Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was first and foremost a devout Christian, a preacher of the word of God. All of his teachings were profoundly rooted in his religious faith. Yet he was always careful to express his thoughts in secular as well as religious terms. You did not have to be Christian, or be religious in any way, to get the message. Reverend King spoke clearly and eloquently to atheists, too.
His faith told him that God is a personal God. Every person is a child of this same God, created in His image. So every one of us is a “soul of infinite metaphysical value.” Each of us has a sacred value and dignity. Since God has infinite freedom, each of us created in his image has a right to the fullest possible freedom. Rev. King spent his life, and gave his life, struggling for everyone’s right to be free.
But suppose you don’t believe in God? Well, Rev. King said, just think about your life and use your common sense. You know that you are a unique person with a unique set of potentials. You want to the right be free, to make the choices that you believe will realize your potentials to the fullest.
But think of all the other people you rely on to fulfill your potentials. If you have a potential to teach, you need students to learn what you teach. If you have the potential to learn (as everyone does), you need teachers. If you have the potential to be a great quarterback, you need a great wide receiver -- and vice versa. If you have the potential to be a chef, you need people who appreciate good food. If you have the potential to develop a discriminating palate, you need a good chef. As Rev. King put it: "The self cannot be a self without other selves. I cannot reach fulfillment without thou.…All life is interrelated.”
Every one of us needs so many other people in order to find our own fulfillment. Once we start thinking about all the people we need, tracing out the web of dependency, we can soon lose the thread because it is so complex, so endless. As always, Rev. King said it best: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. This is the interrelated structure of all reality. You can never be what you ought to be until I become what I ought to be.”
By the same token, though, “I can never become what I ought to be until you become what you ought to be.” My fulfillment depends on the fulfillment of everyone else. I can be free only when I am helping others to be free to fulfill their potential. “Their destiny,” as Rev. King said, “is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
As a Christian, he was sure this was so because a loving God had planned it that way. He said: “Creation is so designed that my personality can be fulfilled only in the context of community.” But even the most hard-boiled atheist can just think it through logically. Others can give us what we need only when they are getting what they need. No one can achieve their full potential unless the society they live in is affording full and equal opportunity for fulfillment to all.
We must live in whatever kind of community we create. The happier and healthier the community, the happier and healthier our own lives. All humans are one family because of this simple sociological and psychological fact. That is why all deserve to be treated as equals, with full respect, equal justice, and compassionate love.
This was a hard message for Rev. King’s own people, African-Americans living under the burden of centuries of oppression at the hands of white racists. We certainly will not like the racists, he admitted. But we can and should love them. Because to love someone means, above all, to want that person to fulfill their own best potentials and to do everything you can to help them along that road. Whites and blacks were woven together in a single garment of destiny. They had to live together. They depended on each other. Neither group could really improve their lives unless the lives of the other group got better, too.
As we look around today, that is more true than ever. As a white person, I depend so heavily on people of color to provide so many of the things I need and want. People of color have come to the U.S. from all over the world to share in the richness of our white-dominated society. We are woven together in a rainbow blend. No racial or ethnic group can find fulfillment unless all do. That means we must all care for and take responsibility for each other. We must all love each other.
Paul O’Neill, former Secretary of the Treasury in the George W. Bush administration, recently wrote: “In a civilized society we have a responsibility to take care of our own needs.” Rev. King would have gently pointed out that the truth is just the opposite. In a truly civilized society, we would all recognize a responsibility to take care of each other’s needs.
Precisely for that reason, Rev. King taught us, in a truly civilized society we would do no violence to each other. We do violence whenever we deny our interdependence, whenever we take care of our own needs and ignore the need to help others gain their own fulfillment. As he said, violence can only “intensify the cleavage in a broken community.” In the end, it “leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.” Nonviolence means simply caring for and acting for the good of all.
Sometimes that means putting pressure on oppressive people, forcing them to do the right thing. But it can never mean killing or injuring them or treating their fate as separate from our own. For a believer, that would deny them their God-given right to human dignity as children of God. For a non-believer, that would simply defy common sense. After the struggle is over, we must continue to live with these people, no matter how bitterly we opposed them. How much better our lives will be if we do everything we can, now, to make their lives better too. Nonviolence is, in Rev. King’s words, “the only way to reestablish the broken community. … We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself.”
This is a hard message for us today, when we fear with good reason that there may be people planning to do us harm, simply because we are Americans. We certainly will not like those people. And we certainly should condemn the abhorrent violent means they choose to pursue their goals. But Rev. King would have said that we should feel sorry for them, too, because their violence is bound to be self-defeating in the end.
No one can ever enhance their own life by denying life to others. It just defies common sense. Wherever they are, we would want to remind them that the single garment of destiny knows no national borders. It embraces all of humanity in a single family. The tragedy of the tsunami has just reminded us of that. But the tragedy of 9/11 should have taught us the very same lesson. That is what Rev. King would want us to remember, on this day when we remember him.
Rev. King called us to love our enemies all over the world, even as we resist their unjust actions. Those may be easy words to say. But there may be nothing in the world harder to do. Each year, when we celebrate Rev. King’s life, we are challenged by the memory of his teaching of nonviolence, knowing how awfully difficult it is.
The challenge is not to be a saint. Rev. King never thought of himself as a saint, and he did not expect any of us to rise to perfection either. The challenge is only to try a bit harder in the coming year to do the right thing, to remember as often as we can that our own fulfillment depends on the fulfillment of every other person, everywhere in the world. If we keep on walking up that path, as steep and rocky as it is, we may be surprised to find moments when we reach the mountaintop and glimpse the promised land. That image is from the Bible. But even an atheist can get the message.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of 'American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea'.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org