Martin Luther King Jr. served a troublesome, dangerous, demanding God who breaks down our divisions.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a theologian who saw the interconnectedness of the world like few others before him. When he saw a person lying wounded by the side of the road, or the side of the culture, or the side of the economy, he saw in that person a brother or a sister, a child of God, a neighbor. Time after time in his life, he was moved to pity by what he saw, and it changed his life and ours. Time after time he risked his life to show mercy. He was our neighbor.
King was a theologian whose God was the God of all people. America never has known a theologian who took that truth more seriously. He saw humanity inescapably bound together and, at the same time, cruelly divided. He was true to the American dream--and devastated by the American nightmare. His whole adult life was a quest for the dream of beloved community and a struggle against divisions. He gave his life for “one nation under God, indivisible.”
As the civil rights movement began, King’s goal was to desegregate the city buses in Montgomery. That was 1956. Then the movement expanded its efforts against segregation in all public accommodations—water fountains, bathrooms, interstate commerce, and lunch counters. That was Birmingham in 1963. Then the movement enlarged its view to seek the rights of everyone of any color to vote. That was Mississippi in 1964 and Selma in 1965.
Then King discovered that his God was bigger than he realized and that God wanted to end segregation in the urban north as well as in the old south, so he went to Chicago and to Cleveland. That was 1965 and 1966. Then he began to understand that the children of Vietnam were just as precious to his God as any American child, even his own dear children. That was 1965 through 1967. And, at the end of his life, he saw that his God loved the poor as much as the wealthy, the poor white as much as the poor black, the poor African as much as the poor American, the poor of Hanoi as much as the poor of Atlanta. That was 1968 in Memphis and Washington, D.C.
King’s worldview kept expanding. His God kept growing throughout his life. As that happened, supporters began to abandon him. Their God was not as big as his God, not as inclusive, not as troublesome, not as dangerous, not as demanding. They said to King, “If God’s that big, it will destroy the civil rights movement.” People couldn’t understand him; they thought he had gotten off the track, that he was overtired and emotionally drained. He was overtired; he was exhausted; but he was on track. He was a theologian as well as a civil rights leader. He knew the size of his God, he understood where his God was leading him, and he was not going anywhere else.
Near the end of his Nobel Lecture in December 1964, King put it this way*: “We have inherited a big house, a world house in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterners and Westerners, Gentiles and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests who, because we can never again live without each other must learn somehow in this one big world to live with each other.”
The size of our God depends on how much of the reality of the world is included in our vision of God. How many of the world’s diverse peoples does our God smile upon? That was the key question for King, for the Good Samaritan, and there is no more important question for us. What is the size of our God? Our lives are interwoven in a single garment of destiny. We are created to live in one world and to be one people. In the words of James Baldwin, “The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
Brothers and sisters, our life together in this country, as we know so well, is a tragic trail of broken faith. There is no denying that. Nothing is more important than learning how to hold each other. A friend of mine, a feisty black woman, said to me recently, “Don’t talk to me about love. I’ve given up on love. I just want some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” She knows that I love the work of bell hooks, and she said to me, “I can’t even read that bell hooks anymore because she’s always writing about love.” I hear my sister, but, if our God is as big as we believe God is, we have to talk like our brother, James Baldwin, about what it means to hold each other.
If God is as big as we believe God is, God cuts to the chase and leads us right to the hardest things first. For everyone in this American color experience, the hardest thing is trust, the hardest thing is holding one another, the hardest thing is to overcome our fear and dare to love again. Imagine what this nation might be if, as a people, we learned how to love each other across the complex color lines, embrace our different colors, look out for each other, rejoice in one another’s successes, and grieve together over each other’s hardships. America would be a different place, dare I say the place God created it to be.
If we deny or resist our interdependence, our God is too small. If we don’t affirm our interdependence with people of all colors, our God is too small. If we don’t affirm our full interdependence with people of the other sex, our God is too small. If we don’t affirm our interdependence with people of other religious commitments, our God is too small. If we don’t affirm our interdependence with people who are attracted to people of the same sex, our God is too small.
