Francis and King on Earth

Martin Luther King, Jr., press conference, 1964.

Francis and King on Earth

By   |  Jul. 2, 2016

Our Common Home and the World House: Pope Francis and MLK Jr. on Ecological Civilization

Theodore Walker Jr.

This essay is very much instructed by critical and constructive deliberations at the “Seizing an Alternative” conference – including cafeteria conversations – along with enthusiastic speculations about the content and significance of a then-forthcoming alternative vision, the much anticipated papal encyclical.

Common home resembles world house

Now, in accordance with many hopeful expectations, the continuing struggle to advance global ecological civilization is greatly assisted by Laudato Si’ (“Praise be to you, my Lord”), the title taken from “Canticle of the Creatures” by Saint Francis of Assisi, from whom Jorge Mario Bergoglio took his papal name. The Holy Father makes an urgent appeal to protect “our common home,” planet Earth. And he prescribes bringing “the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development” (paragraph 13). Here, he advances the “worldwide ecological movement” (paragraph 14).

We are now in a position to observe that the Holy Father’s global ethical prescriptions resemble those advanced by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (2010 [originally June 1967]), especially in chapter six, “The World House.” Here, we see that the Holy Father’s vision of “our common home” resembles the vision of Reverend King’s “world house.” (References from King’s writings throughout are from Where Do We Go from Here? unless otherwise cited.)


According to King, avoiding global chaos requires pursuing global community; and this must include pursuing the global “abolition of poverty.” He wrote (pp. 175; 187-190):

Like a monstrous octopus, it [poverty] stretches its choking, prehensile tentacles into lands and villages all over the world. Two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night.…There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it….

The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty….

A genuine program on the part of the wealthy nations to make prosperity a reality for the poor nations will in the final analysis enlarge the prosperity of all.

For Rev. King, concern for the world house is inseparably connected to concern for the poor.

Similarly, Pope Francis prescribes recognizing, as his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi recognized, that there is an inseparable bond between concern for nature and concern for the poor. About Saint Francis, the Holy Father says (paragraph 10):

He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians. He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. … He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

And the Holy Father himself emphasizes “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” (paragraph 16). Under “Global Inequality” (part V), he writes (paragraph 48, 49):

The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation. In fact, the deterioration of the environment and of society affects the most vulnerable people on the planet: “Both everyday experience and scientific research show that the gravest effects of all attacks on the environment are suffered by the poorest” [quoted from Bolivian Bishops’ Conference, Pastoral Letter on the Environment and Human Development in Bolivia El universe, don de Dios para la vida (23 March 2012, p. 17)].

…we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

And this (paragraph 175, italics added):

The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty. A more responsible overall approach is needed to deal with both problems: the reduction of pollution and the development of poorer countries and regions.

According to both the Pope’s vision of “the human meaning of ecology” and King’s vision of “the world house,” abolishing poverty is essential. The Pope adds (paragraph 139, italics added):

When we speak of the “environment,” what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. … We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

Economic progress

According to Michael Greene, author of A Way Out of No Way: The Economic Prerequisites of the Beloved Community (2014), King’s way of thinking about abolishing poverty—throughout the world house—requires that we find alternatives to sheer economic growth (infinitely expanding the economic pie) as the measure of economic progress.

In Where Do We Go from Here? King wrote, “no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty,” and therefore we must “create full employment” and new “forms of work that enhance the social good,” plus an adequate-to-human-flourishing “guaranteed income” (pp. 172-73). For King, simple economic expansion is not an adequate measure of economic progress toward widely shared prosperity.

Similarly, in thinking about our common home, Pope Francis calls us to seek “other ways of understanding the economy and progress” (paragraph 16) and new forms of work (paragraph 127).

Resistance to global ethics

Today, there are those who insist that the Holy Father, as a religious leader, should not address allegedly non-religious issues such as economic policies and human contributions to global climate change (for example, resistance to the Pope’s global ethics was expressed by Ted Cruz, R-Texas in June 2015). Similarly, in 1967, King-critics insisted that he, as a civil rights leader, should not have addressed non-civil-rights issues such as global poverty and war.

