Martin Luther King and
the Future of America
A Cross Currents Special
The following discussion of the legacy of Martin Luther King is based on talks given by
Vincent Harding and Clare Gaudiani this past April at the Boston Research Center for the
Twenty-First Century. Cross Currents is happy to thank the Center for their
cooperation in making this material available.
The Center was founded by Soka Gakkai International President Ikeda in 1993 "to
foster thoroughgoing dialogue among scholars and proponents of the world's major cultural,
philosophical, and religious traditions for the sake of peace. It works to pool the wisdom
of an evolving network of globally-minded citizens and scholars to help construct the
shared philosophical underpinnings essential to a future free of war.'' Among the Center's
focus issues are common values, intercultural and interreligious understanding, civil
society, human rights, and global governance.
This spring the Center examined religion's role in fostering peace-oriented
transnational civil society by organizing and hosting a lecture and dialogue series that
included discussions on Confucianism, "Earth Ethics,'' Islam, "Engaged
Buddhism,'' and public religion. For more information, contact: Boston Research Center for
the Twenty-First Century, 390 Harvard-St., Cambridge, MA 02138-3024 (Tel.: 617-491-1169).
Martin Luther King and the Future of America
by Vincent Harding
Vincent Harding, professor at the Iliff School of Theology at the University of Denver,
is the author of Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Orbis Books, 1996).
Every time I think about the possibilities of this nation of ours in the twenty-first
century, I recognize that we are really citizens of a developing country. No matter how
that term has been used in the past, that is who we are now. The United States of America
is a work in progress -- a shadow on the wall of a multiracial, compassionate democracy
that does not yet exist, a project that requires the perseverance of lifetime workers. So
I see us coming here this evening to think about, talk about, struggle about, shout about,
sing about, where we might take our country as citizens of this land -- how we might help
each other awaken from the great moral and political sleep that has deepened among us in
the 1990s and recognize again the continuing democratic urgency of Langston Hughes's call:
"we the people must redeem our land and make America again.'' As we go forward in
this moment and in the many moments before us, we will surely discover what our
foreparents have already discovered in many, many places: we do not have the luxury of any
kind of distanced research into the twenty-first century. The only research that will help
to make the new century a human experience for this nation is a deeply engaged research,
in which we offer ourselves as participants in and exemplars of what it is that we seek.
And tonight, I ask you to meet in this place with two of the great citizen-teacher-workers
of our century, seeking their wisdom and inspiration for this current stage of the
ongoing, never-ending American project of creating a more perfect union. That, you see, is
what we Americans have in common. We have been called upon, all of us, to create a more
Considering such a national vocation, I'd like you to reflect on two people who have
spoken deeply, importantly to me; the first is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who escaped
the moral and physical catastrophe of the Holocaust to bring his wisdom, courage, and
commitment to our struggles for righteousness in this land. And I bring him, first,
because Rabbi Heschel often chose to stand and march and sometimes risk his life with my
brother friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. Just ten days before King was assassinated,
Heschel stood with him to introduce his friend to a group of rabbis from the northeast
section of this country. And it was necessary to bring Martin to the rabbis because the
brother rabbis, like so many other religious and political people, were not sure, in 1968,
that they liked the Martin King who was coming North as much as they had liked the King of
Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, and St. Augustine. Prophets on our doorsteps are always
harder to deal with than prophets far away. So Heschel, who knew something about the world
of prophets and who shared King's deep commitment to the necessity of fundamental change
in this society, brought to his co-religionists a word about King that breaks through to
our own time and to our own struggles for twenty-first century America. "Martin
Luther King, Jr. is a voice, a vision, and a way,'' he said. Then continuing, Heschel
declared, "I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to
follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of
This seems to me to be a clear word to those of us who are trying to find a way to
recreate for the next century the great tradition that King and Heschel and Hughes
represented, the tradition that is really for those of us who refuse to simply wait for
the future. The words are for those of us who are committed to join in the creation
process, those of us who want to help shape the future, those of us who want to help
create the twenty-first century, rather than simply to wait around to see what the end
will be. And I think something in us tells us that Heschel is right, that King -- for all
the ambiguity that we feel about him at many times -- is indeed a voice, a vision, and a
way, that he is somehow deeply related to the future of America, just as he was deeply
related to its past. But what is also clear to me is the fact that all of us, being who we
are, want to approach King in a manner that makes his voice, his vision, and his way as
easy as possible for us to manage.
