Martin Luther King’s Big Ideas

“I Am a Man” Diorama of Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee.

Martin Luther King’s Big Ideas

By   |  Jan. 19, 2016

Editor’s note:  This piece was originally written by John Cobb in preparation for a lecture in February 2015 honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. We are printing it now with minor adjustments. 

I. King Understood the Problems Run Deep.  I am proud and honored to have this chance to comment about Martin Luther King.  We are fellow Georgians, separated by the racial divide, but united by our desire to overcome it.  Because he is a figure who now looms large in our history, it is hard for me to remember that I was four years older than he.  Yet, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, at the age of 35, I was just starting on my career.  His enormous accomplishments at such an early age remind me of the only man I admire more than him, an ancient Jew, named Jesus, who was his inspiration as well as mine.  I am hoping that at least some ways, you may see the “Seizing an Alternative” conference [held June 2015] as belonging to the legacy of King. 

One can only speculate about what a man would have done had he lived.  But in King’s case we have strong indications in terms of what he was already doing when his career was ended by assassination.   I greatly admire his enormous achievements in ending legal segregation, but I admire even more that he understood that the problems for Blacks, and for all of us, lie deeper, much deeper. 

At the time, I, like many of his admirers were troubled by his actions.  There was still much to be done in the area of civil rights.  He should leave other issues, especially the Vietnam War, to others and stick to the one on which he was an expert.  But he saw in a more penetrating way that Civil Rights and peace are not separate goals but expressions of one goal, the Beloved Community.  He split the Civil Rights movement by pointing this out, and felt critical.  But he was right, and I, along with many others, was wrong.

Probably the imperial project of the United States that Vietnam portended was an even greater threat to all his dreams than he could have realized, but that only does him more honor.  While I was still struggling for clarity about what was really going on in the world, my junior fellow Georgian grasped the truth.  While I hesitated to take a stand because it might damage other causes, once he grasped the truth, he would not be silent.  He not only spoke, but also acted.  For that he was killed as a threat to the powers that be.

King understood clearly, as I was only gradually coming to understand, that racism, an economic system that inherently generated poverty, and national imperial ambitions were tightly interwoven expressions of a single mindset.  He was ready to expend all his moral capital, which remained enormous, on “the Poor Peoples Campaign.”  His intention was to force the government to redirect the money destructively spent on war to constructive work to end poverty. 

He might, he just might, have succeeded.  Apparently, the powers that be feared that his success was possible.  They probably recognized King as the most dangerous threat they had faced since the Great Depression.  He understood that in committing himself to being such a threat, he was placing his life on the line.  He did not hold back.  Like Jesus, he was faithful to his calling, even to death. 

Those who killed Jesus attained their goals in an immediate sense.  The danger that masses of Jews would adopt a pattern of nonviolent resistance that would threaten Roman rule was ended.  Resistance would take the form with which Rome was familiar, violent rebellion.  It would be crushed.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ faithfulness to death was not without effect.  The movement that was marginalized in Palestine spread through the empire.  It created within the Roman imperium a large community that did not look to that imperium for guidance and direction.  It did not attack the Roman imperium, but it developed its own ways of dealing with the major issues of life.  Eventually the Roman imperium could survive only by merging itself into this new community.

In the short run, those who killed King also attained their goals.  The passions for racial justice, economic justice, and anti-imperial activities did not end.  But the possibility of their uniting into a single movement to challenge the deeper grounds of all three was lost. 

The movement for racial justice continued and won many battles, but it worked separately from the anti-poverty movement and the anti-war movement.  Despite its many victories, the suffering of black people in the United States has not significantly diminished.  But it has become one cause among many to which people of good will are devoted.  The powers that be have no problem dealing with movements dedicated to alleviating specific ills as long as they do not raise questions about the deeper roots of these ills.  Concessions to pressure are often offered.  But a vast number of Blacks live in poverty and perhaps with even less hope than was present when King led the movement for freedom.

