This Monday we will honor the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., which is right and proper … except for one disappointing element. He will most often be referred to as “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or worse just Martin Luther King Jr. and not The REVEREND Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was, after all, a Baptist minister. He was a clergyman. He was a religious man and that is not just an ancillary fact about his life. That was a fact that explained his life.
Rev. King believed that religion was a positive force in the world and today that seems like a radical view.
Most of the speeches I gave with Father Tom Hartman were greeted with polite praise. However, more than occasionally a belligerent listener would push back at us, “How can you give your life to organized religion when it just divides people and is responsible for all the wars in the world?”
We would explain that World War II was fought between two atheist powers Russia and Germany. The Iran/Iraq war was fought between two groups of Muslims; and Northern Ireland between two groups of Christians who have no problem living together in Ireland proper. These wars and others were fought because of the dictates of greed and conquest not faith.
We would then ask our hostile interlocutors to go find a soup kitchen feeding the poor in their communities and ask them how many of them are run by religious institutions and staffed by religious folk. The answer is nearly all of them.
We would then ask them to name the people who have most helped the world in the past hundred years. All their lists were nearly the same. All their lists included Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Bishop Tutu, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We would then point out that all these heroes of the spirit who gave their lives to mend our broken world were not only religious but were “professionally” religious.
We would then ask them to make another list of the evil ones of our age and their lists also told a revealing fact. They all included Hitler and Stalin, Mao and his successors all of whom were virulent atheists.
We would ask them then to make up a local list of evil doers and that list included gangs and other criminal types who were not likely to show up at church.
Finally, we would throw up our hands in amazement and ask them how they could reconcile these facts about the constructive role of religion and religious leaders with their belief that religion is the cause of all the problems in the world. I believe that the prejudice against religion is sadly the last acceptable prejudice in our culture. It is not only a lie but it is a big lie that the human spiritual journey that produced the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves is somehow responsible for the systemic hatred of our neighbors.
And one more thing. I am deeply disappointed that the “wall of separation” between church and state, which is a good thing when it prohibits the creation of a state religion, has been used to try to prevent religious folk from expressing their views about various social issues. Finding God does not mean you have to lose your First Amendment rights to speak out for what you believe ought to be proper social policies. Religious people have different views about many social issues, but they all have a right to speak their mind even if their mind is informed by the truths of their faith.
Some people disagreed with Rev. King on his vision of civil rights. Some thought he was too much of a pacifist and others thought he was too militant, but I cannot recall anyone claiming that King had breached the wall of separation by using the language of faith to speak out about injustice and racism in America.
And he did speak out of his faith to the world who needed his prophetic faith to change its ways.
“If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values — that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control.”
"Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in the Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go’. This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story.
The very Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at the age of 39. Thank you, God, for sharing him with us.
Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.