Core Texts: Martin Luther King Jr

In honor of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I’m reblogging this post from last year, lightly edited.

In 2012, I decided to interrupt the regular chronological flow of the Honors seminar readings to jump to the 1950s – 60s and examine selections of King’s thought and work. This was always one of my favorite discussion days and almost everyone encountered King in an entirely new light.

king-knockI chose one of his early sermons, one he preached frequently for over 10 years, as the starting point for understanding the basic convictions and commitments underlying his thought and work. “A Knock at Midnight” often surprises students with its forthright declarations of good and evil in society, commitment to absolute truth, and other presumptions they hold about the vocabulary of “progressive” social thought. This is useful as a self-reflective moment, if embraced, to examine why one responds to King the Baptist preacher with surprise, discomfort, or confusion. As Frederick Buechner once said, “The world is always bewildered by its saints” (The Magnificent Defeat). So how do King’s convictions about civil rights and the secular sphere stand in relation to his ethical and religious convictions?

A second reason I enjoy teaching this text is that its form, the sermon, does not cooperate as readily with social-theoretical grids that some academics apply whose priority in the encounter with the text is to ferret out class and race consciousness. Such approaches like to dispose of the messy, real and uncomfortable material, like King’s religious arguments, as so much embroidery that doesn’t impinge on the “important” content, the abstracted “social justice” core. It takes no small chutzpah to dismiss King’s religious self-understanding and vocabulary as nothing more than self-estrangement, “flowers on the chain” that enslave, or as impediments to social progress, yet that is the cognitive dissonance some embrace. Such ideological impositions are more readily exposed when dealing with a cultural and social icon like King. This predisposition to abstract content is one of the limitations of reading every text like it’s a book. Though his sermons are compiled and can be read as essays or other written forms, you are less likely to engage in fundamental distortions of the text if you encounter it in its native form: as an oral text, as a proclamation heard, as a spoken exhortation. Listen to these texts if you want to engage them authentically.

The texts I recommend for a quick but somewhat complete picture of the breadth and depth of King’s thought and work are “A Knock at Midnight,” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” his final speech, delivered in Memphis at the Sanitation Workers strike (pdf available in the sidebar). Be sure to check out the numerous materials digitally archived by the King Center. You may also want to check out one of the most important contemporary scholars on King, Dr Cornel West of Union Theological.

My friend Jack Heald has helpfully summarized King’s six observations regarding non-violent social change as described in Stride Toward Freedom:

  1. Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage.
  2. Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary.
  3. Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer.
  4. A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it.
  5. A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence.
  6. Faith that justice will prevail.

The Obvious

He’s a Christian minister. Specifically, a Baptist. He’s also from the Southern United States.

He addresses his “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” to the white, “liberal” and “moderate” Christian clergy, and singles them out for criticism. But they’re on his political and religious “side,” right? Why is he criticizing some of his co-belligerents?

The Not-so-Obvious

In a recent book on “The Lord’s Prayer,” N.T. Wright recently referred to the phrase “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as a “manifesto of revolution.” King understands the struggle for civil rights as a duty for the disciple of Jesus. In theological terms, this is because King sees himself, his society, and the world, as living in God’s history, and the future component of that history, the eschatological, is supposed to shape what we do in the present. Further, this living into an eschatological “not-yet” shapes King’s self-understanding of his life and work in prophetic terms. For example, in his final speech, he concludes with an eerily prescient vision of himself as Moses. The “mountaintop” that King says he’s been to is Mount Nebo, a height from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land in which his people would one day dwell. The more you unpack such allusions in King’s work, the richer your understanding of his thought will be.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

— from Dr King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964

The Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century was by no means ideologically monolithic. In 1964, just before the the passage and approval of the landmark Civil Rights Act, King and Malcolm X met briefly in Washington, DC (this page excerpts King’s autobiography about his recollection of this meeting). One of the key fault lines concerned the moral legitimacy of using violence in the struggle for civil rights. King, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Gandhi, was committed to direct, but non-violent action. Malcolm X publicly referred to King as a “religious Uncle Tom” who was in the pocket of the white man. He thought that King’s message of non-violence amounted to defenselessness in the face of the white man’s violence, and served only the interests of white power. King, obviously, disagreed. (See James H. Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? for an in-depth look at this debate.) So what do you think King means by “unarmed truth” in the quote above, what does “fighting back” look like from King’s perspective, and are there moral criteria one should apply to one’s methods for combating injustice? What would those criteria be?