The movement for overcoming poverty has been even more thoroughly marginalized.  Indeed, after the brief period of Johnson’s “war on poverty,” the very idea of doing away with poverty has disappeared from public discourse.  The closest we can now come is “reducing inequality.”  This has achieved respectability because a respected economist, Thomas Piketty, has explained the seriousness of the problem without in any way supporting a radical critique of economic theory.  It is now possible to discuss some superficial remedies without raising the specter of socialism.  It is very unlikely that the policies that are now discussed, even if enacted, would do more than slow down the concentration of wealth.  Inequality is just one issue on the laundry list.

Similarly, opposition to America’s endless wars sputters on.  By avoiding a draft of middle class Americans, the powers that be have insured that there will be no massive protests.  Their control of the press shapes information about the evils of empire in such a way that hostility is directed toward its enemies.  Opposition to war is one more cause on the long list.  It constitutes no real obstacle to the imperialist policies or the global market that concentrates wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.

There is danger that King’s assassination will achieve its goals more fully than the crucifixion of Jesus attained its goals.  This is because the image of King has been defanged even more successfully than that of Jesus.  King was actually killed because he saw the connection between race, class, and war and attacked the underlying basis of all three.  But King is treated as if he were a martyr in the struggle for civil rights.  Most of his followers have accepted this false image.  Since there is always more to be done for the sake of civil rights, they take advantage of his public acceptance as a hero in this area to advance their work.  There is nothing wrong with that.  But King’s deeper insights and commitments, the one’s that really threatened the powers that be, are forgotten.

King’s assassination ended his life just before the ecological crisis grabbed the world’s attention.  Obviously it did not shape his thinking or acting.  But I am quite confident that his penetrating mind would have incorporated ecological issues into his planning.  He wrote:  “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated.  We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.” 

When he spoke here of “life” he may have had only human life directly in view, but I doubt it.  He wrote beautifully of the importance of nature to his spiritual life.  And even if he had not thought this question through when he wrote, I am confident that he would have been quick to recognize that human life is part of a larger interrelated system of life.  He would have seen that the harm of ecological decay falls first and heaviest on the poor and exploited, and he would have been a leader in relating us to the ecological crisis without in any way reducing his commitment to peace and justice for all human beings.  The need to re-think our whole civilization would have become even clearer to him.

II. Continuity with Whitehead.  My career was just beginning to take shape when that of the younger King was ended.  I am making the case – quite confidently, actually – that my work has been in the trajectory to which Dr. King would have given leadership had he lived.  He would not have tried to become an ecologist or a leader in a particular ecological program, and I have not either.  But he would have seen that the wellbeing of Black people was bound up not only with the wellbeing of all people but also with the wellbeing of the whole biosphere. 

King would have continued to focus on the human community, but he would have understood that the human community is part of a larger community and that the civilization we need is one that operates out of this awareness.  He already saw that we need to change the whole economic and political order.  He would have added that this must change our human relation to the rest of creation.  This is what I have tried to articulate as well.   I believe that the phrase, “ecological civilization,” proposed first by Chinese, would have appealed to him as it has appealed to me.

We would certainly have agreed about the need for a civilization that is not based on the exploitation of some people, or some nations, by others.  An ecological civilization must be based on the understanding that we need relationships of mutual support rather than domination.  From this point on I will take full responsibility for the ideas expressed and not keep repeating their continuity with King’s.  But first I will provide one further reason for personal assurance that I live and work in his trajectory.

Dr. King’s graduate studies were in the School of Theology of Boston University.  For several generations this was the leading center of the theology and philosophy called Personalism.  King was a student of the leading Personalist theologian of that day, L. Harold DeWolf, and DeWolf supported him and worked with him for years.  I understand myself, as a Methodist, to be in the tradition of John Wesley, and in the first half of the twentieth century, this tradition found its most adequate philosophical and theological expression in Personalism.  I felt largely at home in it.