In that context, I remember the powerful poem by the young man who was only in his
twenties when Martin was assassinated, Carl Wendell Hines. Long after the long-searching
bullet had finally located King, Hines wrote,
Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.
We must let Hines speak to us as we try to overcome the fear and cynicism that says
there is no such thing as a better world. For King is related to all who are called upon
to help create the twenty-first century. Still, Hines is right: we insist on approaching
King in a way that makes him easy to handle; we want King to fit our agendas.
One indication of this is our tremendous fixation on the Martin Luther King of the
March on Washington, of "I Have a Dream'' -- magnificent, beautiful oratory, but not
quite to the point for the twenty-first century. Something in us wants that triumphant,
sun-drenched hero to stay right there, so that we can almost worship, not only him, but
those words that he spoke. So often the act of worshiping becomes a process of denying
life itself. The hard work of creating the twenty-first century demands something else
from us -- and from King. Those of us who want to create a twenty-first century marked by
justice and compassion in this nation need a hero who is not always triumphant -- who also
works in the shadow times of fear, tragedy, betrayal, and death. They are all too much of
our life; we need somebody who knows the way we walk, not a plaster-of-Paris somebody on
top of a pedestal. If we are going into the twenty-first century, we need somebody who
insists on going right on through the storm, through the night, doing the work that has to
be done. We need to take a new look at King -- at the King who presses us beyond the March
Perhaps if we follow King carefully enough, we will realize that the official statement
of the March on Washington in 1963 said, "This is a march for jobs and freedom.'' Not
for little children to hold each other's hands, wonderful though that may be, but for
their mothers and fathers to be able to work. If we keep going with King, we can more
adequately take on the issues of our coming century. For instance, we may understand how
King went out from the sunlight of the Mall to retrace his steps back to Birmingham,
Alabama. There, just three weeks later, he was forced to deal with the fact that white
terrorist bombers had destroyed a church -- and the lives of four children.
If we keep going with King, we go into some very tough places. But anybody who is not
ready for tough places, isn't ready for the twenty-first century in America. So I want to
wonder out loud: what was on his mind when he went back to the Sixteenth Street Baptist
Church and knew that that church had not been chosen accidentally; it had been bombed
because it was the headquarters of the campaign that he and Shuttleworth had led in
Birmingham, and those children were his offspring. How do you deal with that? I would like
us to move with King in such a way that we take on the difficult questions that a woman or
a man has to deal with when trying to give leadership in transforming a society that
usually does not want to be transformed.
If we follow King closely enough, we might even get to the fall of 1963 and read again
what Coretta King had to say about that day in November when they sat before their
television screen in that house on Sunset Street in Atlanta, and she and Martin watched
the somber and elegant processions that followed the assassination of President John F.
Kennedy. As they watched, Martin turned to Coretta -- turning just enough for her to be
able to watch what was on his face, and in his mind --and said to her, "Cori, this is
what's going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.'' I'd like
to stay with that King -- the one who didn't make it to forty, the one who had this
profound sense, deepening all the time, that the sickness of the country would get to him
-- but nevertheless kept on-going.
Last January, I was at a middle school in Denver. I was talking to the youngsters about
the King who kept going in spite of the dangers. Afterward, one young man about thirteen
came walking up to me and said, "Now, listen here, Dr. Harding, if King knew that he
was gonna get knocked off, how come he didn't just chill out for awhile?'' I looked at him
and started to think about the wonderful conversation we were going to have, but right in
the midst of it a girl about the same age, who was right next to us, said, "Oh, come
on now, Dr. King couldn't chill out. He had work to do!'' If only we would listen to
children and let them take on the hard issues.
Indeed, if we want to stay with King, we must also face those issues. In the summer of
1964 we would follow King as he gets the word that three young freedom workers in
Mississippi were missing, probably dead. What King does then is remarkable. After all, he
had almost nothing to do with the organizing of Mississippi Summer, but when he heard that
three boys were missing and probably dead, he immediately got up and went there. No
program, no solution, no search squad -- he simply knew he had to be there, that's all.
Sometimes, that's all you can know, and all you need to know to be human.
But of course, to follow King is to find the glory times as well. Like December 1964:
we see him at the Nobel award ceremony in Oslo, bursting with pride, but also now growing
into a deeper sense of what his ministry of peace-making and justice-making is all about,
knowing more than he had ever known before that it could not be confined to this country,
that he is responsible for so much more.
