God...in Pencil

A good Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to us all.  (a reprise from Oct. 21, 2011)

When I listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, I can believe in God. There may be other times I have, but I can’t remember them specifically. In discussions about belief or not, I’ve heard people say that their personal stories have been determinant. A lot of them include hitting some emotional or spiritual bottom, and hearing a message from God, then being reborn in some state that exemplifies grace, along with which comes both a knowledge of, and a belief in, God; sort of a personal relationship.

I don’t know this place; this sort of state. Throughout the many dark nights of the soul I’ve experienced, I’ve  never found that comfort or profound communication they describe. And yet I like to say prayers. The time spent in gratitude for my life, or mindful intentionality about my place and behavior in the universe can be nourishing, and requires no belief. It’s more an acknowledgement that it feels good to be part of something larger, to be connected, even if it’s just to all the best thought-energy sailing around in my local branch of the universe. You know; a hippie version of spirituality. What I mean to say is: Whether or not I believe in God isn’t a problem for me.

Last week I watched God on my teevee. Well, okay; it was part of a PBS series called God in America, which said America is the most religious nation on earth. Yeah; I blinked, too. I’d think if such a huge majority of us believe in God, and call ourselves religious, we’d be a hell of a lot kinder to one another, and hold far more just values. I guess it doesn’t work that way.  . . .

When the MLK portion of American religious history had high-lighted MLK, I paid closer attention. I do love the man, and his speeches; his vision of a Better America and a Better World. I love hearing his anti-Viet Nam War rhetoric, and his concepts of love and justice and true brotherhood among all humans, and how that needs to inform our politics. His story, of course, is not my story. But often when I hear him speak: his story makes me believe in God while I listen. In one speech he told about a night that one particular “Nigger, get out of town, or I will shoot you dead, and bomb your house” phone call brought his body and his soul to their respective knees. He considered leaving town, then heard God’s voice inside him telling him to keep up his righteous fight, and claiming that he would never leave him.

This is an excerpt from his final speech to sanitation workers at Mason Temple in Memphis:

Some people say that he went off-script here, that The Voice of God came channeling right through him. And I can believe it while I’m watching or listening. He knew right then that he would be dead soon, and he was letting us know that it was all right. As it turned out, the following day he would be shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel, exactly a year after his ‘Why I am opposed to the war in Viet Nam speech. The man’s story knocks me out. Listen to some things he said about war:

Are we living his prophecy concerning American arrogance in his anti-Viet Nam speech?

"I call on the young men of America who must make a choice today to take a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, "You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God."

More from the April 4, 1967 speech:

"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. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.


"A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…" We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, had stated so eloquently:

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.


As we begin to consider advocating for principles that seem lost in the Democratic Party, and America as a whole, I’d like us all to consider how the Social Gospel of the ‘50s and ‘60s was embodied by Dr. King. And if you’re not a believer, at least try to suspend your disbelief for even short times in order to wonder if his visions and admonitions might not have been inspired by God. We can easily pose other theories of his revelations, but in this case Occam’s Razor theory seems easiest: believe that King knew, or believed, from whence the voice came.

And at least while you listen to MLK, then consider a new political statement or manifest that encompasses better lives for all Americans, and all people of the world, pencil into your mind that God may exist, and that people like King may be evidence for it. And since it’s only written in your mind in pencil…it can fade again, but the messages he gave us can remain. We shouldn’t be embarrassed to espouse them. For too long now, the Democratic Party has been trying to couch beneficial policy in economic enlightened self-interest concepts; it’s not working, and it misses the point.

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wendy davis's picture

hope that your days are brighter than usual! it's not likely i'l be back, as i'm in pretty funky shape altogether...for now.

but i did want to mark this day with you all.

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I do believe in God, and I found this sentence attributed to Dr. King to have expressed how I feel:

"I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship."

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Pluto's Republic's picture

Truthful and truly inspired.

I can suspend disbelief and embrace the idea that MLK was channeling a great wisdom, that I actually do believe is accessible. To a few. In the moment that he uttered those words — perhaps it wasn't yet too late. There must have been a time when redemption and reform was was still possible the US. King's words and his vision, however, sound as new and unexplored as the day he spoke them. Still in the box.

King knew as well as anyone the true nature of the American people. He would have known that what he described would never be tried and never come to pass. He must have been well aware of the darkness filling the souls of the psychopaths whom the people selected as their leaders. The sins of the past still cast a dark shadow across this land. But he was right to express his vision, to get the words out there. If only to remind us, in the present, that it didn't have to end this way. He knew he was destined to be a martyr, like all those with a vision of the truth, who put that vision into words.

Believing in the god that King believed in, makes it possible to believe in the Satan that many use to describe the force that created this immoral and unjust nation. On any given day, the US delivers unspeakable evil to human beings around the world. Consider Afghanistan, starving to death in the bitter dark cold while Americans hold back the billions that belongs to them. King was well aware of the evil that overflows from this continent. But he chose to fully occupy his vision, instead, until the evil came for him, as he knew it would.

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Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
— Voltaire

Lookout's picture

...and I appreciate you writing about MLK and his effort to unite working people against war and for justice.

Growing up in B'ham I watched the fire hoses and dogs unleashed on kids. His letter from the B'ham jail still resonates as do so many of his speeches.

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

"If not us, then who? If not now, then when?"

Thanks for the essay!

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

snoopydawg's picture

food is taken out of the mouths of babes. His Vietnam speech was so on point.

Hope you feel better soon, Wendy.

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It is not until the tide goes out that you discover who has been swimming naked.

janis b's picture

for the wonderful essay and sentiments, and videos for remembrance. I really like your title, it draws an image for me of the union of power and subtlety.

Wishing you well.

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When you listened to him on TV you felt you were hearing history, his words carefully chosen back when speachifying was oration. Today Biden said George Floyd's death caused more worldwide recognition. I'll take MLK thank you very much.

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