Saturday, January 14, 2006

Faith, Reason, and Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Day is an occassion for Christians to consider both the liberating and the nefarious effects of our faith. Martin Luther King's faith was an important asset in his struggle against racism. On the other hand, if religion had not justified and codified racism in the first place, we might have dislodged hatred earlier and more thoroughly.

It turns out that faith may be selfish or charitable. One is cheap. The other is costly. One is greedy. The other is giving. One is blind. The other is reasoned.

The hope of blessings and salvation is cheap faith. That faith is opium for the masses. Making us prisoners of greed, selfish faith manipulates us and suspends reason. Engaging suffering at personal risk, like the Good Samaritan, is costly faith demanding our commitment here and now. Compassionate faith embraces reason and sets us free. We do not become more Christ like in those experiences that make us feel good but in those that pain us. We do not find God in triumph but when we look into the face of our suffering neighbors and meet their needs.

The story of Job and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman liberate modern human beings from the tyranny of individual success. And then there is the God, who, according to Martin Luther’s translation, was born in a manger among animals, became a refugee, hung out with prostitutes and corrupt officials, and entered paradise in the company of a murderer. He gave us the Sermon of the Mount, which is outdated with respect to sex but remains the best lesson about conflict and cooperation yet, best represented during the last century by leaders of the liberation struggles such as Mohandas Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Václav Havel.

Modernity generated its own form of idolatry. Those who were arrogant enough to proclaim an end to suffering became the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The fact that even our God was not beyond suffering reminds Christians that no amount of virtue can bring about heaven on earth.

The difference between Gandhi's freedom struggle and Robespierre's terror was that Gandhi appreciated the suffering of his opponents. He loved them and strove to be their friend. Though Gandhi's determination was not free of arrogance, his faith was motivated by his commitment to the rights of others. Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King made it a priority to minimize the suffering of his opponents while he and his people had to suffer like Christ.

I have been spared a similar experience. The most evocative accounts of Christ’s suffering are probably not in the gospels but in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach knew about suffering. His mother died when he was nine. Surviving his wife as the father of toddlers as well as half of his children, Bach found solace in the passion of his god. His music can instill a deep appreciation for suffering, though the progress brought about by reason denies some of us the requisite experience, thank heaven.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Watt Mahoun said...

Hellmut,

You've written many intriguing things here. The following was of particular interest to me...

You wrote: We do not become more Christ like in those experiences that make us feel good but in those that pain us. We do not find God in triumph but when we look into the face of our suffering neighbors and meet their needs.

Now that really hits home...and makes clear one of the primary problems with mainstream Mormonism; the obsession with personal spiritual gratification...the idea that only if I'm feeling "spiritually uplifted" can it be right and true...but say or present something that disturbs me and the spirit flees and so must you...kind of like what happened today at LDSLF?

And this: Modernity generated its own form of idolatry. Those who were arrogant enough to proclaim an end to suffering became the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The fact that even our God was not beyond suffering reminds Christians that no amount of virtue can bring about heaven on earth.

I've heard of Realpolitik...this must be something along the lines of Realreligion, eh? I

I'm going to have to think more about this, 'cause I often forget the lessons of history when it comes to missions to build a Utopia. Yet, I've also recently been thinking: what if humanity with all its failings is the one and only heaven? You've me thinking more about that.

Thanks for this post!

01:47  
Blogger Old Charley said...

I enjoyed this piece and your insights on faith and reason. You touch a subject many fear to near. It often takes pain and suffering to bring the best out in some people. You are on that road and realize the price it may cost you. Drink deeply for only those who do will truly taste that manna of heaven. Most avoid the fire of refinement which merges reason and faith together. Remember this story:

Then came to him the mother of Zebedees children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.(Matt20:20-23)

Peace

02:01  
Blogger Peter said...

Helmut--This is a moving post. I love it that you seriously study game theory and yet value and understand altruism.

My former colleague David Luban once wrote a brilliant interpretation of King's Letter from Birmingham Jail that traced all King's Biblical allusions (which are systematic and intentional) and derived a powerful political/theological lesson. It's in Luban's book _Legal Modernism._

16:39  
Blogger Hellmut said...

Peter, thanks for the recommendation and the compliment. I ordered Luban's book. Fortunately, Amazon had some affordable used copies.

Thanks for the scripture, Old Charlie. Though I must admit that I will avoid the suffering if I can :).

Watt, Realreligion is very funny. I will remember that.

17:26  
Blogger annegb said...

I agree, Hellmut, that this is a wonderful post. Much of it is beyond my intellect, but I can appreciate the beauty of the words, even just the words.

However, I think Martin Luther King led the way he did not only because he could love his fellow man, white or black, but because he knew that there was power in passive resistance. I think his leadership was more calculating that you appear to think. That doesn't invalidate, in my eyes, what he accomplished. Maybe he learned from Ghandi. I don't know very much about Ghandi.

But I think Mr. King came from a more practical place, and I also think that in expressing his compassion for all, black and white, he was pleading, from a position of weakness, for reciprocity. I've done it myself, just before I get mad.

Of course, his decision to lead passively benefited his opponents in that there was less violence. But I haven't understood that to be a priority. My limited understanding is that he was an unwilling leader, who took the ball and ran with it, and accomplished much, rather than a man with an innate sense of mission.

01:25  

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