Dr. King’s Words at MHC Inspire More than Fifty Years Later
Each January, the country celebrates the life and work of the Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More than half a century ago, Dr. King spoke to the Mount Holyoke community, delivering a sermon on October 20 in Gettell Amphitheater.
His powerful words still inspire today, as these quotes attest:
- “All life is interrelated; we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
- “God gave us ‘broad understanding, penetrating vision, the power of endurance, and lasting faith’ in order that we may achieve ‘the brotherhood that transcends race and color.”
- In the fight for equality, “’We shall overcome,’ he trusts, for ‘although the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.’”
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“The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life”
I stand here with a great sense of appreciation for all that this great institution has given to the cultural life not only of our nation but also to the world. It’s certainly a great pleasure to be here. I would like to use as a subject from which to preach this morning “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” Many many centuries ago, John the Revelator was imprisoned out on a lonely obscure island called “Patmos.” While confined in the circumstances, John had a vision of the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven from God. And one of the greatest glories of this new city of God that John saw was its completeness. It was not partial and one-sided, but it was complete in all three of its dimensions, and so in describing the city over in the bread book of revelations, John says this, “The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. Though no new city of God, this city ideal humanity is not an unbalanced entity, but it is complete in all three of its dimensions.”
Now John is saying something quite significant here. For many people, the book of revelations is puzzling to the culture. They look at it as a great enigma wrapped in mystery, but if we were to look at the peculiar, or look beneath the peculiar jargon of the author and what theologians would refer to as a prevailing apocalyptic symbolism, we will find in that book many eternal truths which will forever confront us and one such truth is the truth of this text. What John is really saying is this that life at its best and life as it should be is the life that is complete on all sides, and so that of three dimensions of any complete life to which we can completely give the words of this text and then breadth and height. Now the length of life as we should use it here does not its duration on how long it lasts. It is a push of the life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions. It is the end we’re concerned with for one’s own welfare. The breath of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. And the height of life is the upward reach for God. And so the complete life is something of a great triangle with one angle, which stands the individual person. At the other angle stands other persons and on the tiptop stands the infinite person, God. And without the due development of all three, we cannot live the complete life.
And let us notice first the length of life and John said this is the dimension of life that the individual is concerned with developing his inner powers. This in a sense is the selfish dimension of life. And that is such a thing as rational and help yourself interest. Some years ago a brilliant Jewish Rabbi, the late Joshua Lipman wrote a book entitled “Peace of Mind.” There’s a chapter in that book entitled “Love Thy Self Properly.” And he said in that chapter in substance that before we can love other selves adequately we must love our own selves properly. And many individuals have been plunged into the abyss of emotional fatalism because they didn’t love themselves properly. This dimension of length really means that we have a responsibility to set out to discover what we are made for. We are to set out early in life to discover our mission in life and after we discover our mission in life, we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we can muster. We must set out to do our lives work so well that nobody could do it better. We must set out to do it as if God Almighty called us at this particular moment in history to do it. We must always attempt to achieve excellence in our various fields of endeavor. It maybe in the arts, it maybe in the sciences, it may be in some skill labor in some other field, but whatever we are called to do in life, we must do it so well that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it better.
To carry it to one extreme, if it falls in a man’s luck to be a street sweeper in life, he should seek to sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Beethoven composed music, and like Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should set out to sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” This is what Douglas Mallard meant when he said, “If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill, be a scrub in the valley, but be the best little scrub on this side of the Rio. Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be the sun, be a star. It isn’t by size that you win or you fail. Be the best at whatever you are.” And when we do this, this onward drive to push and end of self-fulfillment, there’s the length of an individual’s life. But we must not stop here. Some people never get beyond this first dimension, they’re often brilliant people. They make great contributions in their various fields of endeavor, for they live as if nobody else lives in the world. They find themselves caught in the crippling shackles of self-centeredness. That is nothing more tragic than to find an individual bogged down in the length of life, devoid of the breadth.
