MLK on Work: Striving for Excellence

By Greg Forster; part two of a series.

MLK’s famous image of a street sweeper, widely familiar in the faith and work movement, is at the center of an profound talk he gave six months before he was murdered, on discerning “your life’s blueprint.” In that talk, he enumerates three elements of a sound blueprint for a human life. With this second post in the series, we come to the second element, the one that most clearly connects work to the metaphor of a blueprint.

We have already seen that the first element in the blueprint of a good life is the dignity of the human person, concerning which MLK draws on the tradition of Christian personalism. This element is the foundation of the building – the blueprint. The other elements of life go wrong when they’re not building on human dignity in this way.

Second on his list of three elements for a sound blueprint is to strive for excellence in all you do:

Secondly, in your life’s blueprint you must have as the basic principle the determination to achieve excellence in your various fields of endeavor. You’re going to be deciding as the days, as the years unfold what you will do in life — what your life’s work will be. Set out to do it well.

In a moment, he is going to connect this issue to questions of justice and particularly to the role of injustice in economic systems. That is a big enough issue, however, that I want to hold off and cover it in full with the following post.

Before we get there, first I want to connect this call to excellence to something that comes earlier in the talk. The way he describes the metaphor of a blueprint for life has always struck me as profound:

Whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, and a building is not well erected without a good, solid blueprint.

What has struck me in the past is the role of the “architect.” If there is a blueprint, there is an architect.

And King is not suggesting to the middle-school students in the audience that they design their own blueprints – that they are the architects of their own lives. On the contrary, he is there primarily to speak to them about what the blueprint for their lives contains. The question is whether they will build their lives according to the blueprint; the blueprint itself has already been drawn up!

We are the builders of our lives, but not the architects. This is, of course, the key difference between a religious and a secular view of human life.

What strikes me now, revisiting this passage, is the image of life’s blueprint as an excellent work that guides us into excellent work. The blueprint is our “pattern” and “guide,” so the building can be “well erected” only if the blueprint is “good,” “solid” and (just a bit later) “proper” and “sound.”

We are able to do excellent work because we are ourselves an excellent work.

This is not an arbitrary or coincidental verbal connection. A standard of excellence is inherent in a religious view of human life. God is not simply there to provide rules we must obey; that could be a deistic view of life, but not a religious one. Mere intellectual belief in a deity becomes religion when worship is involved, and if worship is to be more than merely obeisance before power, it must involve reverence for the excellence (truth, beauty, goodness) of the deity. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”

And because we tend to become what we worship, when we revere the excellence of the creator we also strive for excellence in our own creative work. The image of a blueprint conveys this with precision. God’s excellent work in making us is the guide and pattern for excellence in our own work.

The first element flows naturally into the second because the call to excellence is an essential correlary to the proposition of human dignity. When the concept of human dignity is cut off from its roots in God’s excellence, as it has been in our civilization, it becomes inflated beyond measure. As we noted last time, the faith and work movement today spends a lot of time dealing with narcissism among people who have an inflated sense of their own human dignity; that is what happens when we talk about human dignity without talking about a creator and a vocation to excellence for his creations.

In an unfallen world, we would pass very easily from human dignity to a call to excellence to King’s third element, in which these reach their fruition. However, since the fall we have had to take a lot of complex detours. These include, as we have seen, distorted views of human dignity and, of course, distorted views of what counts as excellence.

King naturally chooses to focus on something else – the failure of economic systems to recognize and reward good work done by the marginalized. We will turn to that in the next post.

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