Five decades ago this years, in the fall of 1956, the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., newly prominent because of the role he played in the boycott by African-Americans of Montgomery, Alabama’s segregated bus system, delivered one of the greatest speeches of his career at a Bible camp near a small midwestern community.
Speaking near the Wisconsin village of Green Lake, at a conference of the American Baptist Assembly and American Home Mission Agencies, King recognized a teaching moment. Reaching out to white Christians with a message about the need to join the burgeoning economic and social justice movement that would become the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, King asked his audience to ponder what the the Apostle Paul would say to them.
The contemporary prophet began, as he so often did, by addressing economic issues.
“I understand that you have an economic system in America known as Capitalism,” said King, as he read an imaginary letter from the apostle. “Through this economic system you have been able to do wonders. You have become the richest nation in the world, and you have built up the greatest system of production that history has ever known. All of this is marvelous. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity.”
“The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation,” the letter continued. “This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem. You cannot solve the problem by turning to communism, for communism is based on an ethical relativism and a metaphysical materialism that no Christian can accept. You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth. You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe “enough and to spare” for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.”
Then, still channeling the words of the apostle, King turned to the question of race.
“I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible,” King’s exposition of “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” continued. “They argue that the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah’s curse upon the children of Ham. Oh my friends, this is blasphemy. This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for. I must say to you as I have said to so many Christians before, that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” Moreover, I must reiterate the words that I uttered on Mars Hill: ‘God that made the world and all things therein . . . hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.’
“So Americans I must urge you to get rid of every aspect of segregation,” the letter continued. “The broad universalism standing at the center of the gospel makes both the theory and practice of segregation morally unjustifiable. Segregation is a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ. It substitutes an “I-it” relationship for the “I-thou” relationship. The segregator relegates the segregated to the status of a thing rather than elevate him to the status of a person. The underlying philosophy of Christianity is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of segregation, and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them lie down together.”
Today, as we mark the 77th anniversary of King’s birth in an era when some Christians still attempt to use their Bible as a justification for discrimination and hatred, it is more important than ever to remember the message of an apostle that was delivered fifty years ago.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), a book that historian Howard Zinn says “reminds us that our opposition to empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.”