Commentary By John Paul Culotta
Religion and Politics
"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On January 15, Americans celebrated the Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Most of us use the day off to shop, visit friends and relatives, go to the cinema, or just rest. Some of us work. The legacy of Dr. King and the movement for equal justice, civil rights, and peace are often met by platitudes by politicians and preachers. To all Americans, the movement should be a beacon of the proper role of religion in our civil life. Those who fear that there is a war against Christmas being conducted in this nation should remember that the Gospel message should be used as a tool of change for those of us who are powerless. It is not just a season out of a year. Our religious leaders need to recognize the legacy of Dr. King and use their positions to accomplish the mission of Dr. King. Religious leaders, though, should be aware of the multicultural nature of American society and the proper role of churches, mosques, and synagogues within the confines of our Constitution. Dr. King's movement challenged America to live up to the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Reconstruction amendments to our Constitution.
Our religious heritages demand we seek justice and dignity for all in our civic life. Moslems are required to give charity to those in need. Jews, through the concept of tikkun olam or "world repair," have a duty of social activism. Roman Catholics have a social doctrine from the time of Pope Leo XIII that encourages worker organizations, communal responsibility and aid to those in need. Pope Leo wrote a letter to all Catholics regarding the threats of capitalism that neglects the value of those who give worth to capital. He became aware of the necessity of labor unions when Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, Maryland told him of the plight of laborers in industrial countries around the world and how labor unions gave workers a stake in society. Without a voice in the economic system, many workers may be attracted to the use of violence to obtain social justice according to the social doctrine of the church.
In our own country, Father John Corrigan was a Jesuit priest who preached against capitalist corruption and organized crime and was the inspiration for the priest in the film "On the Waterfront." Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter for the film, described Father Corrigan as a "tall, youthful, balding, energetic, ruddy-faced Irishman whose speech was a fascinating blend of Hell's Kitchen jargon, baseball slang, the facts and figures of a master in economics and the undeniable humanity of Christ."
Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee when he was murdered; he was there to support workers who removed garbage to form a union in order to have decent wages and a voice in their workplace.
Dr. King's charisma and his use of the Baptist rhetorical style were used to prod a political, social, and religious movement that began in 1619 when the first African Americans arrived in English America. He combined the powerful voices of the Old Testament prophets and the message of Jesus with the non-violent political tactics of Gandhi to act as a catalyst for civil rights, economic justice, and peace. His skillful use of television to highlight the unfairness and brutally of a racist society made the movement a topic of discussion. Who can forget the drama of protestors being harassed by police dogs and fire hoses? Who can forget a governor denying a young man entry to a university? Who can forget the funeral of children murdered when their church was bombed? Television made these events real for those who felt the movement was unnecessary.
This movement was not just for blacks but for all people. It is noteworthy that not all people of color supported Dr. King. Many had a vested interest in the status quo. Doors have been opened. Even though people have entry in corridors of power and prestige that would have previously been denied to them, the struggle is not over. Slavery had negative effects not only on the slave, but the slaveholders. To see others as "other" degrades our humanity. We are all not free if one of us is oppressed. Peace cannot be achieved without justice. Work cannot give dignity if the result is grinding poverty and humiliation. We cannot honor Dr. King and then not vote. Have we forgotten the marches to obtain this right for all? We cannot honor Dr. King when we use war as a first tool to resolve differences. We cannot honor Dr. King by going along with a "get ahead" strategy when corrupt corporate practices are the result. We cannot honor Dr. King and allow many American children to live without a decent family structure and adequate material wealth. We cannot honor Dr. King and allow people to live on the street or in sub-standard housing. We need to remember the biblical requirement (Isaiah 1:7) to "rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow."
Dr. King's legacy demands religious leadership that addresses the lack of humanity that greed and arrogance cause. It denounces torture. It denounces the use of fear. It denounces the use of war when diplomacy can be used. It calls for a medical solution to drug addiction and not imprisonment and costly military eradication programs overseas. It calls for passionate advocacy of educational and health care reform. It gives a voice to the powerless. Religious leadership must address the needs of immigrant workers in our society. Religious leadership should address police actions that appear to be unwarrantedly aggressive. Religious leaders should not be chomping at the bit through federal dollars from administration-approved, faith-based initiatives that are sectarian in nature. Religious movements and their involvement is part of our shared history. It should not be wasted on frivolous attempts to coerce people to share denominational beliefs. There is no established religion in the United States but most of us share common beliefs in a just society. Religion does play a part in American politics. The campaign to end slavery was in large part a religious movement. When religion and politics coincide for the common good it is not only appropriate but also noble.
The Progressive challenges all of the religious leaders in our community to comment on this column.