Beloved Members and Friends of St. Martin's.
It has long been my habit to spend some time prior to each remembrance of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr re-reading his words and examining the context in which he lived and worked. It is all too easy to forget the realities he and other leaders faced, and especially to think that all the terrible realities that spurred the Civil Rights Movement are in the past.
In the wake of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963 and the signing into law of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Nobel Committee is Oslo, Norway, announced on October 14, 1964 that the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for that year was the Rev. Dr. King, "for his non-violent struggle for civil rights for the Afro-American population," in the words of the Nobel committee. He had been nominated by previous laureate, the American Friends (Quaker) Service Committee, as well as eight members of the Swedish Parliament.
Nobel laureates are required to give a speech on the specific work for which they received their prize. I want to share with you an excerpt from the speech Dr. King gave, with a link to the entire work. In this excerpt Dr. King meditates on the great, underlying modern moral challenge he identified facing modern societies, and his words resonate for us today.
From the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, entitled
"The quest for peace and justice":
"This evening I would like to use this lofty and historic platform to discuss what appears to me to be the most pressing problem confronting mankind today. Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man’s scientific and technological progress.
Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.
Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau: “Improved means to an unimproved end”. This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual “lag” must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the “without” of man’s nature subjugates the “within”, dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.
This problem of spiritual and moral lag, which constitutes modern man’s chief dilemma, expresses itself in three larger problems which grow out of man’s ethical infantilism. Each of these problems, while appearing to be separate and isolated, is inextricably bound to the other. I refer to racial injustice, poverty, and war...."
The entire speech can be read here.
Although he cites neither scripture nor creed in these words, Dr. King spoke to all people. But we are also called as fellow people of faith to lay his words alongside the words of our scriptures, alongside our worship, and alongside our lives as disciples, just as Jesus did. May we be led, by Dr. King’s prophetic witness, to reconsider our priorities: the privilege people over things, especially oppressed people; to embrace the power of love over the power of force; to prioritize our spiritual growth alongside and in response to our technological and material growth.
Please also consider joining me in Park Hall at 9 am this Sunday as I facilitate our adult forum on the topic “The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr from the Pulpit.”