One of my favorite times with King is in Selma, Alabama. The people gathered there
included some wonderfully crazy and bodacious adventurers from SNCC (the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), who were the shock troops of the nonviolent revolution
of this country. They had started plowing the ground in that place and had invited, of all
people, Malcolm X to come down and spend some time with them in February 1965. It is
simply fascinating what Malcolm wanted to do when he came to Selma in 1965. No great big
speech burning white folks and black Christians and all kinds of other folks that he could
burn so well, and often justifiably. No, Malcolm came to Selma and said, "I want to
talk to Dr. King.'' But Martin, as was his unfortunate habit, was in jail. And they
wouldn't let Malcolm break in. Instead, he went to talk with Coretta. And he said,
"Mrs. King, will you tell Dr. King that I had planned to visit with him in jail? I
won't get a chance now because I've got to leave. [But], I want Dr. King to know that I
didn't come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking that I could
make it easier.'' When Martin got out of jail and Coretta told him about this, he was
exultant: "Hey, that Malcolm is a beautiful brother. He really is.''
As the poet put it, Malcolm "became much more than there was time for him to be''
-- and two weeks later, he was gone. I would like us to follow fast enough, far enough,
deep enough, past the sunshine of the Mall and consider what it meant for King and Malcolm
to be possibly complementary forces in the same struggle. What it meant to them, what it
meant to black people, what it meant to this country, and what it meant to the people who
thought they owned this country, to have these two men coming closer together. The only
way that they could come together was for them to break loose from their older base
communities and take great new risks. I think that's twenty-first century style, and
that's why I'd like us to follow that kind of pathway.
Everybody who has seen Eyes on the Prize -- and if you haven't seen it you
should not consider yourself an educated American citizen -- remembers those wonderful
scenes of the Selma to Montgomery march, that great pilgrimage, that great dance through
Alabama. And everybody remembers, too, that there is no pilgrimage, there is no dance,
there is no facing the powers of injustice without there also being more martyrs. King had
to deal with that. I keep seeing him in those post-Mall days constantly being reminded of
the cost of personal and social transformation, and I think it is necessary that we face
those costs and ask ourselves, "Now what do we do? Do we chill out and look for
safety and security? Or do we accept the fact that we have work to-do?''
I want us to remember what it meant for Martin Luther King to return to Montgomery
after the march from Selma. A ten-year cycle had been completed: 1955, the beginning of
the public ministry as it were; 1965, time maybe for him to retire on his laurels. And
possibly to get a university professorship, which he always thought about in some back
part of his mind. At the end of that fifty miles of marching through danger, at the end of
those five days on the road, at the end of these ten years of his career, he gets to
Montgomery, and can you imagine this? Martin King does not say, "Now I am ready to
hang it up, and now we can rest.'' He says, "You rest, but rest for just a minute
because we have got to keep going. Now we have got to face the Northern cities. Now, we
have got to face the tremendous exploitation of poor people in the urban centers of our
nation.'' He's saying this in the spring of 1965 to all of us who thought that the
movement was not concerned about these things: "We've got to take on those terrible
schools, terrible inside and dilapidated outside. We've got to figure out why people have
to walk around our cities without jobs when they want to work. We can't stop, we've got to
keep going.'' In other words, after ten years, King simply catches his breath for a minute
and goes on into even more dangerous territory.
I would like us to be there when Lyndon Baines Johnson signs the act that does so much
to transform the political system of this country, an act purchased in blood, developed by
poor, so-called powerless people. Unless you see King there, unless you see the marvelous
rejoicing of that day in August, you can't imagine what he must have been feeling when the
next moment Watts breaks out in flames. The folks in Los Angeles are saying, "Thanks
very much, we really appreciate that Voting Rights act, but that doesn't cut it for us.
We've got other plans, we've got other stuff that must be dealt with.'' And they said it
in fire. And as you might expect, Martin King hears about Watts, sees it on television,
and again, he has no plan, has no program, has nothing concrete that he can offer --but he
decides he's got to go to the fire, partly because of the fire burning in his own bones.
He's got to go to the young people, partly because they are his people.
