JANUARY 19, 2004
Remembering Martin Luther King
Martin E. Marty
Our house has always remembered Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. Our children sometimes confused the two. Son John's teacher once advised me to confront our six-year-old about his fibbing. "He claimed to have spent a week in a dormitory with Martin Luther" -- whose name had come up in a Lutheran Sunday School class. I confronted John who, in all innocence, insisted he told the truth: we had spent a week with him (when I duoed with King at Hampton Institute) in the summer of 1962. Between sessions, the civil rights leader played with our five boys, hoisting them to a low-lying tree branch and catching them as they jumped. [The Minneapolis Star-Tribune asked now-State Senator John Marty for this reminiscence and published it yesterday. See link at end.]
Needless to say, we spent time telling our little Lutherans about the other Martin Luther. But King always remained vivid to them, as he does to millions of Americans and world-citizens who have at best a vague knowledge of who Martin Luther was.
I begin so informally because King often gets elevated to iconic status, fit into remote niches, described as so full of gravitas that he could not unbend. He could unbend. But I must move on from the fond recall to the less familial, less personalized, and weightier theme for this week.
We argue much these days about how the religious and the civil orders do or should interact. Some think God and the public are served by sculptures and plaques and imposed prayer in public places. Here is my take on how King instead related the two orders. Sociologist Michael Hill, citing Max Weber, showed the difference between the charismatic religious leader, who typically says of a text "It is written, but I say unto you," and the religious virtuoso, who says "It is written, and I insist." "The religious virtuoso follows what he takes to be a pure and rigorous interpretation of normative obligations which already exist in a religious tradition." In American culture, biblical texts were in that tradition.
King, in this sense, was a virtuoso with two sets of texts, neither of which he imposed and both of which he used to persuade. In one pocket were civil texts, especially the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. King would figuratively wave them and say that since 100 percent of the population was committed to these, he "insisted" that they be responded to by and realized among all citizens. In the other were biblical texts, as befit the pocket of an African-American preacher. He would cite Isaiah or Micah or John the Baptist or Jesus and say, in effect, since 80 percent of you profess to be responsive to these texts, I insist that you try to help realize the justice of which they speak.
For at least a moment in 1965, enough people in the White House, the Congress, the Court, the legislatures, and the general public responded and more civil rights were realized. King was religious and he put religion to work when he wanted to reach the conscience of the public. Civil law came into the picture not for the imposition of religion but the assurance of rights.
At our house each year we remember King's use of texts and his persuasive and courageous achievements. We also fondly recall and celebrate the important then-young man who, in 1962, had time for the five little boys on the tree branch.
The link for the Star-Tribune story is http://www.startribune.com/stories/562/4323858.html. Incidentally, John Marty publishes a Sightings-like editorial letter, To the Point!, that usually focuses on Minnesota issues, but has broad ethical and political implications. For To the Point!, see www.apple-pie.org.