MLK on Work: Justice and Opportunity

By Greg Forster; part three 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.” As we have seen, King’s image is grounded in Christian personalism. Because you are a human person, you have dignity and “somebodiness.” And you are made to do excellent work because you are yourself an excellent work, created by a superior architect from a sound and proper blueprint.

In an unfallen world, we would pass quickly and easily through the three points of King’s talk. From our starting point in human dignity we would pass to the calling to excellence, and from there to the fulfillment of these purposes in God’s plan for history and our participation in it.

But that is not the world we live in. God’s purposes for life and work have been frustrated by the fall. And King – of all people! – is not going to pass over that lightly.

He knows that the calling to excellence is going to ring pretty hollow in the ears of those he’s speaking to. Fortunately, MLK is one of those speakers who adheres to the wise maxim “hang a lantern on your problem.” Rather than try to soft-pedal the part of his message that he knows will be a sticking point, he dwells on the difficulty in order to speak directly to his audience’s anxieties.

King is speaking to middle schoolers who know what injustice is and who have seen their parents experience it consistently in their work. They have seen hard work go unrewarded because of a racist caste system. They have seen their parents endure abusive and degrading treatment on the job. And they have seen brutailty employed against anyone who sought to challenge these injustices.

So why strive for excellence in a world that won’t reward it?

Immediately after King first introduces the call to excellence in our work, he begins to address this issue head on. First, he turns the struggle to work in the face of injustice into a calling that itself demands excellent work from us. This transforms what would have been a discouraging burden into a high calling all its own:

And I say to you, my young friends, doors are opening to you — doors of opportunities that were not open to your mothers and your fathers — and the great challenge facing you is to be ready to face these doors as they open.

Notice that calling on these students to strive for excellence in the struggle to advance themselves requires him to assert that in fact, they do have opportunities. It is the powers of evil that that insist advancement simply cannot be achieved. The Chrisitan virtue of hope involves an opportunity-oriented mindset that always seeks out ways to strive for improvement even in the face of seemingly insuperable odds. And if the Christian claim about the universe is right, the Christian virtue of hope is realistic, for if God really is our Father and Lord and Paraclete, then the scope of what it is “possible” to achieve is radically altered.

King goes on to develop this view by citing a familiar American proverb – one whose original form may be of interest to pastors in particular:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great essayist, said in a lecture in 1871, “If a man can write a better book or preach a better sermon or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, even if he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

Now comes the really amazing move. King knows that this American creed of opportunity and innovation will sound pretty hollow to many of the students he’s speaking to.

And so he addresses this head on, speaking directly to those who are tempted to turn away from the calling to excellence by acknowledging their experience while calling them to a larger vision:

This hasn’t always been true — but it will become increasingly true, and so I would urge you to study hard, to burn the midnight oil; I would say to you, don’t drop out of school. I understand all the sociological reasons, but I urge you that in spite of your economic plight, in spite of the situation that you’re forced to live in — stay in school.

There’s a world of insight in those simple words: “This hasn’t always been true, but it will become increasingly true.”

He was right. King could see where the world was going. He knew the internal contradictions of the American experiment were reaching a breaking point, and he could see that the Spirit of God was moving to break the power of the racial caste system.

In other speeches, King often cited the emerging global economy as a liberating force that would bind people closer together. Walking through the different products you use in the morning – sponges from islands in the Pacific and coffee from Africa, and on and on – he would conclude: “Before you even finish your breakfast, you are interdependent with half the world.”

That was right. Perhaps King could not have foreseen the backlash through which we are now living, in which the forces of reaction against the new global world are drawing new strength from fear and anomie amid the dissolution of old cultural certainties. The death throes of the old, ethnocentric public orders – once thought to have been over with the defeat of the fascist powers – may be longer and harder than we had foreseen.

But make no mistake, death throes is what they are. For there is no recapturing the epistemological isolation of the old, closed cultural orders; nor can we by force of will make ourselves ignorant of what we now know, however much damage we may do in attempting to accomplish such a feat.

With the foundation of human dignity, the calling to excellent work and the orientation of this calling within a world where justice and injustice are struggling for dominance, King is now ready to summarize the wisdom of vocation. And this brings us to the street sweeper, whom we will look at in the next and final post of this series.

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