And when he gets to Watts, some of the folks don't have the slightest idea who he is,
and they start throwing rocks at him and Bayard Rustin. But afterward, they sit and talk
and Martin looks around at the burning buildings and asks, "What are you hoping to
accomplish here?'' And they say, "We won.'' And he said, "What? You won? What
did you win? Look at this.'' And they said, "We made everybody pay attention to us.''
I want us to go with Martin past the Mall, to the moment when he comes to a new
understanding of what it means to pay attention to the cries of the rejected ones, because
there's going to be a lot of attention needed in the twenty-first century. More than just
arm's-length public policy programs -- real attention.
From my perspective, one reason we have to follow King out into those strange places
that he goes is that the man shows that he is really sort of crazy by the stuff that he
tries. For instance, after that magnificent victory in the South, King is crazy enough to
take seriously what he has said to the people. Those who talk about King the great orator,
do not understand: King was not simply a great orator -- he was a great mover of himself
and others through terrible situations. He could orate because he had moved. "You've
got to get into the Northern cities,'' he told them. By January 1966, he leaves Alabama
and goes to Chicago. You know he's crazy. Anybody who goes to Chicago in January when she
or he has the chance to be in Alabama must be a little bit off-center. But if you consider
where the center of this country is now, and will be in the twenty-first century, you know
we need as many eccentrics as possible. And that was King --off to Chicago in the winter.
Off not just to the South side of Chicago, where some very important people lived, but off
to West Lawndale, one of the toughest, most needy places you could find in Chicago. There
we hear King speaking a word that is most unpopular at the end of the twentieth century:
"I choose to identify with the underprivileged
I choose to identify with the
I choose to give my life for the hungry
for those who have been left
out of the sunlight of opportunity
I choose to live for and with those for whom
life is one long, desolate corridor with no exit sign. This is the way I'm going. If it
means suffering a little, I'm going that way. If it means sacrifice, I'm going that way.
And if it means dying for them, I'm going that way, because I heard a voice saying, do
something for others.''
When King made that decision -- and it was a conscious decision -- he caught the
attention of a perceptive New York Times reporter, David Halberstam, who traveled
with King for several weeks during that period. "King has decided to represent the
ghettoes,'' he wrote. "He will work in them and speak for them but their voice is
harsh and alienated. If King is to speak for them truly, then his voice must reflect their
voice. It, too, must be alienated and it is likely to be increasingly at odds with the
rest of American society.'' Halberstam was right -- and the FBI and the CIA agreed. From
that point on, they accelerated their attempt to subvert the life and work of one of the
greatest lovers of American democracy that the nation has ever produced. At the same time,
as we listen to the new voice of King and observe him carefully, we have to recognize that
this man was dealing with deep hungers, deep needs, deep weaknesses in his own life. If we
can look at him closely, avoid the voyeurism of modern television, and try to see him with
both integrity and compassion, we realize that in one terrible motion he is both damning
and redeeming himself again and again and again. That's the King I would like us to see;
that's the King I would like us to know --no putty-like King, but a hard, difficult,
I would next suggest that you see King toward the end of his life on the Meredith march
in Mississippi as he walks side by side with Stokely Carmichael, knowing that Stokely
wants the mass media to hear Black Power, and if he's walking with King, the media will be
there. King knows this, but with generosity of spirit, he keeps walking with Stokely. And
a young teenager comes up to King and says, "I hope you understand, now, Dr. King,
you were trying to get us to love white people before we loved ourselves.'' We need to
stay with King long enough to hear all of that. Because when King heard it, he must have
also heard a friend of his saying, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself.''
He knew that black power and black consciousness and black self-love were a religious
imperative, necessary for truly loving anybody, necessary for the future of America.
Healthy self-love is a religious imperative.
When King began to speak out on Vietnam, it was not a popular movement. He risked a
great deal --including, I am convinced, his life. But he had said, "I identify with
the poor,'' and he was not willing to stop his identification at the borders of any
country or any nationality. He knew that the poor of this country were being sent to
destroy the poor of that country; he could not be silent in the face of such tragedy.
Finally, there are two more things that I want to suggest we must deal with as we move
with King through the urban explosions of the late 1960s. As he was going through that
experience, he had to figure out the question constantly: "Do I still believe in
nonviolence?'' And what became clearer and clearer was not that he believed in nonviolence
as some kind of abstract concept; what he believed in more and more was the necessity for
nonviolent revolution in America if the poor were going to be dealt with in justice and
compassion. That's why King began calling on the Chicanos, the native Americans, the
Appalachian whites, and saying, "Come on together with us black people and let's
gather ourselves together around this issue of poverty. Through the Poor People's
Campaign, let's challenge our government to change its ways.'' He asked them not be
satisfied with testifying on behalf of policy documents. "No,'' he said, "let's
organize ourselves so that we can be the policy makers, so that we can challenge the
policy makers, not with other words, but with deeds.'' That was King, the voice, the
vision, the way toward a compassionate nation.