However, Personalism first developed in Germany among those who had accepted Kant’s distinction of “nature” and “spirit.”  Its topic was “spirit.”   Like all those who followed Kant, it left “nature” to science.  I rejected this dualistic aspect of Personalism and turned to the new naturalist philosophers who believed nature was much more that Descartes or Kant allowed.  The one on whose thought I wrote my MA thesis was Henry Nelson Wieman.  King apparently had similar concerns about the limitations of Personalism.  In his dissertation he also dealt with the naturalist philosophy of Wieman.   Neither of us became disciples of Wieman, but both saw in his naturalism a needed corrective of the Personalist tradition.

In my view, the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead embodies the best of both traditions in a single coherent ecological philosophy.  King sometimes quoted Whitehead, but I cannot claim to find that King made any special appeal to his thought.  Still, you will understand that my feeling of continuity goes beyond vague sentiment. 

King is a giant figure in the prophetic tradition.  Like so many of the great prophets of the past, he addressed the reality of ruthless power, and that power destroyed him.  I also belong to the prophetic tradition.  But my comfortable survival for 90 years makes clear that I have not really been a prophet.  Sometimes it troubles me that I have not been enough of a threat to the powers that be to have suffered at their hands.  I hope they have underestimated the threat I pose to their unquestioned sovereignty.

III. The Modern Worldview.  For most of us until quite recently, being modern meant being up-to-date or advanced in our thinking and attitudes.  We thought of the modern world as having displaced earlier, inferior ways of thinking and acting.  We thought of this as progress.  Accordingly, there was not much interest in criticizing the modern worldview.  One might propose developments and modifications, but one did not intend to propose an alternative to modernity.  One wanted, instead, to advance it.

In the last few decades, a group of French philosophers have changed this situation.  They have recognized the negative aspects of modern thought and have been deconstructing it.  They have called their work “post-modern.”

Meanwhile more and more people have awakened to the seriousness of the ecological crisis.  The awareness of climate change has been particularly effective in this awakening.  One can hardly avoid seeing that it is precisely the modern world that is responsible for the crisis.  Just taking the modern world for granted as the best possibility is no longer beyond challenge.

I had a head start on this process of criticizing modernity.  For me this came about because of a crisis of faith.  I discovered that the beliefs I grew up with were very different from the beliefs of those who were shaped by recent intellectual leaders.  Their thinking was so much beyond mine, that I felt great pressure to enter into the world they took for granted, but my belief and my personal experience drove me to investigate matters more deeply. 

What I learned was that there were very deep assumptions among modern intellectuals that were rarely mentioned and almost never defended.  If one accepted those assumptions, atheism was the outcome.  But perhaps one might challenge those assumptions.

Let me lead you through a simple exercise that may clarify my meaning.  A fundamental doctrine of modern science is that all objective events, that is, those to which we have access through our senses, must be explained in terms of other objective events.  In other words, only objective events, the sort we can see or be enabled to see with specialized instruments, can play the role of causes of other objective events. 

This doctrine was formulated to oppose the tendency of late medieval scientists to explain events in terms of their purposes.  These scientists were likely to feel that their questions, for example about the liver, were answered if they learned what function it fulfilled.  The moderns said this is not yet science.  Science explains what makes the organ function as it does.  In Aristotelian terms, science should seek efficient causes, ignoring teleological explanations.  Science advanced greatly by focusing on efficient causes and by pressing for these in objective events.

Nature was thus understood as purely objective.  Natural events were thought to have no inwardness or subjectivity.  The model for understanding was the machine.  Everything that happens can be predicted if we know enough about the objective circumstances.  By definition, God is not an object of sense experience.  Accordingly God cannot be introduced as explanatory of any natural events.

In the early modern period, however, one exception was allowed.  Objective events cannot explain the origin of objective events.  Nature with all its amazing order was, as a whole, understood to be created.  God is the Creator.  The normal view of the early modern period was “deism.”  God is Creator and Lawgiver.  Today, it was thought, everything happens according to the design of God as originally enacted. 

