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God Squad: Martin Luther King's memorial day is rooted in faith

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the Sunday Evening Club at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on March 14, 1965. King told a capacity audience that "white and black men alike must learn to live together or they will perish together as fools." Credit: Chicago Tribune/TNS/Jack Dykinga

I am often asked, "Isn't it true that religion is the source of all the problems in the world?" I respond with a question of my own, "Give me your list of the three people who have helped the world the most in the last century." Their lists are almost always identical: Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I then remind them that these three people, who have undeniably helped bring goodness into our world, are not only religious, but all three are professionally religious.

As we approach King's memorial holiday, I would like you to pause and remember that he was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Many children who learn of King in school only learn of "Dr. King" and are thus deprived of knowing him as a man of faith. King's faith was the engine of his politics because his faith was the engine of his hope. And one other point. Today, many are ready to condemn religious folk for urging that the values of their faith inform our political life as a nation. They are often accused of breaking down the wall separating church and state. However, when King was urging the passage of civil rights legislation to ban discrimination, he was never accused of violating separation of church and state. The biblical prophets knew that a faith that was limited to rituals was a faith that had turned its back on God.

We see this connection between faith and hope and political change in a sermon King delivered on Feb. 26, 1956, in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott. The "Faith in Man" sermon is part of King's papers at Stanford University (The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr., Volume VI: Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948-March 1963, Clayborne Carson, Susan Carson, Susan Englander, Troy Jackson and Gerald L. Smith, eds.; kinginstitute.stanford.edu/).

"One of the things that we are witnessing in our age is a growing pessimism concerning the nature and destiny of man. Man has lost faith in himself. And so many would cry out with the writer who referred to man as 'a cosmic accident.' Others would affirm with the cynical writer that 'man is the supreme clown of creation.' Still others would affirm with Jonathan Swift than 'man is the most pernicious little race of odious vermin …'

"At many points it is quite understandable why it is difficult for us to have faith in man. Man has often made such a poor showing of himself. Within a generation we have fought two world wars. We have seen man's tragic inhumanity to man. We have looked to Mississippi and seen supposedly Christian and civilized men brutally murdering the precious life of a little child." (Here King is referring to the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi.)

"We have looked to Alabama and seen a ruthless mob take the precious law of the land and crush it with a blow of their tragic whims and caprices." (Here he is referring to the rioting at the University of Alabama after the admission of a black student, Autherine Lucy.)

"We have seen England trampling over India with the iron feet of oppression. We have seen the British and the Dutch and the Belgians and the French crushing Africa with the battering rams of exploitation.

"Yet, in the midst of this, Christianity insists that there is hope for man. Christianity has always insisted that man's plight is never so low that it can't be better.

"This was certainly expressed in the life of Jesus. Throughout his ministry Jesus revealed a deep faith in the possibilities of human nature. He saw within this sea of humanity not a dead sea of impossibilities, but an ocean of infinite possibilities and potentialities.

"This is expressed very beautifully in a passage in the first chapter of John. Jesus is presented talking to Peter. Now you remember Peter was undependable, vacillating so fickle in his ever-changing moods. But Jesus says to him in substance, although you are Simon now, you will be Peter. It did not look like it. And it was a long time in coming. But it did come. He was saying to Peter 'actually you are like sand, but potentially you are a rock.'" (John 1:40-42)

"Jesus knew that God had given man certain creative powers and had endowed him with high and noble virtues; and that these virtues and powers could be made living realities in the life of man, if he properly responded to the Grace of God.

"Conclusion: If men are willing to submit their wills to God's will and to cooperate with him in his divine purpose, we will be able to turn the world upside down, outside in, and right side up."

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at godsquadquestion@aol.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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