Dr. Martin Luther King
This morning I read Dr. Martin Luther King’s last Sunday morning sermon, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”. Dr. King preached this at Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, the Sunday before he was assassinated. His text, from Revelation 21: 4-5 was “Behold, I make all things new; former things are passed away."
Several parts of this sermon struck me by their timeliness for our world 43 years later. His main point, that God calls us to be aware of and responsive to the changes and needs of the world, is obviously relevant whenever there is significant change in the world. Even more, I noticed that several of Dr. King’s points about the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and the Vietnam War could be applied to environmental advocacy.
The interrelatedness of all of creation is an important concept for religious environmental thought. The carbon emissions from our cars in Nebraska accumulate in the atmosphere with carbon emissions from all over the world, affecting the climate all over the world and acidifying the oceans. The effects of climate change and ocean acidification are experienced by other people and other species of living things. The fact that our actions have global consequences makes care of the environment part of loving our neighbors.
In this sermon, Dr. King talked about the need for people in his time to develop a global perspective. He said, “No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution.” He continued this point:
Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
Talking about the challenge of fighting poverty, Dr. King discussed the story of the rich man (Dives) and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). “Jesus told a parable one day, and he reminded us that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor.” The problem, explained Dr. King, wasn’t that one man was rich and the other was poor; the problem was the rich man’s lack of awareness. Today we sometimes call such lack of awareness “willful ignorance”.
Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich; Dives didn’t realize that his wealth was his opportunity. It was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day and he never really saw him. He went to hell because he allowed his brother to become invisible.
When we fail to pay attention to impacts of pollution and climate change on some of the poorest people in the world, we allow our brothers and sisters to become invisible. Because it’s difficult for us to think about these things, we put the environmental problems and the people they affect first and worst out of mind. We never really see them.
The Millennium Development Goals include the goal of environmental stability as one of the essential ingredients of ending extreme poverty. Environmentalism in general, and especially religious environmentalism, requires an ongoing awareness of the relationship between a clean, sustainable environment and our ability to meet the basic needs of all of us who share this planet.
Something that separates environmental issues, especially issues of pollution and climate change, from other sorts of issues is that we do not have the luxury of time. Traditional political approaches that involve years of careful compromise and satisfaction with small successes and slow but steady progress are inadequate when feedback loops have already been established and tipping points loom on the immediate horizon.
Dr. King had heard people say that he and other civil rights advocates needed to slow down and quit pushing so hard. If they would “just be nice and patient and continue to pray”, then somewhere down the road things would eventually work out. Dr. King’s response was this, and it applies just as well to environmental advocacy today as it did to civil rights advocacy in the 1960’s:
There is an answer to that myth. It is that time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I am sorry to say this morning that I am absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme rightists of our nation—the people on the wrong side—have used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time."
Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.
Dr. King ended the sermon talking about living in hope and not yielding to “a politic of despair”.
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”