The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
This weekend, in the United States, we observe the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hopefully -- beyond the school vacations and ski trips -- we'll find time to honor one of the great moral leaders in our nation's history.
As I reflect on Dr. King's witness, I not only look back to give thanks for what he accomplished. I also am challenged and guided in my own work in the contemporary eco-justice cause.
As the King holiday rolls around each year, there are several dangerous temptations. One -- that we must always resist and challenge -- is the temptation to make Martin "safe." If our community celebrations only remember a few heartwarming lines about "I have a dream," then we have forgotten that he was hated and feared for the profound challenges that he brought to entrenched interests, and to US laws and values. King was a revolutionary. Non-violence does not diminish the depth of his transformative message.
Another temptation is to co-opt King's heritage for our own purposes. Surely (many articles this weekend will say), being the wise and enlightened man that he was, Martin would have been a champion of the very issues that I consider most important! It is true that, if he were alive today, Dr. King would be engaged with many matters of justice and peace, race and economics, and, yes, probably even the environment. But it does not respect his heritage if we narrow or distort his vision to prop up our own pet causes.
MLK was not safe, and he can't easily be appropriated to endorse our positions. Rather, out of deep respect for his vision, it is better if we allow him challenge our goals and our approaches to today's issues. We honor him best when we let him stretch our values, just as he called people in the mid-20th Century into larger perspectives.
Dr. King can provide that lively challenge today because he was more than a gifted orator and a courageous activist. He was also a brilliant thinker who developed a clear and compelling moral vision for the US and the world. Philosopher Cornel West describes King as "the most significant and successful organic intellectual in American history. Never before in our past has a figure outside of elected public office linked the life of the mind to social change with such moral persuasiveness and political effectiveness."
The grounding principle of "beloved community" was at the heart of King's intellectual work. Whenever we claim that we are applying his thinking today, we must engage that expansive and compelling notion of community. As the King Center describes this "realistic, achievable goal":
Dr. King's Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.
Dr. King's leadership in the civil rights movement was not about "identity politics" or narrow self-interest. He did not work to gain power and advantage for his constituency if that would come only at the expense of others. Indeed, Martin most fully saw "his constituency" not only as African-Americans, but as the whole community -- locally, nationally and globally. He always sought reconciliation and integration (in the very richest sense of the word).
Part of King's brilliance was his ability to deal with specific issues and cases of racism, and also hold firmly to the broad vision of community. When racism demeaned bus riders in Montgomery or created segregated urban slums in Chicago, when poll taxes and violence kept Blacks from voting, then the rights and dignity of those specific people were addressed assertively and persistently. But always, always, the struggle for rights and opportunities for some people was part of a movement toward a more just and compassionate community for all.
If we want to look to Dr. King as a guide to activism today, we must be sure that his core principle of a just and inclusive community is prominent. As he gave voice to that principle in the 1950s and 60s, he spoke of human communities, of people. While I hope that his thinking would have continued to expand, reaching beyond the human family, I can't guarantee that he would have adopted a deep ecological perspective. But I do know that ideas rooted in his moral principles are shaping today's ethical discussions.
Within the past decade or so, the term "Earth Community" has emerged in moral conversation. It figures prominently in the preamble to the Earth Charter, and in the Adelaide Declaration on Religion and the Environment which informs the Earth Bible project. It is the basis for hopeful vision in Larry Rasmussen's book, Earth Community, Earth Ethics, and in David Korten's The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. In this time of ecological crisis, there is a deepening awareness that we must break out of all parochial interests, and live justly and sustainably within the whole community of life.
King's "beloved community" and the newer language about "Earth community" both call us out of our narrow self interest. They insist that our quest for clean air and water must never be fulfilled by shifting pollution somewhere else. They demand that our goals of sustainability and sufficiency must provide for all people, and for all species. The force us to look at the rights of future generations, as well as immediate needs.
Today's eco-justice issues deal with matters that Dr. King never addressed. We are called today to embrace an even larger notion of community than what Martin articulated more than 40 years ago. Just as in his time, there are many people and institutions today -- including some who count themselves as part of the environmental movement -- who are threatened by such an inclusive perspective on justice.
Community -- the beloved community of Dr. King, and the Earth community of current thought -- is revolutionary and challenging. Community is an affront to how things are. It is that broad vision, though, which offers us genuine hope.
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Last Monday (1/14/08), the Kansas City Star had a special section, Equality and Ecology on the King holiday. Several articles in that section link King with today's environmental issues. The essay King would not be silent on Earth's plight, by the president of the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, does a good job of looking at King's core values. (Thanks to our good friends of the Sustainable Sanctuary Coalition in KC for bringing this to our attention!)
I'm also happy to pass along word of a Lenten series of emails from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Living Earth: A 40-Day Reflection on Our Relationship With God's Creation. It looks like this spiritual resource will guide us toward a richer sense of living in Earth community:
Called to be in communion with God's creation, we must live in such a way that is sensitive to precious natural resources and in conscious relationship to the earth, creatures and each other. This 40-day Lenten reflection series will offer a holistic approach to how we live as earthly companions, combining God's caring relationship with creation to our journey in the physical universe. Each e-mail emphasizes individual and communal solutions, resources for further learning and suggestions for how to act or become more educated.You can subscribe to this series at the ELCA Advocacy website.
On the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday, I encourage you to wrestle with the notion of community. Let his vision of love and justice stir you to deeper commitment.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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