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To Save the Soul of America: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Renewal of America Today

By March 1, 2008 No Comments

To save the soul of America! I was astounded to learn this was the motto of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, civil rights movement. This motto was quite audacious given the minority status and the oppressed situation of African Americans at the time. African Americans were just thirteen percent of the U.S. population, and they had been racially oppressed for three hundred years. But they wanted to save the soul of America? It would have been much more reasonable if their goal was “to achieve black freedom” or “to obtain equal rights.” However, it was “to save the soul of America.” How was it possible for King and his followers to come up with such a bold axiom? I believe that they could not have chosen better: the motto tells precisely who King was and what his movement meant.

From the beginning King refused to limit his movement to the achievement of African American civil rights and freedom alone. Neither was his goal merely to get a larger slice of the economic pie. Although these basic rights were important, the ultimate goal of his movement was the spiritual and moral renewal of the nation. For King knew that America’s problem was bigger than the legal segregation of Jim and Jane Crow. Because of the country’s long and dark history of genocide, slavery, and segregation, he knew that without moral transformation, racism would continue to mutate into different forms even after legal segregation was dismantled.

What did King mean by “soul”? For King, soul meant the essence, the vitality, the animating center of a person. Soul defines what a person is ultimately about in relation to God, what inevitably affects a person’s decisions and behaviors. At the same time, for King soul indicates the intrinsically relational and interdependent nature of human beings in God. Created in God’s image, the soul belongs to God. And all human beings are interrelated as brothers and sisters in God, who is the same source of our souls. In addition, King believed that, like individuals, a nation is a spiritual and moral entity. The nation is not just an aggregation of isolated individuals; it is a collective entity with a distinctive identity and values–its soul.

Our Current State

Why is King’s motto so important today? America today is at a crossroads. Probably as never before in its history, in the wake of the disaster in Iraq America’s moral credibility and influence are declining in the world. Our soldiers are still being killed, and about two billion dollars are being spent every week in Iraq, with a total expenditure soon to reach a trillion dollars. Despite some progress made in the wake of the “surge,” Iraq still has a long way to go toward national unity.   Although civil rights, freedom, and a larger slice of the economic pie were important, the ultimate goal of King’s movement was the spiritual and moral renewal of the nation.   Meanwhile, the invasion has created more terrorists, and more than 3,300 of our young soldiers and at least 150,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed, with uncounted thousands injured. The situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are also deteriorating despite the outpouring of our financial resources. Just three decades after our miserable failure in Vietnam, we are in another quagmire of greater magnitude and with worse implications. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright calls it probably the worst foreign policy disaster in our history.

But the failures do not just lie abroad. Domestically, about forty seven million people do not have any medical insurance and about forty million people are living under the poverty line–numbers that are growing along with the gap between rich and poor. In 2006, the United States had the highest child poverty rate among the developed nations: twenty two percent. Gun violence and school massacres continue, and many victims of Hurricane Katrina are still stranded.

The majority of American people now sense that our nation is heading in the wrong direction. Yet many of our politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, are beholden to special interests and lobbies, and are therefore unable to lead us. They live in the 24-hour campaign mode for the next election, pandering to popularity rather than serving the public interest. We know that great empires such as Rome’s fell not by outside invasions but by internal decay when they lost their core values, their soul.

And so we have reached a moment for a national soul-searching. As King frequently asked, “Where do we go from here?” Sensing the deep hunger in America for a new direction, almost all presidential candidates are now calling for “change.” The magnitude of the challenges we face demands more than the various policy changes they advocate, however. Mending fences is not sufficient; we have to restructure our house. We need a change not only on a political level but on a societal and moral level as well.

I believe that in our recent history, no one offers such a vision better than did Martin Luther King, Jr. Through his wrestling with the soul of America, he realized that the true solution to the nation’s problems requires a transformation in moral values. King initiated the renewal of democracy in America on a societal level through grassroots movements (nonviolent, civil rights struggles) that challenged the political establishment of the time (“desegregation”) on the one hand, while pressuring deeper moral transformation of the nation (“integration”) on the other. Given American history’s alternating cycle of racial progress and backlash, he knew that there can be no sustainable policy change without political change, no viable political change without social change, and no meaningful social change without spiritual and moral change. Just as the success of King’s movements (e.g., the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act) became possible through the mobilization of massive numbers of people for moral renewal, we need now the kind of moral change that can inspire and empower massive numbers of people of good will for the renewal of our civil society and the deepening of our democratic politics.

