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Honouring the preacher King

  • FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

By ignoring his religious background and motivation, the Martin Luther King Monument neglects the true measure of this great man.

Kingml5.jpg
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
1929-1968

I was not here for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington — one of the great moments in the history of freedom — but a few weeks later I was able to visit the Martin Luther King Memorial instead.

It was officially opened two years ago on Aug. 28, the 48th anniversary of the March, even though the ceremonies were postponed by hurricane Irene.  The memorial lies between the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, on the Tidal Basin — a prime location.  The 10-metre figure of King himself emerges from a great block of stone, animated by words from the "I have a dream" speech"  "Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope."  It is odd that King looks out across the basin toward Thomas Jefferson, the slave owner, rather than in the opposite direction, toward Abraham Lincoln, the emancipator of the slaves.  Perhaps the idea is that he looks with Lincoln toward the Declaration of Independence excerpted in the Jefferson Memorial — that "promissory note" upon which America had "defaulted" in the language of King's speech of Aug. 28, 1963.  When Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg in November 1863, his "four score and seven years" referred back to that same declaration, drafted by Jefferson.

The King memorial disappoints in another way.  Reverend King is an example of the essential and positive contribution that religion makes to the work of justice and the pursuit of the common good.  King was at the height of his public ministry in 1963, with the March in August, and his most important written work, The Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, the previous April.

The King of 1963, not 2013's truncated memory, stands as a rebuke to those who would separate faith from the works of faith, and would separate religion from public life.  Many tried in the 1960s.  King resisted.  The 50th anniversary celebrations last month overlooked that part of the civil rights movement.  And the memorial does the same, presenting King as an advocate of harmony, not a prophet of justice animated by a biblical vision articulated with great power.

There are quotations aplenty at the memorial from King's famous speeches, etched in stone as a fitting homage to the enduring power of his words.  But King was not a generic orator of great accomplishment, like a stage actor.  He was a preacher, and to present the preacher's words without reference to the Gospel being preached can only be achieved by an act of deliberate forgetting or denial.  The King memorial does just that.

It is a betrayal of King's public ministry, and an ominous sign of our time.  The nonsense in Quebec has earned the government there hoots of derision for its new secularism charter, but the effort to scour public life of any religious influences is not a laughing matter.  The civil rights movement was a religious movement — not exclusively so, but indisputably so.  The fact that its monument on Washington's Mall obscures that indicates a dramatic shift in the conception of religion from a contributor to the common good to constituting a potential threat.

He preached Jesus Christ, and the need to conform our individual and collective behaviour to his teaching.

President barack Obama's favourite King quotation is that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  That's from a sermon preached not far away, at Washington's National Cathedral, just a few days before King was assassinated in Memphis.  The centre of that sermon is a meditation upon Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and the obligation of the rich to be solicitous to the needs of the poor.  How did King bend history toward justice?  He preached Jesus Christ, and the need to conform our individual and collective behaviour to his teaching.

In his letter from jail, King wrote that "I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.'"

"How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?" King asked.  "A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.  To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas:  An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law."

One should find that at the King memorial.  It's not here, nor was it remarked at the celebrations of the March last month.  The memorial honours the man, but neglects his full message.

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Acknowledgement

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Honouring the preacher King." National Post, (Canada) September 19, 2013.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2013 National Post
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