After the recent celebrations and remembrances of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is important to recall some of the messages of his legacy, for they are also among the central tenets of Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam—namely the obligation to love justice and to seek it out. Social Justice has always been central to these religions. Nowadays we call it “engaged Christianity” or “engaged Buddhism,” but the onus for justice has been there since the beginning. (Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. on learning he had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.)
“True peace is not the absence of tension: it’s the presence of justice.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
King was friends with Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who lived in a hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, KY. The two had planned a retreat at the monastery to discuss nonviolent civil disobedience and other issues, but King was assassinated two weeks before the scheduled meeting. Merton himself died under somewhat mysterious circumstances six months later while attending an interreligious conference outside of Bangkok, Thailand. Through Merton, King met the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who, like Merton, was an outspoken critic of America’s war in Vietnam. Dr. King won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.” It was Merton who convinced Dr. King to speak out against the war. In 1967, Dr. King, who had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the prize (photo of Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh, June 1966).
In Faith and Violence, the last book published during his lifetime, Merton was critical of the Vietnam War and of the White House administration in particular. In the section, “From Non-Violence to Black Power,” Merton addressed racial inequality and the Civil Rights Movement in America. He wrote of “religionless religion” and was among the first to raise the question is religion inherently violent, and do the faithful indulge in violence? As recently as 2017, religious thinkers like Rabbi Jonathon Sacks of England have followed up with Merton’s fifty-year-old question. Merton and other Catholic clerics like the Berrigan brothers (and others) were at the forefront of the social justice and nonviolent peace movements in America during the 1960s. Like his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., Merton received threats on his life for his beliefs. He wrote of men waiting to waylay him on the dirt road to his hermitage.
After her husband’s death, Coretta Scott King continued to be a voice for civil rights and equality. She especially encouraged women to play a more active role in fighting for social justice. For years, she lobbied Congress to have her husband’s work and life recognized by observing Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday. Her efforts were realized in 1986. But many other courageous individuals showed us by example that even the smallest act can have lasting contributions to social change. Take for instance Rosa Parks, whose simple gesture on a bus was a catalyst to correct injustice, not just in Montgomery, Alabama, but eventually all across America (and later across the world). Fred Gray, who was both Ms. Park’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s attorney, worked tirelessly through the legal system to challenge laws that fostered inequality and racism. (Photo of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, 1955). If we learn anything from these remarkable lives, it is that they understood King’s directive that it is always the right time to do the right thing. Stand up. Make a difference. Be heard. What are you waiting for?
John Smelcer is the author of over 50 books, including The Gospel of Simon, a daring retelling of Jesus’s crucifixion as told by Simon of Cyrene. Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King’s widow, admired the book for its unyielding message of love, compassion, tolerance, nonviolence and social justice. In the spring of 2015, John Smelcer discovered the earthly possessions of Thomas Merton. (Photo of John Smelcer and Fred Gray, 2014)