now he belongs to the ages

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day back in the States, and there seems to be a current of urgency in the online news services and among my friends and contacts. I’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of tributes and reflections on his legacy compared to recent years. King is one of my true heroes; I take inspiration from his life and words all the time, so trust me, I notice these things. Why the extra interest this year?

Is there an increasing sense of emergency on planet Earth? The economic slump grinds on; the endless war grinds on. Judges and little girls shot in the street. Injustice, poverty and violence haunt the entire world. Globalization seems to bless and curse us at once. Terror and hope live with all of us daily.

Do these teachings still hold weight? Can this man’s absolute commitment to peace and the power of nonviolence still apply in practical terms? Do you really have to ask?

Yeah, I think King’s message, like a seed that germinated slowly and is only now pushing above ground, is actually gaining in importance as we go on, as the world gets eerily small. We can’t escape the reality that this planet has become a community. We’re now involved whether we like it or not with what’s happening everywhere else, from drowning polar bears to mass protests in the streets.

King was there ahead of us. It’s only been in the last few years that I realized the extent of his global vision – that I understood how his push for peace and unity on a large scale were embedded in his teachings from quite early on.

Motivated by keen interest in the satyagraha teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta visited India in 1959. All agree that the experience of this trip had a profound influence on his career and ministry. On this post from last January on pan-Indian blog Sepia Mutiny, I found a recently-discovered recording of King speaking on the radio in India. (Note that the writer of the blog post admits he doesn’t think nonviolence necessarily applies to India in the global age. I don’t agree with him, but his argument is thoughtful, and he makes a connection between King’s work and the problems of modern-day Palestine, Sri Lanka and Iraq. This is the kind of discourse we need.) Here’s an excerpt from the speech:

Many years ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot – and incidentally, he was shot for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot for; namely, for committing the crime of wanting to heal the wounds of a divided nation. And when he was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the dead body of the great leader and said these words: “Now he belongs to the ages.” And in a real sense, we can say the same thing about Mahatma Gandhi, and even in stronger terms: now he belongs to the ages.

And if this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that he so nobly illustrated in his life. Mahatma Gandhi may well be God’s appeal to this generation, a generation drifting again to its doom. And this eternal appeal is in the form of a warning: they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.

We must come to see in the world today that what he taught, and his method throughout, reveals to us that there is an alternative to violence, and that if we fail to follow this we will perish in our individual and in our collective lives. For in a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war.

Today we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence.

King draws a parallel between Lincoln and Gandhi, who were both shot and killed, saying they belong to the ages. It’s sad to remember he met the same fate. And belongs to the ages, aye.

Think about all of this for a second. This was 1959. His work in Alabama and Georgia had barely begun. He didn’t even have full civil and human rights under his own government. The situation of his people – the poverty, the social and political forces arrayed against their advancement – was desperate. And yet, there he was in India, talking about interfaith concepts of nonviolence and world peace. Many Americans of the day would not have been able to find India on a map or tell you one thing about it. Yet King was already trying to lift their eyes up, point them away from focusing only on their own problems. To me it’s an illustration of the yogic teaching that we do not apprehend knowledge, we are all born with it instilled within; and we realize it at different rates according to our willingness. I think King was realizing his true nature quite early. He was already a world spiritual leader, but most couldn’t see it yet.

Notice, too, that even then he was speaking out against the nuclear arms race and the potentially deadly paranoia of the Cold War. This would have been a very unpopular and even dangerous stance for the time; I’m sure it contributed to President Kennedy’s authorizing the FBI to spy on King. (In case you need a reminder that Kennedy wasn’t some great champion of the people.)

In a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, King expounded more on his experiences in India:

Some time ago, it was our good fortune to journey to that great country known as India. I never will forget the experience. I never will forget the marvelous experiences that came to Mrs King and I as we met and talked with the great leaders of India, met and talked with hundreds and thousands of people all over the cities and villages of that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the chords of memories shall linger.

But I must also say that there were those depressing moments, for how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night, no beds to sleep in, no houses to go in? How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population – more than 400,000,000 people – some 380,000,000 earn less than $90 a year? Most of these people have never seen a doctor or dentist.

As I notice these conditions, something within me cried out, Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned? Then an answer came, “Oh no – because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.” I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day to store surplus food. I said to myself, I know where we can store that food free of charge – the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children that go to bed hungry at night.

All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

I just want to highlight a couple of things here. First of all – again – the enormous sympathy for the poor and needy living overseas felt by this man who wasn’t treated as an equal at home. The insight in connecting their struggles to his, and to the economy and well-being of his own nation and the rest of the world. And the advanced and holistic philosophy presented in terms that anyone can understand.

King was an intellectual giant and did not hide it; his practice of weaving his speeches with strands from a number of traditions and schools of thought is on display here. Elsewhere in this same speech he quotes or refers to Lincoln, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, John Donne, Machiavelli, former British prime minister Harold McMillan, the Dred Scott and Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court decisions, Margaret Mead, Aristotle, Plato, Bob Hope and Edgar Allan Poe. He explains the Greek concepts of eros, philia and agape, talks about Ghanian independence and the pan-African movement against colonialism and, of course, makes numerous and complex Biblical references. You could spend months reading history, philosophy and theology just to catch up with this one speech.

Sure MLK was one of a kind, but doesn’t this makes you wonder about how stupid our national dialogue has become? Last year, in another manufactured controversy, President Obama was decried for using terminology that was too complex for average people. Are you kidding? What would his accusers think of this speech? But King wasn’t playing politics; he was arming his listeners against injustice. It’s a basic principle of human relations and leadership: if you respect people’s intelligence, no matter how humble they are, they will pay attention to you. King’s mastery of the rare ability to impart knowledge in a natural and dynamic way of speaking is a key reason he became a hero.

But much more than just an inventory of higher learning, the speech is remarkable for the way it ties it all together, the way it reaches out to the poor of Asia and Africa and the rest of the world, expounds on the interrelated nature of all things – even touching on relativity – and reminds Christians of their duty to the poor and their commitment to peace. King’s philosophy had rock-solid foundations – the kind that don’t age – but real vision for the future. He really was on a mountaintop.

If you still have any doubts whether this message has urgency today, any relevance for a global society, listen to this famous speech from 1967. It’s all here. He identifies war, racism and economic injustice as a three-headed monster working to ravage lives all over the world – with America shouldering much of the responsibility. He affirms that his faith is what compels him to stand up and fight. And he calls for a multinational “radical revolution of values.” It’s breathtaking, and as fresh as the day it was spoken. It’s not just a dream.

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