Another opposition opened up by the quote above appears throughout King’s work: that between “unconditional love” and coercive power. Is love really an effectual force for social change and transformation? Can institutions permeated by racism be reformed by unconditional love? Why does King think so, and what does that look like? Pride (In the Name of Love).

AckbarThe Traps

As a minister with a formal seminary education from Crozer Theological and an academic theological PhD at Boston University School of Theology, the images, rhetoric, and theology in the Christian Bible (aka “Old Testament” and “New Testament”) are woven so tightly into his thought that without some familiarity with those images, rhetoric, and theology, your grasp of his words’ meaning and import to his audiences will be desultory, superficial, and at worst, plain wrong.

Example: non-violence = passivity, weakness, cowardice.

“No justice, no peace” the popular slogan goes. Would Dr King agree that? Well, what about justice? How do you get that? Can you have justice without truth, without telling and facing the truth? But do you value truth only if it fits your worldview or social aims–will a lie do just as well? Are truths relative? Is there “your” truth and “my” truth? If one thinks truth is non-absolute, then on what grounds can you demand justice from another since they can simply wave aside your claims about what has and has not happened?

king-thinking

Some linguistic background

King adopts many of the forms and cadences of biblical Hebrew poetry. These poetic forms were refined as musical, specifically within the context of singing in a liturgical setting, hence their suitability for King’s oratory style. Some of the key elements are:

Anadiplosis: Repetition of the final word or phrase in the beginning of the next line. “I have a dream,” “Now is the time.”

Parallelism

  • Antithesis: “the x, not the y”
  • Synonymous: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Chiasm: A B B A

Chiastic structure provides emphasis to two (or more) ideas in a pattern that is easily remembered.

Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill shall be made low;

And the crooked shall be made straight

And the rough places plain.

The chiasm of this passage is:

A   B   –A   –B

A   –A   B   –B

Galileo

galileo-telescopeI have taught excerpts from a few of Galileo’s works–Starry Messenger, The AssayerDialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences–but the best historical insights and discussions come from a close reading of what can only be called Galileo’s primary theological work, the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.

Critical reading and discussion of Galileo and his works, if done from an historically informed perspective, is one of the most profitable correctives to one’s knowledge of the history of science and religion in the pre-Victorian era. As Tim O’Neill wrote in his review of God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, no version of the “hysterical myths” of a Christian Dark Ages is complete without wheeling out poor Galileo to demonstrate the supposed malicious suppression of scientific knowledge by raving, superstitious cardinals and popes in the Catholic Church. The facts, however, about Galileo, the cardinals, the popes, and the connections between the endeavors of empirical science, its philosophical foundations, and the concerns of religion, as actually played out in early seventeenth-century Europe, are far more complex and interesting than “The Myth.”

In his 2000 book When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners?, physicist and philosopher Ian Barbour describes a four-fold model for classifying ways to relate science and religion: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration. “The Myth” has grown weed-like from late nineteenth century polemicists creating and promulgating the “conflict” thesis, the view that science and religion (Christianity) are inevitably at cultural and intellectual war. Despite the fact that this thesis has been long repudiated in academia by the research of actual and competent historians, it persists in the subcultures of armchair Internet polemicists and history-scorning niches of academia itself.

But historical misinformation about Galileo is not limited to axe-grinders. Ignorance about how the great minds in the medieval period advanced the study of nature and the erection of textbook heroes of the Scientific Revolution like Galileo conspire to spread misinformation about who discovered or theorized what and when. Examples abound. From the Wikipedia article on The Assayer linked above, the opening sentence declares that Galileo in this work “first broach[ed] the idea that the book of nature is to be read with mathematical tools rather than those of scholastic philosophy.” No, Wiki friends, Galileo cannot be given credit for first theorizing the connection between physics and mathematics. This insight goes back at least 300 hundred years prior to Galileo, to the fourteenth century. James Hannam quotes one of the “Merton Scholars,” Thomas Bradwardine, in God’s Philosophers,

[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth (…) whoever then has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom. (God’s Philosophers, 176, quoted in O’Neill)

Compare the relatively sparse Wikipedia entry for Bradwardine and this group of thinkers, the “Merton Scholars” or “Oxford Calculators.”

And with that incredibly lengthy introduction thankfully behind us, let’s turn to our Core Text outline and get to some key points about Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

The Obvious

galileoHeliocentrism. The Letter purports to defend the Copernican model of the universe against the reigning geocentric model. You should be able to reconstruct these two models and understand the empirical evidence for them at the time.

