How are you honoring the memory of Martin Luther King today?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is often cited as a major influence in the history of interfaith work in the United States. Are you honouring his memory with an event on Martin Luther King Day? How did he call people of faith to serve the community?
One of the most powerful components of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights work is the strong community that was a part of his advocacy. Howard Thurman had a profound influence on Dr. King’s understanding of Christianity and Jesus’ ministry, and he was inspired by Gandhi’s dedication to nonviolence. He came together with Rabbi Heschel in Selma to bring a spiritually grounded social justice ideology into the public sphere. Dr. King’s resistance would not have reached its height without the support of other activists such as Bayard Rustin, a prominent civil rights and LGBT rights activist who was also a Quaker. And we can’t forget the leadership of Coretta Scott King, and her strong dedication to equality and human rights.
Just as Dr. King had a strong collective supporting his work, he too stood in solidarity with communities seeking justice throughout the world. His commitment to nonviolence led him to advocate against the Vietnam War, and to stand in support with Thầy Thích Nhất Hạnh, who he nominated for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize. In his letter of nomination Dr. King wrote: “Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.” In one of my favorite sermons by Dr. King, his Christmas Sermon of 1967, he states: “All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
As a Buddhist, I believe Dr. King truly embodied the teachings of interconnectedness and loving kindness, and that these were essential pillars in his fight for justice. Like other nonviolent activists, Dr. King has often been categorized as “passive.” While I understand this perspective, I can’t see Dr. King’s work in this light. Because truthfully, is there anything more radical than being dedicated to peace in times of injustice and discrimination? Isn’t it much easier to repeat the colonial cycle of oppression and to resort to violence?
As bell hooks writes, “Love is an action, never simply a feeling.” There is nothing passive about love, peace, or nonviolence. Dr. King is a strong example of how coalitions can bring about positive social change, and his legacy is a strong model for interfaith work today. Now interfaith activism is often viewed in this same “passive” way, and of course like all multicultural work, some interfaith organizing only scrapes the surface. I personally don’t think this should be our goal or ideal. We shouldn’t settle for tolerance. We need to actively discuss our beliefs, to respectfully disagree, to laugh about our similarities and differences. Perhaps even throw our hands up in frustration from time to time. But our liberation is interconnected, and we need this strong, diverse, interfaith community to work towards social justice. Dr. King encouraged this struggle, as he preached in his Drum Major Instinct sermon: “Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."