Some people believe their God gets bigger if they look down on those who differ religiously, but it’s the other way around. The more we embrace those who are different, who see God in a different way; the more we try to understand them and see them as God’s people; the more we walk the color line and all the lines of difference as healers, the bigger our God becomes. The most important spiritual question in our lives is, “What is the size of God?” A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead, says the parable of the Good Samaritan. Who was the neighbor to that man?
Powerful forces are pulling us together as one people in the world, but, at the same time, community is in danger of breaking down. There are forces drawing our lives together economically, but some own the businesses and others stand outside begging in the cold with a paper cup. There are forces that cry out for community but some people fall asleep at night on the Gold Coast and others stand in line for a bed at a shelter or a detox center.
In the cruelest of ironies, “an all-out war against poverty,” for which King pled near the end of his life, became instead a war against the poor. From that time to this, the economic gulf separating the richest from the poorest has grown steadily wider. A recent study shows that, during the years from 1965 to 2000, the income gap between prosperous households and poor households grew steadily, along with the number of children living in poverty. Poor children in America are at greater risk than in any other modern Western country. Even now, poor children are being pulled into the great world house alright, but they are finding themselves destined to live as servants and beggars.
The greatest temptation for any prosperous people, be it a single family or a nation, is to deny our interdependence, to put up the gates and pull down the shades, to protect ourselves from responsibility. Whether we are talking about a single homeless beggar on the street or the immigration policies of our federal government, interrelatedness means sharing and welcoming and lending a hand.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers. Jesus’ parable doesn’t say the man was black or white or brown, Israeli or Palestinian, Christian or Jew. We don’t know if he was a Republican or a Democrat, married or single, gay or straight, educated or uneducated. He was just a human being and he had been beaten until he was half dead. That’s all we need to know. That’s all we ever need to know. “Which of these . . . was a neighbor to the man?” Jesus asked. “The one who showed mercy,” came the answer. “Go and do likewise,” said Jesus.
The dream that King saw so clearly, the vision that we in the religious community claim as our precious heritage, is not about economics. It’s about theology. It’s about the size of our God, a God who wants to be a “cosmic companion.” How big is our God? If we know the answer to that one question, we can create just and humane social policies. If we don’t know the answer to that one, then social policies and social values are for sale to the highest bidder.
America is walking down that road today from Jerusalem to Jericho and there are poor people, children and adults, who have been robbed of opportunity, beaten in spirit, and left to die, without adequate food or clothes or shelter, without medication or education, without the protections and assistance that every neighbor needs.
If our God is big, as our faith claims God is, we will avoid war if at all possible and work with the widest possible coalition of nations to build a world at peace.
If our God is big, as our faith claims God is, we will say no to tax cuts that transfer wealth from the poor to the rich on the feeble pretext that wealth will dribble down. It didn’t dribble down before and it will not again.
If our God is big, as our faith claims God is, we will tell our Congress to join the community of nations in support of the United Nations and the Kyoto accords and to participate cooperatively in international efforts to save and improve the environment.
If our God is big, as our faith claims God is, we will ask how we can assist those in our population who experience discrimination of any kind and how we can best help them to make their way in our country.
If our God is big, as our faith claims God is, we will make sure that all people are offered the security of adequate health care.
If our God is big, as our faith claims God is, we will find ways to end homelessness and take people out of temporary shelters and bring them in from the streets and offer them homes where they are safe and cared for.
If our God is big as our faith claims--and we know God is, or we would not have made it this far--then we will keep on keeping on, God willing, until all of God’s people make it to the promised land.
The God of beloved community, the God of the rainbow coalition, the God of the World House, the God of Moses and Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed, the God of Zion, the God who created the heavens and the earth, the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow, is a Cosmic Companion. If we settle for any less, our God is too small.
Adapted from a sermon preached at Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College in Atlanta on February 16, 2003. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Correction 1/23/08: This essay originally attributed a quote to King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The passage is in fact from his Nobel Lecture, delivered a day later. Click here to return to the corrected passage.
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The Rev. Dr. Thomas J.S. Mikelson retired as minister of the First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2006. He was a visiting lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and is a noted interpreter of the theology and social ethics of Martin Luther King Jr. His doctoral thesis is entitled The Negro’s God in the Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Social Community and Theological Discourse.
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