Truth. It should go without saying, but these days, one can’t. Mind the distinction between the nature of truths and the knowledge of truths. Galileo argues from the obvious position (and assumes his readers will, too) that the nature of truths is absolute, i.e., nonrelative, while one’s knowledge of any given truth is fallible. (This is not the time to enter into the argument, but the view that the nature of truths is relative–a view I’ve often heard in the classroom asserted as though it were an obvious fact–suffers from the self-refuting implication that there is one truth which is nonrelative, viz., that truth is relative.) One possible source of the disagreement between Galileo and his opponents is the nature and domain of two reports: those from a sacred text and those from sense observation. Does Galileo regard these sources as equally truthful? As equally reliable? If they conflict with each other on some specific matter, how does he think the disagreement should be resolved?

Galileo marshals the Church Fathers and theologians of his own time to support his case. This should matter.

The Not-so-Obvious

A significant portion of the Letter uses the tools of hermeneutics. “What’s that?” Exactly. The four rules for interpreting Scripture formulated by Benito Pereira, S.J., likely informed Galileo’s approach, so you should familiarize yourself with them to gain insights into Galileo’s interpretation of the Bible.

The concept of accommodation is extremely important to understand how Galileo interprets scriptural texts that refer to empirical phenomena and the natural world.

The hermeneutical climax of the Letter is Galileo’s interpretation of a miraculous event described in the 10th chapter of the book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible. You should familiarize yourself with this text independently of Galileo’s quotations.

Galileo’s self-presentation in the opening paragraphs of the Letter should give you some indication why he sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.

“Natural philosophy” is another name for ‘science’ or ‘physics’, but it is not reducible to the empirical sciences. It recognizes, wrestles with, and often explicitly integrates its philosophical foundations in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology.

AckbarThe Traps

The Myth. Using Barbour’s four-fold model for describing how science and religion relate to each other, you should try to classify Galileo’s position as developed in the Letter. Does Galileo adopt one of the models consistently, or does he move among more than one of them?

Galileo’s relationship with the Church. For much of his career, Galileo enjoyed the favor and patronage of many leaders and clerics in the Church. He worked out key elements of the argument in the Letter earlier in correspondence with these friends, notably Benedetto Castelli. See Maurice Finocchiario’s The Galileo Affair for key materials to appreciate this background.

The Trial. It is helpful to know exactly what the charges were against Galileo that led to his prosecution by the Inquisition in 1633, and the evidence for those charges. Though the Church operated as an arm of civil authority, it is helpful to distinguish between the civil and religious censures and penalties actually enjoined on Galileo.

Core Texts: Martin Luther King Jr

In honor of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, today’s core texts post will focus on his work. In 2012, I decided to interrupt the regular chronological flow of the Human Event readings to jump to the 1950s – 60s and examine selections of King’s thought and work. This was always one of my favorite discussion days and almost everyone encountered King in an entirely new light.

king-knockI chose one of his early sermons, one he preached frequently for over 10 years, as the starting point for understanding the basic convictions and commitments underlying his thought and work. “A Knock at Midnight” often surprises students with its forthright declarations of good and evil in society, commitment to absolute truth, and other presumptions they hold about the vocabulary of “progressive” social thought. This is useful as a self-reflective moment, if embraced, to examine why one responds to King the Baptist preacher with surprise, discomfort, or confusion. After all, as one of the preeminent civil rights leaders in world history, he might simplistically be regarded as a “progressive,” in contemporary terms. Which he was! So how do his convictions about civil rights and the secular sphere stand in relation to his ethical and religious convictions?

A second reason I enjoy teaching this text is that its form, the sermon, does not cooperate as readily with social-theoretical grids that some academics apply whose priority in the encounter with the text is to ferret out class and race consciousness. Such approaches like to dispose of the messy, real and uncomfortable material, like King’s religious arguments, as so much embroidery that doesn’t impinge on the “important” content, the abstracted “social justice” core. It takes no small chutzpah to dismiss King’s religious self-understanding and vocabulary as nothing more than self-estrangement, “flowers on the chain” that enslave, or as impediments to social progress, yet that is the contradiction some instructors entertain. Such ideological impositions are more readily exposed when dealing with a cultural and social icon like King. This predisposition to abstract content is one of the limitations of reading every text like it’s a book. Though his sermons are compiled and can be read as essays or other written forms, you are less likely to engage in fundamental distortions of the text if you encounter it in its native form: as an oral text, as a proclamation heard, as a spoken exhortation. Listen to these texts if you want to engage them authentically.

