Martin Luther King Jr. is a national hero, a remarkable figure whose courageous pursuit of justice compelled Americans to recognize and correct our nation’s failure to live up to its highest ideals, those so elegantly expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Yet King’s vision transcended these ideals. He articulated notions of equality, freedom, and justice more aligned with the common good than any imagined by our nation’s founders. For Catholics, King’s philosophy is especially appealing as his personalist, communitarian worldview is remarkably consistent with core Catholic principles. Meanwhile, King’s dream of an America united in universal brotherhood and sisterhood should remain the North Star that guides us as we work to end the divisions created by racial bigotry and prejudice and their enduring legacy.
The foundation of King’s philosophy is his understanding of the human person. King believed in the “sacredness of human personality”—that each person has inherent dignity and worth. For King, as for Catholics, since we are each made in the image of God, the innate worth of every person is fundamentally equal. Therefore, as children of God, universal brotherhood and sisterhood define our relationships with one another.
King rejected the premise that one’s race, occupation, gender, family background, natural intelligence, or skills determined one’s dignity and worth. He recognized that success, even greatness, is not determined by one’s social status or reputation, but by love-inspired service of others. King said, “Anybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t need to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
King recognized that as social beings, we crave fellowship and can only reach our full potential as persons in community. He believed in the solidarity of the human family, and that “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Thus, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” For Catholics, the quest for communion is our preeminent goal. Among the ways we pursue God is by loving others, as God dwells within each person. The failure to love others and treat them justly is a failure to become fully human.
This mentality leads to the recognition that deleterious social conditions often act as obstacles to the full intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual development of human persons. For both King and Catholics, social structures must always serve as the means to human flourishing. They should always be treated as means not ends because social structures can institutionalize injustice, dehumanizing the persons they are meant to serve. Social structures that prevent people from attaining their basic needs, which serve as prerequisites to their full development, are incompatible with human dignity and must be abolished or reformed. Justice, the common good in Catholic teaching and the beloved community in King’s thought, must be animated by love and grounded in the transcendent moral law.
King recognized free will, the human capacity for both incredible works of mercy and petty displays of egotism. He said, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Freedom is to be valued because it allows us to fulfill our responsibilities. Our rights and responsibilities are inextricably linked.
Because he recognized the reality of sin, King did not believe that progress was automatic, nor did he embrace utopian delusions. He avoided the indifference and inaction bred by this type of belief in progress and the embrace of moral evils to achieve a greater good so often following from utopianism. Instead, King was driven by hope, the Christian virtue that inspires our actions and gives individual acts of service cosmic meaning. King argued, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is neither a call for complacency nor a manifestation of excessive sanguinity, but a recognition that history is not governed by mere chance but a loving God. Thus, “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.
The hope that inspires King’s philosophy and Catholic social teaching, and the rich, sophisticated understanding of freedom and justice expressed in each, could not contrast more sharply with the right-wing radicalism that has flourished since President Obama’s election in 2008. The Tea Party movement, shaped by radical individualism, social Darwinism, and a narrow, utopian understanding of liberty, is filled with doomsday prophets predicting the imminent destruction of American freedom at the hands of President Obama. This movement offers conspiracies and paranoia, anti-government crusades, and the promise of an increased consolidation of wealth among multimillionaires and billionaires. The defenders of human dignity inspired by King and Catholic teaching must join together to ensure that these forces will not destroy the great accomplishments of the 20th century and ignore the government’s responsibility to promote human flourishing.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s most powerful vision was of an America no longer stained and divided by the scourge of racism. In one of the great speeches in human history, King famously said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
That dream endures. We still dream of a day when a person’s skin color will matter as much as their eye color, where unfair discrimination based on race will seem silly and strange. To achieve this, however, effort has to be made to break down the social construct that is race. This requires individual conversion through the eradication of the intellectual and spiritual ignorance that generates bigotry, an effort that has made incredible progress in the last fifty years. It also necessitates the creation of a more just society. Disparities in incarceration rates, access to quality healthcare, educational attainment levels, life expectancy, and a variety of other social conditions generate, preserve, and entrench racial identity. These cause alienation and act as a barrier to the construction of the society described in King’s speech.
As we celebrate King’s life and legacy, we can revel in his great achievements, but let us not forget, his work remains unfinished.
This article first appeared on Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good’s Common Good Forum.