children of God. The World House is ALL our home–and we have NO CHOICE but to learn to live in it together–or we destroy both ourselves and the World House.
I suggest that this vision of King’s in 1967 is more relevant than ever, today. Our refusal to care for God’s beloved earth ecologically is leading to greater species extinction than at any time since the end of the Age of Dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Even as it may be too late to save the polar ice caps, nations and oil companies are foolishly racing to drill for oil in the Arctic circle (because nothing could possibly go wrong in THAT scenario!). Water is used profligately in Europe and North America while it becomes increasingly scarce for the poor of the Two Thirds World. Americans are increasingly obese while Hunger and Poverty stalk the globe. People kill in the name of religion or politics or ideology or land. We enact policies to make the top 1% ever more obscenely wealthy while poor multiply and Middle Classes vanish. We treat healthcare as a commodity to be bought and sold rather than a human right and when a law is passed that mildly reforms this obscenity (still largely trusting the great god Free Market, the largest idol of the West), we call it government tyrrany. We have billions for the War Machine, but schools go starving for funds and when teachers and parents complain, the reply is that “education cannot be solved by throwing money at the problem” (something we never say about either the Military Industrial Complex or Money Powers of Wall Street). The views of teachers are dismissed as “bleatings of a teacher’s union” and parents’ pleas are dismissed with the claim that the parents–often working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet–should educate their children themselves–either privately or by homeschooling (regardless of means or whether said parent has enough education to make that feasible). In a reverse Robin Hood society, we constantly steal from the poor to give ever more to the obscenely wealthy–who then claim they are “overtaxed” when paying a smaller percentage than at any time in the last 50 years!
Against this whole mess, Dr. King presents the vision of the World House. We are not primarily Black or White or Brown, we are family. We are not primarily rich or poor, but family. We are not first Americans or Vietnamese (or Iraqis or Afghans), but one family. We are not first Muslims or Buddhists or Jews or Christians (Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox, Liberal or Evangelical), but a family sharing a World House. If we see ourselves in that light–as one family sharing one World House–then both our personal actions, the actions of our organizations (churches, synagogues, mosques, temples; businesses and corporations; political parties), and the public policies of our various nations and governments, must CHANGE to reflect that reality. In place of fearful militarism, we must enact Common Security. In place of hoarding, the equitable distribution of resources–so that all are fed and have shelter and adequate medical care. In place of the exploitation of the earth and our family members, we must live sustainably.
It’s not an easy vision to enact. To live this way will be a huge struggle. Perhaps this is why this World House has been so ignored. But if this World House allegory correctly displays our real context as humans on this third rock from the sun–as I believe it does–then we MUST struggle to live accordingly. If, in our individual, corporate, and political lives we struggle to live out this vision–then we will truly be honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–and, beyond him, honoring the God he strove to follow.
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