Scholar Monks: Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” (1)

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably the most notable scholar monk in the history of the United States. He came from a family of ministers and was himself ordained during his undergraduate studies, where the president of the college impressed upon King the power of Christianity to enact social change. King went on to complete doctoral work in systematic theology seven years later and became a minister-scholar. He considered continuing in the academy but accepted a position as a pastor in Alabama instead.

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King soon found himself at the head of a civil rights movement in which his academic acumen and religious leadership skills were exceptionally well suited and effectively deployed. He integrated Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence with Christian social action to undertake powerful social action toward the recognition of the rights of African-American people in the U.S. and the rights of all people within and outside of the U.S.

King’s social leadership contributed significantly to changes in national civil rights legislation in the U.S. Toward the end of his life, he included efforts against poverty and American militarism in his mission, continuing to draw on Christian social gospel principles and nonviolent practices.

As the only American scholar monk, and indeed the only non-president, to have a national holiday that honors him, I feel it important and appropriate to examine King’s life and work within the context of our discussion about scholar monks in the world today. King’s religious beliefs, training, and leadership, and his academic knowledge and abilities were regularly deployed together in his public speaking, preaching, and writings. From what I have read, it seems that King’s higher studies were an extension of his ministry and were deeply integrated into his ministry.

Precision with words and knowledge were utilized by King to do the good work that he deemed necessary as a follower of Christ and God. For King, this good work was the work of social action and social change. Similar to Xuanzang, in a different time, place, and in different ways, King worked toward the well-being of many, for the benefit of others, motivated and guided by his faith and his role as an ordained person.

I think all of us who live by vows, who have committed to a way that is larger than ourselves, have much to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. His teaching, his work, and his way of life is as relevant as ever in this time of racial conflict, violence, and institutional oppression. Let us continue to consider King’s words, those that I have quoted above and the many others that he spoke and penned, as we usher in a new political era this Friday.

As always, please share your voice and your words through comments here or by contacting me personally.

Notes

(1) These words were spoken during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. All of the biographical information for this post comes from The King Center website: “About Dr. King: Overview.” TheKingCenter.org. Accessed January 16, 2017. http://thekingcenter.org/about-dr-king

(2) Image from http://www.uky.edu/mlk/content/about-dr-king

All Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

The mid-day plenary today at the American Academy of Religion National Conference was a conversation between Kelly Brown Douglas and Michelle Alexander, and the work in their respective books Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness.

Michelle Alexander told a moving personal story about the first few years following the release of The New Jim Crow, before it was widely read and transforming perceptions across the United States. She described presenting the material from her research, and after each presentation she heard an internal voice say, “All sound and fury, signifying nothing.” She found this extremely jarring, and it followed her as she continued to speak nationally.

It changed for her when, while visiting the University of Denver, Professor Vincent Harding (1) told her, “I read your book, and I hear what you’re saying. But I feel like what you’re really saying here is, ‘What you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me.'” For Alexander, this changed everything.

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Michelle Alexander (2)

She told of how she realized that railing against the institutions and systems contributing to mass incarceration was all sound and fury, signifying nothing, when it was not spiritually grounded and directed toward action. She spoke of needing to honor and remember the divinity of every person.

Alexander’s experiences reveal, I think, a turn toward practice. She clearly cared about the work she was doing, fighting for racial justice against police departments in California and then digging into the prison industrial complex. But what was it rooted in? I ask the same question when I think about scholarship than is not rooted in practice. If I engage in study that I deem important, what is determining for me that it is important? Desire for acceptance? Prestige? Love?

I am not suggesting that Michelle Alexander was motivated by any of these things, nor do I pretend that I could uncover her motivation. Rather I want to turn a light upon the change that occurred for her once the divinity of every person became a foundation, a grounding rod for her work. Did her words at that point of change then signify everything, rather than nothing? Did it radically transform the important work she was already doing? Did people start turning en masse toward her work and her message once her words carried the new meaning of her spiritual orientation?

So I wonder: is scholarship that is not grounded in spiritual practice and spiritual perspectives all sound and fury? I am not so sure, but I sure am wondering.

I would like to thank Kelly Brown Douglas and Michelle Alexander for inviting me, and many others here at the conference, into their important and insightful conversation.

Notes

(1) I began my studies at Iliff School of Theology, where Dr. Harding taught for 33 years, in 2014, the same year that he died. I feel his legacy around me through the many people he touched and transformed, though I never met him.

(2) Image from http://dy00k1db5oznd.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/M-Alexander-0410_021_bw_r.jpg