Resisting King’s economic and human rights agenda by restricting him to civil rights

King acknowledged that his proposed program for abolishing poverty in the USA reached beyond civil rights. He wrote that his proposal “is not a ‘civil rights’ program, in the sense that that term is currently used” (p. 174, italics added). According to then-current usage (and present), “civil rights” are political rights—especially voting rights—attached to U.S. citizenship and protected by the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other constitutional amendments. Civil rights are constitutionally protected political rights. Unlike political rights, “economic rights” are not constitutionally protected. King, however, recognized that economic rights extend “beyond the boundary of the U. S. Constitution.” Hence, for the sake of abolishing poverty, King called for a “social and economic Bill of Rights, to supplement the Constitution’s political Bill of Rights.”

In the absence of an economic Bill of Rights, proposing to abolish poverty throughout the nation reaches well beyond civil rights. Moreover, proposing to abolish poverty throughout the world house reaches even further (much further!) beyond civil rights, and into the area of global human rights. Concerning the abolition of poverty, King wrote:

Now we are approaching areas where the voice of the Constitution is not clear. We have left the realm of constitutional rights and we are entering the area of human rights. (p. 138)

Accordingly, Michael Greene insists, “It is imperative, then, that those who seek to bring King’s beloved community into fruition use the language of human rights.”

King’s vision of the beloved community embraced all humans throughout the world house, not only U.S. citizens. And his concern for the rights of non-citizens (who have no civil rights) demanded reaching beyond civil rights.

Resisting King’s philosophy of nonviolence by restricting him to civil rights

King saw another serious difficulty with being restricted to civil rights. When the philosophy of nonviolence is placed under the category of “civil rights,” it is thereby reduced to prescribing that U.S. citizens should be nonviolent with respect to other U.S. citizens. When bracketed by civil rights, the philosophy of nonviolence says nothing about violence among nations. According to some of King’s critics, because King was a “civil rights leader,” he should not have opposed war in Vietnam.

In his “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, delivered at Riverside Church in New York City, King complained about “those who ask the question, ‘Aren’t you a civil rights leader?’ and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace.” Against being restricted to civil rights leadership, and thereby excluded from international affairs, King argued that “the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence” is “by no means” excluded from addressing “relations between nations” (p. 194). Instead of restricting himself to domestic civil rights, King prescribed putting “an end to war and violence between nations” (p. 195). And rather than speaking as “a civil rights leader,” King explained that he was speaking as a preacher committed “to the ministry of Jesus Christ” and obedient “to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them” (pp. 144-45).

From civil rights to global revolution

King summarized significant portions of his 1967 book in a speech with the same title, delivered at the eleventh annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) on August 16, 1967. The book adds context. In addition to collaborative exchanges with his SCLC colleagues, King’s 1967 deliberations emerged, in significant part, from his June 1966 collaborations, conversations, and debates with Stokely Carmichael (and others from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]) and Floyd McKissick, along with others from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), while they were continuing James Meredith’s march through Mississippi. While Meredith was in the hospital recovering from a sniper’s gunshot, the march he initiated continued under the tripartite leadership of late-comers McKissick, Carmichael, and King. During and after the Meredith march, each of the three wrote deliberations that converse and debate with the other two march collaborators.

Their mutually influential conversations and debates become obvious when we study each of their almost-immediately-after-the-Meredith-march books: Where Do We Go From Here? by King, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America by Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, and Three-Fifths of a Man by McKissick. In these books, the Baptist preacher (King), the black political power advocate (Carmichael), the political scientist (Hamilton), and the constitutional lawyer (McKissick) are so much in dialogue with each other that fully appreciating any one of these three books requires fully appreciating the other two. (As an aside: Note, too, that fully appreciating this literature is essential to understanding the origin of the philosophy of black power [notice King’s distinction between denotative and connotative meanings of black power, his favorable contribution to the denotative meanings, and his critical rejection of the connotative meanings, in his second chapter, “Black Power”], and, along with study of Malcolm X, essential to understanding the origin of the black theology that appreciated black power in Black Theology and Black Power (1969) by James H. Cone.)