The texts I recommend for a quick but somewhat complete picture of the breadth and depth of King’s thought and work are “A Knock at Midnight,” Letter from a Birmingham City Jail, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” his final speech, delivered in Memphis at the Sanitation Workers strike (pdf available in the sidebar). Be sure to check out the numerous materials digitally archived by the King Center. You may also want to check out one of the most important contemporary scholars on King, Dr Cornel West of Union Theological.

[Edit] My friend Jack Heald has helpfully summarized King’s six observations regarding non-violent social change as described in Stride Toward Freedom:

  1. Nonviolence is not passive, but requires courage.
  2. Nonviolence seeks reconciliation, not defeat of an adversary.
  3. Nonviolent action is directed at eliminating evil, not destroying an evil-doer.
  4. A willingness to accept suffering for the cause, if necessary, but never to inflict it.
  5. A rejection of hatred, animosity or violence of the spirit, as well as refusal to commit physical violence.
  6. Faith that justice will prevail.

The Obvious

He’s a Christian minister. Specifically, a Baptist. He’s also from the Southern United States. These biographical details should inform your analysis.

He addresses his “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” to the white, “liberal” and “moderate” Christian clergy, and singles them out for criticism. But they’re on his political and religious “side,” right? Why is he criticizing some of his co-belligerents?

What do you notice in the 10-year progression of his thought and work starting from “Knock” and ending with “Mountaintop?” Substantively what changes and what remains the same?

The Not-so-Obvious

In a recent book on “The Lord’s Prayer,” N.T. Wright recently referred to the phrase “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as a “manifesto of revolution.” King understands the struggle for civil rights as a duty for the disciple of Jesus. In theological terms, this is because King sees himself, his society, and the world, as living in God’s history, and the future component of that history, the eschatological, is supposed to shape what we do in the present. Further, this living into an eschatological “not-yet” shapes King’s self-understanding of his life and work in prophetic terms. For example, in his final speech, he concludes with an eerily prescient vision of himself as Moses. The “mountaintop” that King says he’s been to is Mount Nebo, a height from which Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land in which his people would one day dwell. The more you unpack such allusions in King’s work, the richer your understanding of his thought will be.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

— from Dr King’s Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Address, 1964

The Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century was by no means ideologically monolithic. In 1964, just before the the passage and approval of the landmark Civil Rights Act, King and Malcolm X met briefly in Washington, DC (this page excerpts King’s autobiography about his recollection of this meeting). One of the key fault lines concerned the moral legitimacy of using violence in the struggle for civil rights. King, in the tradition of Tolstoy and Gandhi, was committed to direct, but non-violent action. Malcolm X publicly referred to King as a “religious Uncle Tom” who was in the pocket of the white man. He thought that King’s message of non-violence amounted to defenselessness in the face of the white man’s violence, and served only the interests of white power. King, obviously, disagreed. (See James H. Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare? for an in-depth look at this debate.) So what do you think King means by “unarmed truth” in the quote above, what does “fighting back” look like from King’s perspective, and which methods do you think are more effectual for combating injustice?

Another opposition opened up by the quote above appears throughout King’s work: that between “unconditional love” and coercive power. Is love really an effectual force for social change and transformation? Can institutions permeated by racism be reformed by unconditional love? Why does King think so, and what does that look like? Pride (In the Name of Love).

AckbarThe Traps

As a minister with a formal seminary education from Crozer Theological and an academic theological PhD at Boston University School of Theology, the images, rhetoric, and theology in the Christian Bible (aka “Old Testament” and “New Testament”) are woven so tightly into his thought that without some familiarity with those images, rhetoric, and theology, your grasp of his words’ meaning and import to his audiences will be desultory, superficial, and at worst, plain wrong.

Example: non-violence = passivity, weakness, cowardice.

“No justice, no peace” the popular slogan goes. Would Dr King agree that? Well, what about justice? How do you get that? Can you have justice without truth, without telling and facing the truth? But do you value truth only if it fits your worldview or social aims–will a lie do just as well? Are truths relative? Is there “your” truth and “my” truth? If one thinks truth is non-absolute, then on what grounds can you demand justice from another since they can simply wave aside your claims about what has and has not happened?

king-thinking

Some linguistic background

King adopts many of the forms and cadences of biblical Hebrew poetry. These poetic forms were refined as musical, specifically within the context of singing in a liturgical setting, hence their suitability for King’s oratory style. Some of the key elements are:

Anadiplosis: Repetition of the final word or phrase in the beginning of the next line. “I have a dream,” “Now is the time.”