In that period, the denial of God’s effectiveness in the world was qualified in an additional important way.  Although God is not a cause in nature, the human soul is not part of nature.  It is subjective and free.  Natural causes do not determine its decisions.  Instead it is subject to the moral law which it may or may not obey. 

The change came with evolution.  The complex world that required a Creator was now understood as evolving by objective processes out of a simpler and simpler one.  Also, human souls were seen as part of nature.  This was, of course, a public crisis for faith.

A number of thinkers pointed out that if human beings are part of nature, then nature is not as modern thought described it.  Nature includes subjects, and subjects make decisions and act intelligently.   However, the majority of scholars held on to the modern dogma and maintained the exclusion of purpose and decision from explaining what happens in the world.  This meant that God was as effectively excluded from a role in the human world as in the rest.  The only reasonable conclusion is atheism. 

When I realized that the atheism of the modern intelligentsia stemmed from this decision to deny causal efficacy to subjective life, I no longer felt pressed to follow it.  To me it has seemed that a change of basic thinking about nature is a much better response.  Even if I brought myself to agree to exclude God from a role in nature, I could not agree to exclude myself from a role in my objective behavior.  Not only are the assumptions that require that exclusion unconvincing, they are repulsive.

In my student days the view that appealed to me had a significant foot-hold in the university.  I was able to study it extensively and to have support in adopting it.  I became a follower of Alfred North Whitehead, who developed this alternative most fully.  I considered Whitehead’s thought to be a great improvement over the modern, and I called it “post-modern” before the French picked up that term. 

When I was awakened to the ecological crisis, I found that here, too, Whitehead’s critique of modernity and his proposal of a different vision were immensely helpful.  The view of nature as mere mechanical object had denuded nature of any value in itself.  The modern world was the first to consider nature merely as instrumental to human ends.  The deep alienation that expresses itself in mindless destruction is uniquely modern.  Whitehead, in contrast, saw intrinsic value in every event.  He saw all events as interconnected.  Many people can see what he saw when they take off their modernist glasses.  King was among them.

IV.  Economics and Agriculture.  I have been emphasizing the philosophical, theological, spiritual, and ethical problems with modernity.   These are the ones that I recognized first.  When I saw that the consequences of modern assumptions were disastrous not only for the human spirit but also the health of the biosphere, I redoubled my efforts to break their hold on the thinking that shapes our civilization.

The tightest and most damaging control by destructive modernity seemed to be in economics.  Given the modernist context, economists had to set their goals and measurements around objective, measurable, things.  They settled on goods and services measured by prices in the market place.  They were not to introduce any values of their own; so increase of money spent constituted the only norm.

This understanding of what is of value entails that increase of market activity is “good,” whatever the kind of activity.  Money spent to over-eat unhealthy foods and then to recover health at the hospital contributes just as much as money spent on education and the arts.  The more rapidly natural resources are consumed the better.  Any obstacles to this kind of growth should be removed.  This mindless consumption is exactly what is destroying the world, but university teaching still supports it, and its approval underlies the economic advice of experts. At one level, everyone agrees that there is something wrong here, but as long as people remain committed to the fundamental assumptions of modernity, they can envision no alternative.  It often seems the major defense of modernity is TINA — There Is No Alternative. 

There are many criticisms of the outcome of following this economic theory, and some questioning of the theory itself.  But most of the criticism falls short of rejecting its fundamental assumptions or the worldview that supports it.  The many criticisms have weakened its hold on the world, but unless the modern worldview is fundamentally challenged, concessions will be local and specific. 

As an example, consider tobacco policies.  In some countries, as in ours, concern for health has led to greatly reducing the role of smoking, despite the positive effect that spending money on tobacco has on economic growth.  Clearly concern about values other than economic ones is allowed to play a role in shaping policies.  Still, huge fortunes are amassed by selling tobacco where public health concerns are not so influential.  In the “free trade” agreements that our government presses on weaker countries, there are often provisions that forbid them from labeling tobacco products as dangerous to health.  In the larger scheme of things, our successful local opposition to smoking counts little against the economistic assumptions we do not directly challenge. 

