King’s Four Catastrophes

In 1986, a collection of speeches and essays by Dr. Martin Luther King, titled A Testament of Hope, was published.  It is the only major one-volume collection of King’s published works.  I haven’t read it yet, mostly because I only found it while researching this post.  What led me to it was a statement in a New York Times article by Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University titled Dr. King Weeps From His GraveIn the article, West says “King’s dream of a more democratic America had become, in his words, “a nightmare,” owing to the persistence of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism”.   The thrust of Dr. West’s commentary is that things are not that much better today than they were in 1968.  To say West is a firebrand is a huge understatement.  However, we cannot discount his words the way we did Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s; like anything that makes us uncomfortable, we must wrestle with them, face the truth of them and, ultimately, use them to change ourselves for the better.  I want to break down the quote from Dr. King, review it in the light of present day circumstances and see if perhaps Dr. West is right, that we’re really haven’t improved in the last 43 years.

Dr. King said that his dream for America had become “a nightmare” due to the persistence of:

  • Racism _ While we pat ourselves on the back and point to the great strides minorities have made in last 50 years, things still aren’t hunky-dory for them.  We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking we’ve leveled the playing field, so any problems they’re having are of their own making.  The church is complicit in this, too.  How many sermons have you heard preached on social or economic justice?  Or , are they just lip service, meant to make us feel better?  Are they truly taken to heart, inspiring us to make things better for all God’s people?
  • Poverty _ According to the New York Times, 15.1% of Americans live below the poverty line.  That means a family 4 gets by on less than $22,350 a year.  Just so you know, 15.1% equates to a little over 46 million people.  That figure is up from 43.2 million in 2009 and 39.8 million in 2008.  Suffice it to say, this is not an improvement.  So, where does the church fit into this?  Good question.  I suspect most churches priorities are as screwed up as one I recently attended.  While homeless camps and dire poverty existed less than a mile away from them, they were worrying about starting a pre-school and putting up a sign.  But, that’s okay, because they run a food pantry a couple of days a week.
  • Militarism _ In King’s day, the United States was embroiled in a seemingly unending war in Southeast Asia, essentially pouring money down a rat hole to the tune of $686 billion (in 2008 dollars).  Fast forward to 2011 and we’re tied up in 3 wars in Southwest Asia and North Africa and have spent $1.2 trillion.  What has it gotten us?  Well over a million dead and a ruined reputation.  What does the church say about this?  Last Sunday was the 10th anniversary of 9-11 and all too many of them spent the day waving the flag instead of the cross.  Which is just wrong for religion founded by a man who counseled turning the other cheek.
  • Materialism _ This may be where we’ve dropped the ball the worst since ’68.  Materialism has run rampant throughout America and I don’t see an end in sight.  People calling themselves Christians advocate lower taxes on the rich and place the burden of balancing the budget on the backs of those least able to carry it.  People work like crazy, amassing more and more stuff, hoping to fill the void in their lives.  But, it doesn’t work.  About 1 in 6 American are diagnosed with depression and the suicide rate is up from an all-time low in 2000.  The church should be telling people stuff is just stuff and, no matter how much you have, it will never make you happy, fulfilled or anything else.  But, do we?

So, looking at these 4 points, I have to agree with West: we’re not doing nearly as well as we think we are.  And, maybe he’s right that King wouldn’t wanting a monument.  After all, a little revolution is a good thing now and then.