MLK on Work: Grounded in Personalism

By Greg Forster; part one of a series.

Many in our movement have heard some version of Martin Luther King’s famous “street sweeper” illustration, which calls on workers to pursue excellence in their work and find dignity and meaning in that pursuit. One of the occasions on which he used it was in a speech at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia in 1967, entitled “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” He was murdered six months later.

In this blog series, I’m going to look at how this address shows us that the street sweeper faith-and-work illustration is embedded in the larger framework of King’s theological and social thought, and what we as a movement can learn from this wider perspective on it.

In the past, when I’ve analyzed this talk, I’ve relied on this transcript from the Seattle Times. But a video of the talk has become available on YouTube since I last wrote about it, and it turns out the transcript is only a selection of material – a sort of highlight reel – from a significantly longer address:

 

The first thing I think we need to grasp about MLK’s street sweeper is how the story is grounded in Christian personalism. This school of thought had a revolutionary effect on King when he encountered it in his studies. It attempts to navigate between the extremes of individualism and collectivism by building social order on the nature of the human person and its concrete needs rather than on any abstract system of moral principles.

Anthony Bradley sums up Christian personalism as the belief that because “men and women are made in the image and likeness of God, they matter!” and thus “as we think about society we are to keep people at the center because they are created free and creative.”

Speaking to junior high students about why this is a critical time in their lives, King begins with the image of a building being constructed. The building won’t come out well if those who build it are simply improvising. Before anyone builds a building, an architect draws up a blueprint.

The idea here is that a human life requires design and management. Today we often speak of this in terms of stewardship. We are responsible to live in a certain way, with intentionality and sacrifice.

This idea that a human life is not arbitrary but ought to be pursued with design is essential to the dignity of the human person, which is King’s next point. King emphasizes to the students that they not allow anyone to take away their sense that they are somebody – their “somebodiness.” There is nobody who is nobody.

Consider how the story Will Messenger shares in the first five minutes of this classic faith-and-work talk shows us how being involved in work and economic exchange with other people contains an inherent pointer to their human dignity:

Of course, King’s purpose is not to encourage narcissism. Today, our movement has to spend a lot of its time resisting narcissism – an inflated sense of somebodiness – because it serves a lot of highly advantaged people who have been told too much about how they are somebody and not enough about how they are responsible to others.

For King, it was all the other way around. His audience had been told all their lives that they existed to serve others. They were treated as mere instruments for others’ ends. King had to work hard to restore their sense of somebodiness. Some of the sections dropped from the Seattle Times transcript involve King going into detail on specific systems of ethnic oppression that construct false racial identities, with narcissistic over-inflated somebodiness part of the definition of what it means to be “white,” and a sense of nobodiness part of the definition of what it means to be “Negro.”

So one really important thing we can learn from this address is that expanding our movement to do a better job of serving those who are lower on the socioeconomic ladder is going to involve adjusting how we deal with issues of identity. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard people in our movement talk about “our workaholic society” (or “culture”) in terms that are clearly defined only by the experience of those at the top of the social ladder, who idolize work because they’ve incorporated it into a narcissistic identity.

The point is not that we should puff up those at the bottom and tear down those at the top. Notice how King doesn’t address his audience’s sense of nobodiness by trying to flatter them into some sort of compensatory narcissism. On the contrary, he calls upon them to find dignity and personhood in their life’s blueprint – in striving to serve something greater than themselves.

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