Freedom in a Global Society

For moral and spiritual renewal, I believe that we need to examine the foundational values and myths of our nation, especially the notion of “freedom.” This value is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche as our national anthem demonstrates: “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The notion of America as “the land of opportunity” is closely tied to it. Couched in the ideas of individual rights and a free-market economy, this value has served our nation well over the last centuries. The question is whether this value of freedom is as functional today as it has been in the past. Our nation and all the nations of the world are changing. As globalization accelerates, we find ourselves living in a more and more interdependent world economically, socially, and culturally. Demographic changes in our nation point toward increasing complexity and interdependence among different racial and ethnic groups. Is the American idea of freedom compatible with the reality of interdependence that globalization is creating? As physical spaces and natural resources are running out, what does freedom mean?

In its social practices, freedom is open to two possibilities: either it turns into selfsufficiency, detached from higher moral purposes, or it is used as the opportunity to serve others in creating a better society. Many of our social problems result from our choice of the former over the latter. Our major spiritual problem lies in the pervasive cultural endorsement and idealization of self-sufficiency to the point of asserting supremacy. This is slowly destroying the soul of our nation. The cultural ideology of self-sufficiency blocks us mentally and spiritually from seeing a larger picture, a longer vision, and the deeper problems of our

Over the last seven years, the Bush administration has reinforced this mentality of self-sufficiency-unto-supremacy by giving more tax breaks to the rich, asserting American military power over others, attempting to gain permanent Republican control of Congress through gerrymandering tactics (remember Tom DeLay!), and granting almost a free hand to the exploitation of nature. The administration itself has made it clear that it feels supremely above the law. The consequences are the deterioration of our race relationships and our natural environment, the devastation of our urban conditions and our relationship with international allies. The kind of disillusionment and malaise now manifest in the polls and editorial pages is the result of this policy of self-sufficiency and supremacy.

In this respect, the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-21 is telling: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? Then he said, I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Note that Scripture does not mention any law-breaking or immoral actions on the part of the rich fool. He seems to be the ideal citizen for a capitalist society–a rich Wall Street stockbroker who, after earning windfall profits from his investments, is thinking of buying one house in the Bahamas, another in California in addition to his apartment in Upper Manhattan, then early retirement. But Jesus’ view is different. In this passage, Jesus rebukes the self-sufficiency of the rich fool. He is forfeiting his soul because he is solely concerned with his own satisfaction, completely disregarding others. There is no place for others in his mind, neither acknowledgment of nor gratitude toward them. He has forgotten that he is indebted to many people–his workers, the inventors of his farming tools, previous generations–for their part in the accumulation of his wealth. As King noted in a sermon, the rich fool failed to realize that his wealth was a part of God’s commonwealth.1 Rather than sharing his wealth with the community to feed the poor, cloth the naked, and heal the sick, he was selfindulgent. The lesson of the parable is quite stern: Jesus says that this narcissistic self-sufficiency has no place in God’s kingdom.

Freedom as Self-Sufficiency

Our current cultural understanding of freedom is problematic because it has become mistaken for self-sufficiency. This understanding of freedom is a stumbling block against our progress as a society toward building the beloved community. In the name of individual choice, our freedom resists reforming our healthcare system. In the name of economic freedom, we refuse to help the poor. In the name of individual morality, we refuse to take care of our young people born into challenging conditions; instead we lock them behind bars. In the name of national sovereignty, we refuse to cooperate with the world, and in the name of human dominion, we exploit nature. In the name of residential freedom, we create the gated community; in the name of individual rights and justice, we repeal affirmative action. In the name of the free market, we give more tax cuts to the rich. Again, in the name of freedom, we refuse any serious form of reconciliation among the races and any kind of reparation. “Freedom” today is a most convenient excuse for injustice, insensitivity, and ignoring past wrongs.

Self-sufficiency is a denial of the inevitable dependence of the self on others. With the connotation of pride and privilege, it is the attitude that says, “I do not need you; I am perfectly fine without you.” Individually, self-sufficiency creates a culture of self-indulgence; collectively, it creates an ethos of supremacy. When self-sufficiency is combined with social power, it becomes supremacy. Supremacy cannot help but be violent toward others because it denies others’ values, contributions, and participation. When it is legally endorsed, it becomes segregationism, which we saw in the Jim and Jane Crow system of the South. Although legal segregation was abolished, today self-sufficiency and supremacy are very much alive in our culture, becoming the incubator of a more subtle form of racism. At bottom, white racism is the expression of white self-sufficiency. People may ask, “where is racism in America today?” They point out the success of Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, and many stars and athletes. My reply is to them is, “Why do we have Don Imus and Jena Six again and again?”