I suspect the twenty-first century will need a lot of challenging of the policy makers,
not with words but with deeds. So where else could King end up when somebody called to
say, "Martin, the garbage workers are in trouble''? Where else can this Ph.D. in
philosophical theology end up, but going to the garbage workers? Crazy man. Everybody else
knows what Ph.D.s are for, but he apparently didn't. He thought that they were for serving
garbage men. And I call your attention to that because, as Martin used to say, we need
more Ph.D.s who will pay close attention to the deep issues of American life today and
tomorrow in order to create a more perfect union.
The last word of all is in many ways the most painful one, but we must go with King far
enough finally to be able to face the fact -- the hard, necessary fact -- that there is a
very strong likelihood that the agencies of our own federal government were deeply
involved in his assassination. Now what do you do with that? what do we do with
that? For me it's clear that if you follow King that far, there's no chilling out, no
selling out, no running out. There's work to do. And we are the ones who must do it. We
the people must redeem our land and remake America --again and again and again. The whole
future of America depends upon the impact and influence of Martin Luther King, through us,
remaking America again and again.
Suppose There Were a Samaritan Today
by Claire Gaudiani
--a response to Vincent Harding
Claire Gaudiani is the president of Connecticut College, New London, Conn.
Vincent Harding talked to us about what is prophetic and what is transcendent, about
what looks forward and sees the future and guides that future because it is called from a
transcendent spiritual space. He was asking us to remember Christ during the agony in the
garden and not just the Christ of the resurrection. To remember not just the Moses as the
Red Sea parted and the people of Israel crossed and Pharaoh's armies and chariots were
covered behind them, but to remember the Moses who stood at the gates of the Promised
Land, knowing he wouldn't go in. He asked us to remember the pain and the acceptance of
pain, self-doubt and the courage of perseverance.
When the Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles talks to college and university presidents
and provosts, he tells them that the twenty-first century can't happen the way Martin
Luther King and Vincent Harding and you and I would like it to happen unless we start
educating differently. He says that educational institutions do an excellent job, after
all is said and done, of training the rational mind. We have even gotten better at
addressing the emotional development of students. But we fall down dreadfully when it
comes to educating the spirit. We have even lost the language to discuss it; we are afraid
of being considered fundamentalists, or just plain garden-variety crazy, odd, square,
old-fashioned, or, heaven forbid, spiritual. It is not enough, Coles is saying, to
continue working on the intellectual and the emotional. Unless we advance the spiritual,
we will never achieve what Martin Luther King called us to achieve and what Vincent
Harding calls us to remember about Martin's life.
Where is the commitment to carrying out a prophetic call, based on personal courage? If
King had taken a poll in 1956 or 1958 to find out what was the most reasonable thing to
do, it certainly would not have told him that this was the right moment in American
history to make the commitment he was making. But he wasn't making a rational, calculated
decision. Nor was it purely emotional. He acted from spiritual commitment. He felt called
in a prophetic way to connect to a transcendent possibility -- and in carrying it out, he
looked, as Vincent Harding says, naive -- which is the most terrible label you can put on
a modern person. Imagine being called a naive woman --my God, it would be better to be
called poorly dressed. Imagine being called a naive man. Where could you go? What could
you tell your children? We moderns (and postmoderns) seem to feel we have to protect
ourselves against being called naive lest we lose our intellectual identities.
Unfortunately, what we are doing is separating ourselves from the call that Vincent
described -- separating ourselves from the possibility of making a more perfect union.
The men who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of
Rights -- as flawed as they, like all of us, were (even our prophets who hear transcendent
voices are flawed) -- did not operate solely from a powerfully intellectual or emotional
base; they expressed a call that was spiritual. To form a more perfect union called for a
social contract, not just a political framework; they called for a social contract that
declared unalienable rights, but not just in terms of responsibilities (which often sound
vaguely oppressive): actually, they called for rights framed in a relationship to civic
virtues. Civic virtues? Yes, that is a secular term for spiritual qualities; it is secular
enough that I can use it with anybody and escape being called naive.
