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…
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.
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.