From among the emphases of these leaders, the “civil rights” label is fully appropriate to the Carmichael-Hamilton emphasis upon domestic political-voting rights (that black U.S. citizen-voters should organize a separate black political party) and partly appropriate to the McKissick emphasis upon rights protected by the U.S. constitution (violations of which could lead to a black declaration of independence and a separate black nation), but not appropriate to King’s emphasis upon economic rights, nonviolence among nations, and global human rights. Contrary to much popular remembering of Carmichael and King, their 1967 books show that Carmichael was the “civil rights leader,” and King was the radical global revolutionary.

King called for a global “revolution of values” (pp. 196-202). And in “Beyond Vietnam” he said:

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-bracing and unconditional love for all mankind.… (pp. 160-61)

Unconditional love and ecumenical loyalty to all humans (including our enemies) is genuinely revolutionary. It promises to change our world. Similarly, Pope Francis calls us to make “radical decisions” to reverse global warming and eliminate poverty (paragraph 175), and to “move forward in a bold cultural revolution” (paragraph 114). Like Rev. King, Pope Francis is calling for radical nonviolent global revolution.

World house and global ecology

As indicated in Hak Joon Lee’s The Great World House, King was doing “global ethics,” not only civil rights. Our domestic “civil rights” box is much too small to contain King’s global ethics view.

Nevertheless, by our constantly focusing almost exclusively upon “civil rights” and King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech,” we have, laments Michael Greene, “ended up with an utterly domesticated King—a King stripped of his radicalness and rendered harmless.” Remembering King as only a “civil rights leader” wrongly domesticates King’s global ethics. And such wrongful remembering renders us unable to appreciate King’s prophetic vision of the world house.

The idea of a world house is at the root of global ecological thinking. To be sure, the English word “ecology” derives from the Greek word oikos, meaning “household.” Hence, when we repent of our wrongfully restrictive habit of falsely remembering (re-member-ing) King as only a “civil rights leader,” we can recognize that the idea that we live in a shared “world house” was a prophetic precursor to subsequent ecological thinking about what Pope Francis calls our “common home.”

We may safely speculate that if King had lived even a little beyond April 4, 1968 (perhaps until the first Earth Day in 1970), he would have made more fully explicit the clearly implicit connection between “the world house” and the natural environmental household or eco-system. And he would have encouraged global advances toward ecological civilization. King appreciated natural environments. Prior to the 1963 Birmingham campaign, he retreated to a SCLC training center near Savannah, Georgia for three days. And he sometimes retreated to a little house overlooking a wild marsh at Penn Center, South Carolina. No doubt, King’s appreciation for nature combined with increasing awareness of global ecological problems would have inspired him to do what we are now doing: connecting “beloved community” and “world house” to environmental household and global ecology.

Worldwide neighborhood

Decades before the worldwide web, King was prophetically announcing the emergence of the “worldwide neighborhood” (p. 177). He wrote:

However deeply American Negroes are caught in the struggle to be at last at home in our homeland of the United States, we cannot ignore the larger world house in which we are also dwellers. Equality with whites will not solve the problems of either whites or Negroes if it means equality in a world society stricken by poverty and…doomed to extinction by war.

All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors. This worldwide neighborhood has been brought into being largely as a result of the modern scientific and technological revolutions. The world today is vastly different… (p. 177, italics added)

King’s called us to recognize that we are all neighbors in this increasingly interrelated worldwide neighborhood.

In Where Do We Go from Here? and “Beyond Vietnam” (April 4, 1967) King connected war with poverty. He saw militarism and war as enemies of the effort to abolish poverty. He wrote in the latter:

…America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. (p. 142)

King called for the global abolition of racism, militarism, war, and poverty. And according to recent papal teachings, affirmatively answering these calls is essential to the success of the worldwide ecological movement.