We are a people called to make a more perfect union because our leaders and founding
documents had the courage to connect what is intellectual with the spiritual. Our founding
fathers based their work on concepts embedded in Greek and Roman democracy and on ideas
germinated and brought forward in the Renaissance and European Enlightenment, and were
informed, even, by native American tribal councils. Those texts move beyond the purely
intellectual to what is spiritual.
I would call on us all, as we are striving to give birth to the twenty-first century,
to remember that what is intellectual and emotional will not suffice. I tell my students
that they are receiving a privileged education, but they are not being educated for
themselves: they are being educated for others. I tell them to listen to the call to
become transforming forces in the communities that they will be a part of, whether they
are in investment banking or in a third-grade classroom, in the arts or law or medicine.
We all have to be courageous enough to hear the call to civic virtues like justice,
tolerance, and equality, virtues that will permit us to bring forth the more perfect union
we claim to desire.
Let me give you three examples, quite short, that will suggest the possibility that
there is moving among us a spirit which might permit us to be more spiritual yet not look
Suppose there were a Samaritan stalking Wall Street, a good Samaritan. Then imagine
this situation. A set of people of color in an out-of-the-way province in Mexico have come
to the point of despair with their government and begin a revolution. We'll call them
Zapatistas. In their effort to insist on social justice from their government, they keep
communicating with the international media even as the tanks start to roll toward them.
But while the Mexican government was denying that it was moving on the Zapatistas, the
Zapatistas took out their powerbook. (It's a fact. I was with them in Copenhagen.) They
got on the Internet and described exactly where the tanks were. When it was clear that the
Mexican government was not telling the truth, what happened next? Capital flight. After
the news hit the international press, in one day the global market moved huge amounts of
money out of Mexico. In twenty-four hours, the Latin American market dropped thirty-nine
points and in less than ten days, the American President was asking the Congress for $40
billion to stabilize the peso, because American banks were taking a beating. And when
Congress said, "We don't think so,'' President Clinton had to go to Asia and Europe
to get collateral funding, being able to meet only $20 billion of it himself.
Where is the Samaritan? The Samaritan treats his neighbor as he treats himself. This is
the basis of social justice. Today, with telecommunication, where there is injustice to
the least of my brothers, and everyone gets to know about it, there is going to be social
destabilization, which causes political destabilization, which in turn causes economic
destabilization through capital flight as the wealthy seek to protect their interests. The
government and the wealthy in Mexico would have been better off if they had treated their
indigenous people as the Samaritan treated the injured man. Because they did not address
the Zapatistas' needs, other wealthy investors pulled out their dollars, treated Mexico as
Mexico had treated the Zapatistas -- they abandoned them. The nuns who taught me years ago
said that if you couldn't have perfect contrition, imperfect contrition would do. If you
can't have perfect motives, imperfect motives will do -- if they have the same outcome in
your life and in your relationship with your brothers and sisters.
What is the moral of the story? It is in the best interest -- the enlightened best
interest, the Toquevillian self-interest rightly conceived -- of those who are well off to
protect their wealth by making sure that the least of their brothers have some hope of
improving their lives. Maybe for the first time, the prophetic texts which call on us by a
prophetic voice to see the transcendent value of our brothers and sisters are being
confirmed for a pragmatic and not spiritual reason. The message ends up being the same.
Take care of the least of your brothers, or your own situation might deteriorate. And so
the story of the Samaritan stalking Wall Street is a story of justice-making.
The second story has to do with Maimonides and micro-lending. I use his eight stages of
tsedakah in a course I teach on literature, service, and social reflection.
Maimonides lays out eight stages of perfection in giving, loving the needy, and taking
care of the poor. The lowest stage -- I won't go through all eight --is to give only when
asked, to give as little as you can get away with, and to do so grudgingly. You can
imagine what the progression is. But the top stage of tsedakah is not simply to
give joyfully, generously and anonymously as much as you can to as many as possible --
although that sounds wonderful, that is not the ideal. The top stage of tsedakah is
a prophetic call to partnership: it is to let the poor into your life, make your
well-being vulnerable and accessible to their well-being, to make a partnership. It might
be in business. Maimonides' ideal would be to make someone in need your business partner
and help her to develop the skills and abilities to participate fully in the work and
benefits of the entity. Amazing! But that is precisely what Mohammed Yunis developed in
Gramein Bank lending that has made 400 million dollars available in developing countries
over the past twenty years. This is a form of lending that has begun to be used in some of
the inner cities of our country. The bank makes loans to non-governmental organizations
that establish community lending co-ops which work with the poor as partners, helping them
to understand the ins and outs of business development and debt repayment. This system, as
practiced in the third world, has less than 2 percent default -- and we're talking about
loans to people who begin with nothing and come to be not just workers but micro-economic
enterprise owners, who eventually help to develop their local bank and fund it with
capital from the micro-economic enterprise that they themselves were helped to develop
just a few years before.
