Do you believe that what you are doing in life is “right”? Do you truly believe that God is “with you” as you struggle through Covid-time and the attacks on our democracy? Does God still speak to individuals???
Those are simple, yes or no questions. And I’m not asking for a “feeling” response: “I feel like what I do is right”; “I feel like God is different for everyone.” Such postmodernly qualifications are unhelpful . I would like to know whether you believe these can be objectively true statements about reality, independent of our own “feelings.” But wait! How can we know what is right, anyway? And how might we know if there even is a God??
Today, thinking about Dr. King and the mess we are currently facing, I have a teacherly impulse. I wish all Americans would read, or reread, one of the underrated classics of the American ideology: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom (1958). And then that we could all have a civil and friendly discussion of its elevating wisdom.
One thing I love about Dr. King was his certainty about the sheer truthfulness of his crusade. And something I love about Stride Toward Freedom is Dr. King’s gentle yet firm insistence on his knowledge about such things, a knowledge that existed independent of himself. His approach to truth was not that of the “expressive individualism” or our Age; Dr. King’s concept of the true was of something independent of himself. And nowhere is that clarified more than in his story of being confronted by the Divine, late one night in a time of worry, in what has become know as the “kitchen table experience.” Again, by way of introduction: this story actually happened as reported, or else it didn’t. Either God spoke to Dr. King–or He didn’t. How do YOU understand this tale, in terms of the nature of TRUTH??? Sadly, there are many readers, in our jaded and decadent culture, who can only understand this story as a legend, done for cynical political purpose. I know: because I have taught the book many times over the years.
You read it, then decide.
Here is the excerpt from King’s Stride Toward Freedom (1958):
“I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.
“Three nights later, on January 30, I left home a little before seven to attend our Monday evening mass meeting at the First Baptist Church. A member of my congregation, Mrs. Mary Lucy Williams, had come to the parsonage to keep my wife company in my absence. After putting the baby to bed, Coretta and Mrs. Williams went to the living room to look at television. About nine-thirty they heard a noise in front that sounded as though someone had thrown a brick. In a matter of seconds an explosion rocked the house. A bomb had gone off on the porch.
“The sound was heard many blocks away, and word of the bombing reached the mass meeting almost instantly. Toward the close of the meeting, as I stood on the platform helping to take the collection, I noticed an usher rushing to give Ralph Abernathy a message. Abernathy turned and ran downstairs, soon to reappear with a worried look on his face. Several others rushed in and out of the church. People looked at me and then away; one or two seemed about to approach me and then changed their minds. An usher called me to the side of the platform, presumably to give me a message, but before I could get there S. S. Seay had sent him away. By now I was convinced that whatever had happened affected me. I called Ralph Abernathy, S. S. Seay, and E. N. French and asked them to tell me what was wrong. Ralph looked at Seay and French and then turned to me and said hesitantly: “Your house has been bombed.”
“I asked if my wife and baby were all right. They said, “We are checking on that now.”
“Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it. I interrupted the collection and asked all present to give me their undivided attention. After telling them why I had to leave, I urged each person to go straight home after the meeting and adhere strictly to our philosophy of nonviolence. I admonished them not to become panicky and lose their heads. “Let us keep moving,” I urged them, “with the faith that what we are doing is right, and with the even greater faith that God is with us in the struggle.”
Now go back to the top, and try to answer those questions from Dr. King’s point of view. We can honor his legacy by continuing to believe those things: that as we keep moving, what we are doing is right, God is with us. And yes, God occasionally even speaks to us, and confronts us in our weariness–sometimes, even late at night, sitting at the kitchen table.
But a mark of the truth decay in our world of 2021 is just how hard it is for so many of us to take these truth claims seriously.