March 31, 2005
The World House
Robert M. Franklin
As war rages in Iraq and as President Bush advocates a budget that many fear will further neglect the nation's poor, the writings and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., are as relevant as ever. In particular, the urgent message of his largely ignored "final testament" merits revisiting. Indeed, I hope it will become the basis for careful study and discussion in the months to come, especially as many religious individuals and organizations continue thinking about how to respond to ongoing strife. King's testament is found in the closing chapter of his last book, Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community? published in 1968, the year of his assassination. It is titled "The World House."
King opens with the story of a deceased novelist whose papers include suggestions for future stories. One of the most prominently highlighted ideas is the following: "a widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together." King elaborates on this metaphor, suggesting that it communicates "the great new problem of humankind. We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to live together -- black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu -- a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace." In other words, "whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
King was at pains to communicate that humanity's interrelatedness is not simply a political and economic reality, but represents a profoundly moral and theological imperative. And as such, people are obligated to exercise prudent stewardship over both the world's resources and our own status as responsible citizens and moral agents residing in what has become the world's only superpower. King's testament demands to be taken seriously by professors and students of religion, America's houses of worship, and the citizenry at large.
Let me mention three areas where, if we are to follow King's example and thought, we could flex greater moral muscle. First, King would urge us to practice our commitment to eradicating racism and its many subtle manifestations. Each of us should engage in a critical "diversity inventory" of the religious and secular organizations to which we belong and provide financial support. Are these organizations doing all they can to reverse the legacy of white-skin preference by including ethnic-racial minorities? If not, we should exercise our voices and votes.
Second, King pleads for the tolerance and understanding of others' religions. The xenophobia of the past is now a renewed danger. To the extent that we can, we should be resources for communities that need assistance in viewing other religious traditions as manifestations of a good and generous God who is capable of loving all of God's creatures, even when some of us falter in doing so.
Third, the relatively affluent folks among us should demonstrate courageous moral stewardship by identifying with our poor neighbors and doing all we can to advance policies and programs that accelerate their transition to self sufficiency, while condemning politicians that reward the rich at the expense of the poorest.
One group of religious progressives is out to live up to these demands. The Clergy Leadership Network is jointly sponsoring a national witness against the war to be held at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 2005, the thirty-eighth anniversary of Dr. King's historic sermon against the Vietnam War ("Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence"). The list of fifty organizational sponsors includes The Tikkun Community, Protestants for the Common Good, the National Council of Churches, Drive Democracy, and the Sikh World Council -- America Region. They will focus on alternatives to war and, in the spirit of King, expand the agenda to address poverty, racism, sexism, and other forms of social oppression. The group will also attempt to build a national movement for peace and justice inspired by King's concept of the "Beloved Community." The effort aims to gather 1 million signatures and launch a national bus tour on April 4th. Following music from a youth choir, speakers on the evening roster will include many old and new activist voices, among them Riverside senior minister Dr. James Forbes, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Susannah Heschel, and Imam Feisal Rauf.
Their hope is that these efforts and others like them will echo and reinvigorate King's message of interrelatedness, finding receptive ears within the corridors of power in this nation and throughout the world house.
Robert M. Franklin is Professor of Social Ethics at Emory University.