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Thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr Day

January 16, 2017

As we consider this  day, Martin Luther King, Jr Day, 2017, I’d encourage you to consider his actions, not only in terms of their effects, but also in terms of what drove them. Understanding what people did, beyond the bare recitation of facts, requires us to also understand why they did it. This is true regardless of who I’m considering. Regardless of the person, knowing something about them, the things they experienced and the things they believe, can provide invaluable insight into what is arguably the most basic of the “5 Ws.”

Sometimes, I visit a site called Quora, although I do so under a different name. Perhaps you’re familiar with it. It is a place where a fair number of people, many of whom are arguably far too enamored of their own intelligence and learning, go to discuss things. Typically, one person will ask a question and then wait for the responses. Some will even request responses from specific Quora members. The topics range from philosophy to the zombie apocalypse, the sublime to the ridiculous if you will, and virtually anything else you can imagine.

One topic that brings up a fairly steady parade of questions is that of gun control (or the right to keep and bear arms, depending on the perspective of the questioner). There are a fair number of people, not all of whom are from outside the United States, who have what I think are odd ideas regarding private ownership and use of firearms. What I find particularly interesting are those who decry the continued existence of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. They tend to pretty consistently focus on superficial things, muskets vs AR-15s, hunting vs buying your food at a store and the like. Sometimes, they’ll go so far as to suggest it should never have been included at all. What I’ve found is that most of these folks have no real understanding of the relationship between the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance and the Constitution (collectively, “the organic laws of the United States of America“) and the philosophical movement of which they are a product – the Enlightenment. There is, I submit, no way to truly understand these documents, including the Constitution’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms, without understanding the Enlightenment (especially the Scottish Enlightenment). Trying to understand this right absent an understanding of the Enlightenment is virtually guaranteed to lead to conclusions that are either incorrect or shallow, or both.

The work of Martin Luther King, Jr. also suffers from a tendency on the part of some to try to understand or explain it in the absence of an understanding of the philosophy of which his most public work was an outgrowth. I submit King’s work in the civil rights movement was informed, not just by his objection to the injustice to which so many were subjected because of the color of their skin, but by his faith. It is far too easy to read or listen to his speeches and focus upon his strength as a speaker (he was a powerful orator) or his passion for civil rights and miss his frequent references to both Old and New Testament scripture. These were, I submit, not simply window dressing, used to lend an air of acceptability to what would be an otherwise unacceptable demand. Rather, they were fundamental to his pleas and demands for justice. Two examples of this we find in his writings. The first is “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” The second is “A Knock at Midnight.” Certainly, both of them deal with the civil rights struggle. What’s important to note, though, is that his arguments were firmly rooted in his faith and, I submit, his absolute conviction that his approach was consistent with the Scripture he so frequently quoted.

When we examine the work of King, but ignore or denigrate the role of his faith in that work, we are likely to come away with a view of King that has far more in common with the view of Elijah Muhammad  or Malcom X than with reality (I would, after all, ask this: even given the ubiquitous nature of racism in the 1950s-1960s United States, which took more courage, to speak out against it in Harlem or in Mobile?). When we examine his work in light of his faith, it becomes important to note that he embraced the totality of Christian doctrine, rather than a simplified and self-serving version that focused solely on social issues.

As regards this article, I’m making no attempt to get anyone to accept Christianity as true. Certainly that is my hope for people, but that’s not my purpose here. Rather, I am concerned by the tendency we see for people to adopt simplistic and superficial views of issues and other people. Sometimes, this is simply a function of time. We are bombarded with information. There is no way to investigate it all and determine whether it is true or false. Other times, it is a sign of what my dad called “mental laziness,” a refusal to put forth the effort to understand something better. In yet other times, it can be a matter of priorities, a simple lack of concern. Finally, it can be the deliberate action of a person who has an agenda or narrative to promote. In that case, things that don’t fit or promote the agenda or narrative are rejected or distorted. As it pertains to the work of Martin Luther King, Jr and the day that recognizes him and his work, the last example can be readily seen in the words and actions of the woefully (and willfully) misinformed members of both the Nation of Islam and the KKK, as well as other lunatic fringe groups associated with both of them and their respective beliefs. Ignorance is excusable and treatable. Willful ignorance has neither excuse nor cure.


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