Racial self-sufficiency is expressed in the attitude that self-sufficient people do not have to know other cultures and their history, in the belief that the privileged have everything to teach and nothing to learn from others. Although they borrow from other people’s culture, food, music, and ideas, they never give them proper credit. “Hasn’t everything that minorities have achieved been made possible under the auspices and with the blessing of whites?” the privileged ask. “We allowed you to come to this country, we allowed you to be free, we allowed you to be educated, and we allowed to you become middle class.” And so we still frequently hear, “Go back where you come from!” As long as this sense of self-sufficiency continues, as a nation we will be spiritually, psychologically, and culturally segregated.

The sense of self-sufficiency is not limited to racism. Religious fundamentalism is another form of self-sufficiency and supremacy; it says that one’s version of religion is the only truthful one. This exclusivism and supremacy deny interdependence and the equality of humanity in the eyes of God. As we saw in the 9/11 crisis and still see the Middle East and many other places, it is the source of violence, conflict, and oppression.

Self-sufficiency is expressed in our economic life as well. Market capitalism and materialism idealize economic and consumer self-sufficiency as if it were the ultimate goal of our life. In the name of merit, individual opportunity, and competence, free-market capitalism promotes this sense of individualistic self-sufficiency, justifying economic segregation between the haves and the have-nots.

Our ecological crisis results from our claim of human supremacy over non-human species. We act as if nature exists solely for our utility. Refusing to acknowledge our dependence on nature, we squander our natural resources while the poor have too little to eat, polar bears starve to death as glaciers are melting down, and every day 153 species become extinct. Yet we keep consuming as if our natural resources were infinite and by some means science and technology will always find ways to solve the problem.

Self-sufficiency dehumanizes the self and others, however, and it destroys a community. Self-sufficiency in the long run spells self-defeat because it inevitably creates fear, anxiety, and loneliness within itself. Self-sufficiency leads to overprotection of oneself and one’s group. We become imprisoned by our fear and ignorance, not knowing what is going on in the world.

Self-sufficiency in any form cuts against the grain of the universe, which comes from the communal God (the trinity) and the beloved community as God’s goal in history. King declared, “He who works against community is working against the whole of creation.”2 He also said:

The universe is so structured that things do not quite work out rightly if men are not diligent in their concern for others. The self cannot be self without other selves. I cannot reach fulfillment without thou. … All life is interrelated.3

The universe belon
gs to God, and in God, all lives are interdependent.

Freedom and Community in King

King was not only a freedom fighter but also a community builder. He knew the proper place of freedom in human life. Freedom is important as the source of creativity and imagination, but by itself it is not sufficient. It needs moral guidance and purpose. Every freedom is incomplete without its fulfillment in the love of others. Freedom should be used to free others from poverty and oppression, rather than pursue the self-sufficiency of detachment or exclusion.

King’s life was not about self-sufficiency but about self-sacrifice. He fought for freedom, not for the sake of freedom but for the beloved community. For King the exercise of true freedom was self-sacrifice that transcends the self rather than being confined to the self. He wanted to be a drum major for others in building the beloved community.

Our nation needs a paradigm shift in our core values. To save the soul of America means to save it from the illusion of selfsufficiency: racial self-sufficiency, freemarket capitalist self-sufficiency, American military self-sufficiency, human selfsufficiency, and religious self-sufficiency. Without the transformation of this culture of self-sufficiency, any social change will be short-lived, and political change will end up being fence-mending, unable to mobilize the collective will of people that is necessary for a viable change. The twenty-first century is not going to be an era of imperialism but of interdependence. America’s problems cannot be solved by one race or one class or one group, just as world problems such as global warming and global terrorism cannot be solved by one nation or race, not even by America alone. They demand collaboration among many nations and people. If we do not stand together, sooner or later we will perish together. The world is changing. We have to readjust ourselves. If we refuse to change, then we will turn out to be the rich fool of the world. As we exemplified the value of democracy and human rights in the last century, it is now time that we, as the world’s largest multicultural nation, exemplify the values of interdependence, friendship, and community. The bottom line is that we have to live together. There is no other option. King said,

We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together–black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu–a family unduly separated in ideas, culture, and interests, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.4

The renewal of America means the transformation of ourselves into the citizens of this great world house created by God. As powerfully demonstrated by Martin Luther King, Jr., Christianity, with its rich tradition of theocentric universalism and spiritual and moral imagination, has much to offer our nation and our world for its moral renewal and transformation.