And the breadth of life, as I said is that dimension in which we are concerned about others. It is the outward concern for the welfare of others. May I say to you this morning my friends that an individual hasn’t begun to live until he can rise above a narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. You remember a man went to Jesus one day as we read and heard from the scripture this morning, raising some important questions and he finally got around to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Now this question could have very easily ended up in a philosophical or a theological debate, but Jesus determined not to get bogged down in the paralysis of a analysis, immediately pulled that question out of mid air and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man that fell among thieves. You remember in the story that the priest came by with the Levite but they didn’t stop. And finally a man of another race, a Samaritan, came by and he stopped and administered first aid and helped the man in need. And Jesus said in substance that this was the great man, this was a good man because he had the capacity to project the “art” into the “thou.”
Now when we think about this parable and use our imaginations, we raise the question why did the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side? And as we use our imaginations, many theories come to our minds. We say, “Well they were probably busy, they had to be on time for an important ecclesiastical meeting. And so instead of being late for that meeting they had to keep moving.” Other times we began to wonder whether or not they are ecclesiastical responsibilities and there are ritualistic performances made it necessary for them to keep moving because they could not touch a human body a certain number of hours before they were going to administer the sacrament.
And there are other things that we begin to think about and there are certainly many of them that come to mind. It’s possible that they were going down to Jericho to organize a Jericho road improvement association. That’s another real possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with a problem from the causal source rather than getting bogged down with an individual effect. But when I think about this parable, another thing comes to mind all together. It’s possible that these men were afraid. Jericho Road is a dangerous road.
Some months ago, Mrs. King and I were in Jerusalem and we rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho and I never will forget when we started on the Jericho Road I said to my wife, “I see why Jesus used this as a setting for his parable. Here you have a meandering road, a winding road. Here is Jerusalem, some 2600 feet above sea level and here’s Jericho some 1200 feet below sea level. And you go this distance about 18 miles. This road came to be known in the days of Jesus as the bloody pass. It’s a dangerous road, conducive to robbery. And it is quite possible that the priest and Levite raised questions within as they stood there. Maybe the robbers are still around or maybe the man on the ground is a fake—and he’s simply there in order to get us over for quick and easy seizure.”
And so the first question that the priest raises, the first question that the Levite raised was this “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the good Samaritan by the very nature of his concern reversed the question, “if I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” So this was a great man because he had the capacity for a dangerous altruism. He was a great man, not only because he had mastered the length of life, but because he could surround his life with breadth. He was great not only because he had ascended to certain economic heights, but because he could condescend to the depths of human need. And this is always the challenge facing any individual. The red question of life is whether an individual is able to say I do this not because of what it means to me, but because of what it will mean to my brother If I fail to do it.
I think this text has a great deal of bearing on the crisis that we face in race relations in our nation. In a real sense, the crisis which we face in America in race relations grows out of the fact that some people in the while south and in the white north are even are more concerned with the length of life than with the breadth of life. Concerned about a preferred economic position. Their political security or their political status so to speak, their social status. Their so called way of life and if only they would add breadth to length, the other regarding dimension to the self regarding dimension, the dangling discords of our nation would be transformed into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. And this is the great challenge of the hour that if we are to rise from this dark and desolate valley of man’s inhumanity to man, then every white person of good will and in this nation must recognize the dignity worth of human personality and realize that God made all of his children to live together as brothers.
Now this is equally true for those who are on the oppressed end of the old order. Those of us who have known the dark night of prejudice and those of us who have been inflicted with injustices and indignities in seeking to get out of this system, we must always use methods that keep breadth in mind rather than length, because if one can only speak of length, he will try to get out of his condition with violence and he will end up substituting one tyranny for another. And this is why I say all over the country that the Negro and his struggle for freedom must not succumb to the temptation of using violence nor must he come to the point of believing in Black Supremacy, for Black Supremacy is as dangerous as white supremacy. And God is not interested in merely in the freedom of black man and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race. And the creation of a society where all men will live together as brothers and every man will respect the dignity of human personality. And when one lives with this philosophy, he adds breadth to his struggle for racial justice.