The prophetic text of Maimonides calls on us to do something that is not rational. Why
would I trust someone who had nothing to lose? It does not make sense intellectually. And
emotionally, I do not have anything in common with these people. But if I hear a spiritual
call to social justice, everything changes; my actions are different. They may seem crazy
if the framework is strictly rational or strictly emotional; in the spiritual framework,
partnership with the poor makes perfect sense. It means that I am my brother's keeper,
that I love my neighbor as myself, and that social justice "makes a more perfect
union.'' In fact these micro-economic -- or, as I think of them, Maimonides lending
programs -- are wildly effective economic tools. Hundreds of thousands of poor become
independent and eventually even able to bring other poor into partnership with them. The
United States government now plans to move 40 percent of its US AID money into
micro-economic lending, and the World Bank and IMF are both at various stages of
preparation for putting considerable percentages of their overseas funding into exactly
this framework. Wild! Could Maimonides have had twenty-first-century global economics in
mind? Is tsedakah the ground from which a global economy for the twenty-first
century could spring?
My third example is not economic or social but political. It is happening right now,
and is frightening to talk about because the jury is still out. But because it is a
prophetic call to a transcendent possibility, it is important to think about -- and pray
about. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela had every right to call the equivalent of the
Nuremberg trials; no one would fault him. Nor do I or anyone I know fault the Nuremberg
trials that followed the Second World War and the Holocaust. But instead, hearing a
different call -- perhaps like Martin, hearing the call of a new time -- Mandela is
calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the atrocities of
apartheid. Truth and reconciliation: what can he be thinking about? He is calling people
forward to describe the horrors inflicted on their loved ones, and he is calling people
forward to confess what they did, to own their crimes. Then, the truth having been spoken,
he will be calling them to reconciliation with each other and with the future of the
nation. Not rational. Risky emotionally, potentially incendiary: when you get that many
intense stories going, a conflagration, not reconciliation, could result. If you are
spiritually inclined, however, you realize that some problems, some crises are beyond
justice; they can only be addressed spiritually. Justice cannot be brought about in South
Africa any more than justice could really follow Nuremberg. We need to read Elie Wiesel
and other Holocaust writers and to focus on the possibility that the task of remembering
is with us forever precisely because the trials did not, could not bring truth or
reconciliation. Trials following atrocities are modern tools to find justice through the
law, which is intellectual and rational. But true justice must be addressed. The solution
is much more enormous, and takes place where we really live as human beings. Spiritually.
Mandela calls his people to such a process. He is guided by the prophetic example of
the father of the prodigal son. The father had every right to mete out justice by
punishing his guilty son, who came back to his doorstep, waiting only for a crust of bread
and the opportunity to live with the animals. But the father loved his son more than he
loved justice, more than he loved the rational, efficiency-optimizing structures of
inheritance tax and law and righteousness. That love mitigated justice to mercy, and the
child comes home as his father's beloved. The father made an act of will from his spirit,
not his reason, to love and forgive. And Nelson Mandela is calling us prophetically to
transcendence. He is asking people to come forward and speak the truth and to be forgiven
-- and to forgive each other because they love each other and peace in their midst more
than they love justice and retribution.
This is not New Age sentimentality. I am calling us to face the possibility that the
transcending texts deep in our religious faiths -- which we have spoken to each other for
thousands of years -- may be shaping the framework for a new social, economic, political
well-being that will depend not only on all we know intellectually and on all we have come
to understand emotionally, but will also be grounded, as Martin Luther King's sacrifice
was, in what is spiritual. And American democracy, from its first texts to the present,
still provides the space and opportunity, to build spirituality back into our framework,
if we have the courage to-do-so.
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for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1996, Vol. 46 Issue 3.