The dominant economic theory shapes what is taught in university schools of agriculture.  The result is almost unqualified support of the industrialization of agriculture.  This is another disaster weakening the ability of people to feed themselves and contributing to greenhouse gases.  There are many critics, but if they fail to understand how what they criticize is grounded in fundamental modern assumptions, their criticism is likely to have limited effects.  When the assumptions remain intact, response to criticism is likely to be superficial.

V.  Ecological Civilization.  In the previous section, I have used the terms “modern” and “post-modern.”  For us, in the West, they work quite well.  I could call Martin Luther King a prophet of post-modern thought, and see the “Seizing an Alternative” conference as spelling out his post-modern vision.  I could complain about those who lag behind, holding onto outdated ideas.  In part, that would work.

But then, everything would depend on what we supposed “would” or “should” succeed the now crumbling “modern.”  Will it be King’s vision?  I hope so.  But some of the French project an era of deconstruction.  Deconstruction is necessary in any profound change, but if it occurs for its own sake rather than to make way for something new, we may be still worse off.  “Ecological civilization” provides the positive content for which the deconstruction of many aspects of modernity is required.

In China the association of ecological civilization with the post-modern has proved to be a serious problem.  Many Chinese say that their goal is an ecological civilization, but to get to this “post-modern” goal China must first fully develop in the “modern” industrial mode. 

The most important real choice facing China now is whether to modernize, that is, industrialize, agriculture.  Many think this is needed.  They see Chinese agriculture as still largely “pre-modern.”  They assume that this “pre-modern” agriculture must be replaced by “modern,” industrial models.  Then they might ask how to modify these to make them more “post-modern.” 

The truth is that current village agriculture has a far better chance of becoming an ecological agriculture than China will ever have again if it depopulates the countryside and relies on machines to plant and harvest its crops.  Ecological agriculture is an alternative to industrial agriculture.  It becomes very difficult to attain this alternative once modernization has occurred.  On the basis of an ecological agriculture, an ecological civilization has a chance of being built.  Without it, an ecological civilization is hard to envision. 

VI.  King’s Vision of Interdependence:  A New Worldview.  In the current situation people of good will are seeking to solve serious problems in many fields. They win many battles, but the problems are not reduced.  They need an approach that is different in two respects.  First, it seeks change at a deeper level.  Second, it finds that the vision that underlies all the problems is a common one.  Thus, people with diverse concerns can and should work together to change this underlying modern vision.

The vision that needs to be changed is the “modern” one which omits subjectivity from the world and therefore leaves it no qualitative values.  Its quantitative measures encourage wantonly destructive behavior and make it difficult to bring people together around policies and procedures that would alleviate the world’s problems.  The vision we need is the one of interdependence King articulated.  That is the vision of an ecological civilization.

To show this and to develop the meaning of ecological civilization in many fields is the purpose of our ambitious conference, with the subtitle, “Toward an Ecological Civilization.” To claim that this conference belongs to the King legacy is not to claim that it exhausts that legacy.  That legacy includes the level of commitment that leads people to put their bodies on the line — nonviolently.  This is not happening at our conference. 

However, the deep respect we have this part of King’s legacy could be seen in our choice of keynote speaker.  No one has more visibly put his body nonviolently on the line in the past decade than Bill McKibben.  He has been imprisoned repeatedly.  He is ready to be imprisoned again.  He is convinced for excellent reasons that full exploitation of the Canadian tar sands will make the planet humanly uninhabitable.  The goal of stopping the move to human suicide has called forth from him the same totality of personal commitment that King displayed.  I hope the conference, and the work that so many of us are engaged in, will undergird and clarify the commitments to which we are all called.

John B. Cobb, Jr. is founding chairperson of Pando Populus and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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