In his Vietnam War sermon titled “Beyond Vietnam” delivered on April 4, 1967—one year to the day of his assassination (April 4, 1968), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the need to move from a culture of things to a culture of persons. King was a personalist by upbringing and by formal education. In the definitive work on King’s personalist orientation, God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rufus Burrow, Jr. writes that King was the heir of the African American religious tradition at home and church. This tradition emphasized
a Creator God who is personal and loving, who demands that justice and righteousness be done, and that compassion be exhibited toward the least fortunate. In this conviction is also the idea that each person, regardless of gender and race, is inherently precious to God, and therefore should be treated as such under actual living conditions. These two convictions are traceable to the Bible, as well as to Afrikan traditional thought and among Afrikans during and after American slavery.
While King was introduced to the rigors of personalist philosophy prior to his doctoral studies at Morehouse College and Crozer Theological Seminary, it was at Boston University Graduate School that King most scrupulously engaged this philosophical and theological tradition. It remained central to King’s thought and activity throughout his life. Here’s Burrow ’s basic definition of personalism:
In a nutshell, minimal personalism is any philosophy that stresses God as personal and human beings as innately precious because they are summoned into existence, sustained, and loved by God…Personalism also stresses the moral autonomy and freedom of persons, as well as the fundamental communal nature of persons.
We find evidence of this orientation throughout King’s corpus. The sermon on the Vietnam War was no exception. Here’s King in “Beyond Vietnam”:
I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit margins and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Dr. King’s words have not lost their value with age! It is as if he were speaking today! How often do you feel that profit margins are more important than people? It reminds me of Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. The creation—human and otherwise—is often viewed today as having only instrumental or utilitarian value: how do humans and nature benefit profit margins?
The triad of evil for Dr. King was not Iran, Iraq and North Korea, but militarism, economic exploitation, and racism. What dominant cultural forces often see as the greatest threats to a society are so often very different from what the dominated peoples in a culture think pose threats to the populace. Here I call to mind lawyer and legal scholar at Stanford Law School Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. Contrary to the slavery and Jim Crow eras which valued oppressed black labor for white man’s profit, the new Jim Crow sees the African American man as expendable—to be locked up behind bars—no longer vital to global economic fortunes. However, it should be added that private prison systems are viewed as ‘good for business’ in communities where they are housed.
How does the present situation relate to King and his personalist orientation? Do you and I really see every person no matter their particular features, capacities and expression as created in the image of a personal God and having inherent worth? Do we see people as inherently entitled to freedom as well as constituted in community, which goes beyond our tribal affiliations to include all humanity in solidarity?
Now if we see ourselves in total solidarity, we can never operate in a spirit of indifference to one another, since we are constituted as free persons in communion. But indifference is the ultimate challenge and temptation we face today. Again, this brings us to King. As Alexander points out, for Dr. King “racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference.”King, Alexander and the authors of Divided by Faith understand that racialization operates by way of variables, not constants. So, while the society has long renounced slavery and Jim Crow laws of ‘legal’ segregation, our post-Civil Rights era society still struggles with social segregation in a variety of ways. Historic legal problems like red-lining from New Haven, Connecticut to gentrified Portland, Oregon (while no longer legal) still devastate and cordon communities. Moreover, the invisible though real line that takes many African Americans in economically segregated communities from school to prison exhaust hope for many today. We need to become more attentive and not allow ourselves to become indifferent. Racialization has not passed. Along with our thing-oriented society that was also alive and well during King’s day, racialization continues to re-emerge and evolve.
How do we demonstrate indifference and reinforce our thing-oriented society? One way is by rolling our eyes and sweeping aside Alexander’s arguments, by resorting to the myth of black exceptionalism which is the basis for “the current system of control,” or by discounting the outcries of the African American community regarding the items raised in this post. We need to listen. We need to ponder and try to connect the dots, learning to see life through their eyes. That is what it means to treat our African American brothers and sisters as persons in communion rather than commodities in isolation in our increasingly thing-oriented society today. Dr. King and the people he represented are still speaking today—are we listening?
Rufus Burrow, Jr., God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), page 70.
Burrow, God and Human Dignity, page 70. Burrow immediately adds that “these ideas are traceable to Afrikan traditional thought, as well as the religious experience of enslaved Afrikans in the United States” (See page 70).
Michael J. Sandel argues for the need to safeguard against market ideology in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of the Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012). For Sandel, a market economy has many merits. However, a market society that defines value by profit margins is deeply disturbing.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, rev. ed., with a new foreword by Cornel West (New York: The New Press, 2012), page 18.
Alexander, The New Jim Crow, page 14.
Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), page 8.
Lizbet Simmons, “End of the Line: Tracing Racial Inequality from School to Prison,” in Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, vol. 2/2 (Spring 2009): 215-241.
Racialization pertains to race and ethnicity’s bearing on such domains as healthcare, education, employment, and the place where one lives.
See Alexander, The New Jim Crow, page 14. I find this narrative at work in a few different ways. One way this narrative surfaces is when people claim racialization is a thing of the past. After all, we have had an African American in the White House and African Americans like Oprah are exceptionally successful in business, so they say. Another way this narrative surfaces is when people claim that President Obama and Oprah are supra-natural exceptions to the rule among African Americans. Both claims are mythical.