We have a moral obligation to educate and enlighten ourselves. Love and duty are blind without education. This is a theme we find in the life and writing of Martin Luther King Jr.
King was a Christian minister whose nonviolent work for racial justice was inspired by Jesus and Gandhi. But he was also a scholar. He studied sociology, philosophy and theology.
King’s model of thoughtful activism provides an antidote for a culture of quick tweets and silly memes. Our attention spans are short. We skate across the surface of things. King reminds us of the power of the slow and serious study of the humanities. Social change begins with change of heart and also with a change of mind.
So here’s a proposal for Martin Luther King Day: read something! King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a good place to start. King shows there how Socrates and Jesus inspired him to engage in civil disobedience.
If you want to know more about King’s philosophical influences, read his “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” where he explains his philosophy and theology of love. King says there, “All life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers.”
This idea did not pop into King’s mind unformed. He discovered it through an intellectual pilgrimage through the history of philosophy. King’s ideas, and his activism, grew out of a broad understanding of the world’s traditions.
King routinely warns against intellectual and spiritual blindness. In his book, “Strength to Love,” King said it is “not badness but blindness” that causes evil in the world. It was ignorance that led people to crucify Christ and to execute Socrates. The root of racism, hate, and violence is “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
King concludes that we have a “moral responsibility to be intelligent.” And he argues — with a nod to the existentialist philosophers he studied — that moral blindness is a result of a tragic misuse of freedom.
Racists and haters often make a conscious choice to be dumb. Every human being has the capacity to think critically, inquire into truth, and gain enlightenment. But people choose not to exercise this capacity because they are focused on defending their own selfish interests and narrow points of view.
Liberation from ignorance is difficult. It causes anxiety. It is difficult to question authority and stand up for justice. The solution for the anxiety of emancipation is a courageous commitment to truth. We need the courage to think for ourselves and, as King puts it, to “courageously do battle for truth.”
King suggests that the Christian faith provides the ultimate solution. He rejects the idea that human reason and science alone can eliminate hatred and injustice. He says, “Man by his own power can never cast evil from the world.” He says that humanistic hope is based upon an illusion about the inherent goodness of things.
King was, after all, a Christian pastor. In the background of his thinking is the problem of sin and the need for a savior. King tells us that he found the strength to persevere against threats and violence with the help of God.
This pushes us toward further reflection. Are we good enough to save ourselves? Or do we need divine assistance?
In order to answer those questions, we need to embrace the difficulty of thinking and the complexity of faith. A lot of people would like to ignore these sorts of questions. They would prefer to ignore the question of why racism persists, whether violence can be justified, and whether the arc of the universe really does bend in the direction of justice.
But lazy indifference is not helpful. Faith without thought is flimsy. And wisdom is not possible without fear and trembling.
King said, “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
So how do we honor Dr. King? We honor him by working for social justice. But we also honor him by avoiding half-baked solutions and easy answers. In short, we honor him by taking up the task of thinking.