National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  January 23, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

King's risky religion

Anyone who has had the opportunity to catch Jesuit Fr. Joseph Brown live knows the eloquence and power of his preaching. And so with his writing. Brown, author of To Stand on the Rock, meditations on black Catholic identity, reviews Stewart Burns’ book To the Mountaintop, a biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that places him not only within a community of black leadership, but also within a deep faith and biblical tradition that was essential to his mission. What emerges is a deeply human prophet who had to make real decisions in real time carrying all his flawed and wonderful humanity with him.

“In narrating how Martin Luther King became a more and more permanent resident in the garden of Gethsemane,” writes Brown, “Burns presents King as a ‘representative self’ -- a man whose life shows us all how to live what the old songs of his faith tradition have been teaching us for centuries.”

Brown’s essay is a good reminder of why we celebrate a King holiday every January.

~ ~ ~

I couldn’t help wondering how a Martin Luther King would fit into today’s political conversation, especially when it veers off into God-talk, with religious candidates seeking the correct political pedigree.

In an on-line column earlier this month, I wondered what King would have to say, for instance, on the “700 Club.” Just how would King’s risky religion -- a faith that owed much to wrestling with God over difficult uncertainties and the press of great demands -- deal with the absolute conviction parading in the public square these days that God is blessing all of America’s ambitions?

King knew that segregation was a symptom of deeper illness, of a societal hubris and a cultural detachment from essential, challenging religion, the kind that wouldn’t play well on television. That’s why, as his mission matured, he confronted the inherent violence of the culture, the resort to force, the exploitation built into much of our foreign policy. His was not a gospel of prosperity and expanding empire but of suffering service.

That led to a speech in 1967, in which he said:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

“These are revolutionary times. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism.”

~ ~ ~

At press time, John Allen filed an exclusive interview with the pope’s new foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, who apparently expressed a slight shift in the Vatican’s earlier staunch opposition to the use of preemptive war. See story. Lajolo, it seems, is attempting to balance what he sees as real-world needs in combating the new global terror reality with the competing need for global consensus on how to proceed.

The shift is subtle and the caveats Lajolo builds into his approach are significant. The entire interview can be viewed at in the Special Documents section.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2004

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