From his earliest preaching days until the conclusion of his life, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) believed that social ills were the result of defects in the soul, the mind and one’s character. “The universe hinges on a moral foundation,” he would say. A physical law like gravity is built-in, he explained. It must be obeyed. You cannot jump off a building and expect to float safely. So too, God built a moral order into the universe “just as abiding as the physical laws.” The moral order cannot be disobeyed without consequences for the individual and for others.
King’s indictment follows. In modern times “we have adopted a relativistic ethic,” one unhinged from the built-in moral order. We think that truth and falsehood, that right and wrong depend.
- Maybe right and wrong depend on cultural mores; on what is tolerated in a time and place. Or they depend on a subculture within a part of the United States or a section of a big city.
- Maybe right and wrong depend on one’s peer group in school or in the neighborhood or in the office. There’s an assumption that “morality is merely group consensus,” said King. “Right is discovered by taking a sort of Gallup poll.”
- Commonly nowadays rightness and truth are relative to an individual’s own code. One’s feelings and opinions set the standard.
Individual autonomy is a wonderful achievement of modernity. But today’s radical individualism uncoupled from the hinge of the built-in moral standard is ruinous. The detachment is insidious. It starts with the notion of an unencumbered self. It is expressed in phrases like “I accomplished this on my own.” Its highest value is not the triad of liberty and justice for all, but freedom for the individual above all. And freedom, for individualists, means unrestrained liberty; it means freedom from. For individualists life’s goal is a voyage of self-discovery to seek self-actualization. Life’s journey, mediated by the internet, means light attachment to other people and institutions. Soon enough objectivity is rejected and the individual loses touch with their core being. Radical individualism ironically opens the door to authoritarian ideologies sometimes dressed up as populism. Radical individualism in our day means dysfunctional economic, social and cultural elements. Meanwhile all the ragged individuals are left dealing with their own distress.
King knew that the way out involved more than a change in thinking. It’s possible to intellectually affirm the existence of God’s moral foundation and yet deny its existence in daily life, King said. No, tightening the screws to the hinge is a slow, complex process. A public march or picket line is a place to start. How long is the road from Selma to Montgomery? It is 54 miles along U.S. 80 or, if you will, it is all the steps in a lifetime. Experience counts, but its affect on one’s heart and soul must be processed through critical dialogue.
Attachment to the moral hinge requires crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the likes of John Lewis (1940-2020). It requires ultimate loyalty to God and solidarity with others. It requires a daily discipline of relationship-building.
“How long,” King asked? “Not long,” is the reply. That’s “because the universe is hinged on a moral foundation.” To which King often added a paraphrase of abolitionist Rev. Theodore Parker (1810-1860): “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free printed newsletter on faith and work.