And this is why I tried to say that even in the midst of the most violent opponent, we must be able to stand up and say we will match your capacity to inflict suffering, thou capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in our good conscious obey your unjust law because cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Burn our homes and threaten our children and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. But the issue that we will weigh you down is our capacity to suffer and one day we will win our freedom, but we will not only win our freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscious that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory. This is the nonviolent method and the nonviolent message, which is based on breadth and concern for the brother who has been your oppressor.
Now this text also has bearing on struggles that have taken place in other parts of the world on the international scene. It has bearing on the struggle to end colonialism and has bearing in the struggle to get rid of poverty and ignorance all over the world. For it means in substance, that no nation can live alone. And it is very important to see this in the world today. When one sees this he welcomes the test and traded. When one sees this, he supports his president and others in saying that wheat must be sold to Russia, where he comes to see the interrelatedness of all mankind.
Some months ago, Mrs. King and I were in that bread country known as India. I never will forget the experience. It was a marvelous experience to meet and talk with the great leaders of India and to meet and talk with thousands and thousands of people in the cities and in the villages all over that vast country. And these experiences will remain dear to me as long as the chords of memory shall lengthen. But I say to you this morning my friends that there were those depressing moments. How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people who are going to be hungry tonight? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night? No houses to go in. No beds to sleep in. In Bombay, more than a million people sleep on the sidewalks every night, and in Calcutta more than 500,000 people sleep on the sidewalks every night. How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population of more than four hundred million people, 375 million make an annual income of less than $90 per year? Most of these people have never seen a doctor or dentist.
And I said to myself as I noticed these conditions, can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned? And an answer came, oh no! Because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation. I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, every day in America. And I said to myself we can store that food free of charge in the wrinkled stomachs in the millions of people in Asia, and Africa and South America and in our own nation who go to bed hungry tonight. And maybe we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.
All I’m saying is simply this that all life is interrelated and we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny and whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
John Donne caught it some years ago and put it in graphic terms, “no man is an island entire of itself; Every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main” and then he goes on toward the end to say “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” A recognition of this, a living by this, is a mastery of the second dimension of life. This is the breadth of life.
But we must not stop here. Some people never get beyond these two dimensions. They master the first. They master the second dimension. They love humanity. They have a great humanitarian concern. They seek to live life without a scar. They seek to live merely on the horizontal claim and have no regard for the vertical claim. But if life is to be complete, the individual must reach up beyond his self-interest, beyond humanity, and discover the eternal God of the universe whose purpose changes not.
Now there has been a great deal of neglect on this level and for the third dimension of life in the modern world and I’m sure there are many reasons. There are some who have honest intellectual doubts. They look out and see all of the natural evil the suffering, the misery that so often unmerited. That something that the port key calls a giant agony of the world and they end up asking the question if that is a good God, a loving God who’s all powerful why does he allow all of this misery and suffering to take place? And then there are those who find it difficult to square their scientific views with what they consider the sometimes unscientific dogmas of religion. And then there are those who look at the church as an instrument of religion and see it lagging behind and see how latched it is to be and so out of guts with organized religion they neglect the third dimension. They see the Church is so often a pale light instead of a headlight, and the Christians so often have a high blood pressure to creeds and an anemia to deeds and they see evil in all of its social dimensions taking place in the world, and yet the Church stands idly by mouth and pious triviality and all of these things, and so because of their disgust and disappointment with organized religion, they find themselves neglecting the third dimension.
But I suspect that most people neglect it for another reason altogether. That is that they’ve become so involved in things in this sensate civilization. Sorokin calls it a sensate civilization in which we come to feel at times that only those things which we can see and feel, and touch and apply five senses to have existence. And so unconsciously, many people have left God behind because they have become so involved in the things of life. But in spite of our theoretical denials, we continue to have spiritual experiences, which cannot be explained in materialistic terms in spite of our inordinate worship of a natural order. Even in again we feel the natural order impending upon us. In spite of our worship of material things, ever and again, we are reminded of the reality of the unseen.