Parallelism

  • Antithesis: “the x, not the y”
  • Synonymous: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

Chiasm: A B B A

Chiastic structure provides emphasis to two (or more) ideas in a pattern that is easily remembered.

Every valley shall be exalted

And every mountain and hill shall be made low;

And the crooked shall be made straight

And the rough places plain.

The chiasm of this passage is:

A   B   –A   –B

A   –A   B   –B

Francis Bacon

francis-baconI have used extracts from Bacon’s Novum Organum that focus on his well-known “four idols.” This is an excellent text for introducing the significant cultural change in the West to a period that historians designate as modernity. Important features of modernity are present in the text, but it also straddles the preceding era. Do your background research at carefully curated sites like the Stanford Encyclopedia.

The Obvious

The four idols. Know the differences between them and be able to describe them in your own words.

Why “idols?” What is an idol?

This is a text within a text within a text. The selection is from the Novum Organum, or New Organon, which is Part II and the most complete portion of The Great Instauration. Look up words you don’t know so that you can use and refer to them correctly.

The form of the text is aphoristic. This should matter.

The Not-so-Obvious

The “Baconian method” of induction is present, but must be pieced together from several of the aphorisms.

Bacon is an empiricist, but not a naive one. The human intellect is not a tabula rasa. We see through a glass darkly. So if the student wants to investigate and know Nature “out there” he must account for a human nature that is defective, including and especially his own.

Natural philosophy is another name for ‘science’, but it is not reducible to the empirical sciences. It recognizes and wrestles with its philosophical foundations in logic, metaphysics, and epistemology.

AckbarThe Traps

The Baconian method is a scientific method. Beware essentializing Bacon’s inductive method as “the” scientific method.

Then-and-Now thinking. If Bacon’s doctrine of the idols is accurate, it isn’t limited to the errors of his own time. The careful Baconian scientist is not triumphant – “oh those silly benighted rubes in the Dark Ages” – but epistemologically humble. The Baconian scientist is not immune to the errors described by the idols.

Forgetting the context. Read the title page carefully. What’s the subtitle? What is the overall project of Bacon’s work? What’s going on in late 16th and early 17th century England and Europe?

Gilgamesh

The Obviousgilgamesh-cuneiform

Gilgamesh is an epic, not a “novel.” Please don’t call it a novel or a book. Cute baby mammals die when you do that.

It is ancient and fragmentary (see the picture on left? And you complain about carrying around printed texts…).

It is the tale of Gilgamesh, a powerful, semi-divine ruler.

One of the major themes is human mortality.

The Not-so-Obvious

It is a tale of transformations, in particular Enkidu’s and Gilgamesh’s.

It is a tale that sets forth a definition or vision of what it means to be a civilized society of mortal beings.

Visions, dreams, and prayers are conduits for interaction between the divine and human orders, and are often the prelude to critical decisions and actions in the narrative.

The value system includes concepts like greatness and strength and glory, but the narrator and the characters in the tale may not agree with each other about the sanctioned forms these values should take.

The Cedar Forest and the battle with Huwawa are more than just a backdrop for a Hollywood-style epic showdown.

AckbarThe Traps

It is a tale in which the divine order both harms and helps the human order. Avoid exclusive thinking about these categories because the text supports a complex, often ambiguous relationship between the gods/spirits and humans. Of course, to point this out is only to make what should be an obvious observation; the challenge is to elucidate this complexity and draw interesting, textually supported inferences from it.

There are significant similarities between the tale of Utnapishtim and the story of Noah in Beresheit (Genesis). Don’t reduce one to the other, however, as the differences are many and substantial. This comparison is frequently made and it is almost always mistaken, superficial, boring, or all of the above. Avoid the intellectual laziness in such “nothing but” thinking. Any similarity across cultures and histories as evinced by two texts is going to be complex, not a photocopy.

It is anachronistic to describe the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu as gay or homosexual (do your research). They clearly respect and love each other, and express this love in emotionally and physically intimate ways. Deal with it.

Don’t overlook the role that female characters play in the epic: Ninsun, Shamash, Ishtar/Inanna, Siduri.