Process-relational philosophy

Process-relational philosophers appreciate that both King and Francis recognize relationality. The Holy Father says “everything in the world is connected” (paragraph 16) and, “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another” (paragraph 42). Similarly, the Rev. King affirmed that all humans “are interdependent” and, “In a real sense, all life is interrelated” (p. 191).

Process-relational philosophers also appreciate King’s appeal to Whitehead in thinking about civilization. King wrote:

We live in a day, said the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “when civilization is shifting its basic outlook; a major turning point in history where the pre-suppositions on which society is structured are being analyzed, sharply challenged, and profoundly changed.” (p. 179)

Also concerning King and Whitehead, process philosopher Brian G. Henning says:

Though there are doubtless many sources of inspiration for King, it is interesting to note that he did read Whitehead’s works closely, and they may have been one of the influences on King’s writings…. King even quotes Whitehead directly in this 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech…

The King Center website shows twenty references to Whitehead, including an image of a Harvard University transcript showing that in 1953 King received a grade of A- in Philosophy 134—The Philosophy of Whitehead.

Realistic optimism

Optimism rooted in what King called “audacious faith” is characteristic of alternative visions inspired by him. Another characteristic of King-inspired visions is optimism rooted in critical scholarly analysis and in commitments to making ethical differences.

In A Way Out of No Way: The Economic Prerequisites of the Beloved Community (2014) economist Michael Greene shows that economic analysis reveals “a way out” of increasing chaos, and toward beloved community. The way out is revealed by bringing King’s economic prescriptions into conversation with economic analyses, such as by William A. Darity, Jr., by Philip Harvey, and by other economists. Greene concludes that our financial resources are sufficient to begin implementing King’s economic programs; and he identifies his King-inspired economic analysis of what is required to achieve community (contrasted with the greater cost of increasing chaos) as a challenge to pessimism.

King’s optimism was not a naïvely idealistic optimism that whistles past graveyards and denies the reality of crucifixion and death. Instead, as demonstrated in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon, King’s stoutly realistic optimism appreciates the full cost of discipleship while nonetheless affirming that the long arc of the moral universe “bends toward justice.”

Both the Reverend King and the Holy Father Francis share a realistic optimism rooted in theological realism, and often supported by scientific analysis. Their optimistic versions of Christian realism do not yield to the untamed cynicism that falsely identifies realism with chronic pessimism about possible ethical achievements in political, economic, national, international, and global relations.


King’s optimism about applying Christian ethics to international politics and global relations was strongly influenced by studying the life and works of Mohandas K. Gandhi. In chapter six, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” of Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) King wrote:

Prior to reading Gandhi, I had about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. The “turn the other cheek” philosophy and the “love your enemies” philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals; when racial groups and nations were in conflict a more realistic approach seemed necessary. But after reading Gandhi, I saw how utterly mistaken I was.

Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale. Love for Gandhi was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking…

In A Call to Conscience (2001), the text of King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance address is introduced by the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama . Here, the Dalai Lama says:

Despite their quite different backgrounds, Dr. King has joined Mahatma Gandhi as a continuing beacon of inspiration to further peaceful revolutions in recent years that, in turn, offer future generations a wonderful example of successful, nonviolent change.

Gandhi and King demonstrated that nonviolence resistance to oppression can yield liberation, even in national, international, and global affairs. Rather than being restricted to individuals and small congregations, ethics can be global.


Like Vatican-inspired visions of our common home, King-inspired visions of our world house can help us advance toward global ecological civilization. Correctly remembering King’s global ethics (including the global abolition of racism, poverty, militarism, and war) can be especially helpful during national Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations each January when the wrongly restrictive “civil rights” label is most strongly applied.

Theodore Walker, Jr. is Associate Professor of Ethics and Society at the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. Click here for the full text with references and bibliography.

Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.

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