And so we walk out at night and look up and notice the beautiful stars that bedeck the heaven, swinging lanterns of eternity for a moment we think we see all, but then something reminds us that we cannot see the law of gravitation that holds them there. We walk around this beautiful campus and notice all of its impressive buildings and for a moment we think we see all, but something comes to remind us that we cannot see the mind of the architect that drew the blueprint. We cannot see the love and the faith of the individuals who sacrifices made the buildings possible.
We look at each other and for a moment, we think we see all when we perceive the physical bodies of our friends. You look here this morning and I’m sure you think I see Martin Luther King. Well, I hate to disappoint you, you see my body, I see your bodies, but you can never see the me that makes me me and I can never see the you that makes you you. I can never see hat something that the psychologists would call your personality. I cannot see your mind. I cannot see anything but the external manifestation of you, and you can only see the external manifestation of me. And so in a real sense, everything that we can see has a shadow cast of what we do not see. Maybe Plato was right, the visible is a shadow cast by the invisible. And so even though we can’t see God, He is there.
There are a lot of new developments. All of our new knowledge can vantage God neither from the microcosmic covers of the atom, nor from the vast intangible ranges of interstellar space, living in a universe in which it is necessary to measure stellar distance in light years. Confronted with the illimitable expanse of the solar system in which starts are five hundred million million miles from there. In which heavenly bodies travel at incredible speed and in which ages of planets must be reckoned in terms of billions of years, modern man is forced to cry out with the sonnets of old when I behold the heavens the work of my fingers the moon the stars and all that thou has created. What is men developed mindful of him and the son of man the vow remembereth him.
And so God is still around. And so we must seek him. Seek to discover him, seek to know him. This is the third dimension of life. Without him, life loses some of its meaning and a great deal of its meaning. Without him all of our efforts turn into ashes and our sunrises into darkest nights. St. Augustine was right, we were made for God and we will be rested until we find rest in him. Yes, with out him, the whole drama of life is a little more than a tragic comedy played over and over again. With slight changes in costume and scenery, but with him, we are able to rise from the fatigue of despair and buoyancy of hope. With God, we’re able to transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.
People ask me over and over again, how is it that you make it in the struggle in the south? How do you people live with what you people have to live with? The everyday tension? The bombings? The jailings? The frustrations that inevitably go with these experiences? How do you make it? And I answer so often by saying that we have a theme. We have a theme song in our struggle, maybe you’ve heard it. It goes like this “We shall overcome. We shall overcome deep in our heart. Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome.” That is another stanza. “The Lord will see us through. The lord will see us through. The Lord will see us through today. Deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome.” And this stanza gives meaning to the first stanza. It has been this faith that has carried us on and continues to carry us on.
We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We shall over come because Carlisle is right, no lie can live forever. We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, truth crushed earth will rise again. We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right, truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet that scaffold sways the future. And behind the demon known standard, God within the shadow keeping watch above his own. And so with this faith, we are able to adjourn the counsels of despair and bring new light into the dark chamber of pessimism.
And so I say to you this morning, love yourselves. If this means rational and help your self interests, you are commanded to do that. That is a length of life. Love your neighbor, as you love your self. You are commanded to do that. That is a breadth of life. But never forget that there is a first and even greater commandment, love the lord thy god with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, yes with all thy personality. And this is the height of life. And when one does this he or she lives a complete life. Thank God for John who centuries ago called vision the new Jerusalem and that those of us who walk the highways of life will discover this and move on toward that city of complete life in which the length and the breadth and the height are equal. And when we do this, we develop completeness and when we do it collectively, figuratively speaking, the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy. May we stand now for the closing hymn, America the Beautiful. Track 2: America the Beautiful Track 3: The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious onto thee. The Lord life up the light of this continent unto thee and be with thee in thy coming out and coming in, in thy rising up and in they coming down, in thy labor and in thy leisure, in thy moments of joy and in thy moments of sorrow. Unto to the day that there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.
The Mount Holyoke News reported on the homily, which took as its topic “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” These are, according to King, length (“the push forward to achieve personal ends”), breadth (“outward concern for the welfare of others”), and height (“the upward reaching for God”).
Read the Mount Holyoke News article.
January 18, 2013