To the Editor:
Out of respect and admiration for the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I thank The Times for giving a respectable coverage to its observance. His life is truly a bright moment in history that illuminated many an issue with our espoused beliefs as a nation and our unfortunate malpractice of them. This letter pertains to Alison McGrath’s essay, which was expertly written but I think misses the heart of Dr. King’s motivation or worldview by her use of the word “principles” so freely. This is a sensitive subject linked to a personal reality for many on this Island and well beyond, so I’ll do my best to make my point respectfully.
To start, these “principles” can be stated more accurately as convictions, the difference being that principles are exterior positions which can waver and change more fluidly as peculiarities rise or personal growth happens in one’s life. Convictions are something intrinsic to who you are, the bedrock of principles, so much so that to part with those you would lose pieces of yourself. To understand Dr. King’s convictions, we first need to address the “Dr.” deservingly attached to his name. The Ph.D. in systematic theology was achieved during his tenure at B.U. in 1955, as well as a B.A. in sociology and divinity. His academic achievements stem from his upbringing within the Christian faith and continued participation throughout his life.
The fact of Dr. King’s faith is not a mere side note or a personal stance, but the very point at which the man gave himself over to something greater than his own life. You may say that it’s not a very important factor in our remembrance of him, because faith or not, we as a society have come to believe in what he stood for. Yes, but few have ever thought through in our day what this point means for the cause he championed and the assumptions we now hold. The mere fact that the writer in her essay writes the line “as far as our ethical DNA would carry us” expounds a lot of her contrary worldview to that of Dr. King’s.
The natural response to such a moral question as “equality” is precisely that. The whole idea of morality has formed from a societal instinct in primitive man that helped him survive in a community to promote the species. The categories of “good” and “evil” are foisted upon us by our DNA and do not actually exist as objective truth. Objective being whether or not you want to believe in it, it is real. This is a polar opposite view to Dr. King’s, who assumed man’s equality based on the fact of the “Imago Dei” or image of God that human beings bear as his creation, giving them intrinsic value beyond mere race or utility. This position and this alone has been the sole arbiter of human equality as we know it today. Anyone who has studied any nihilist philosopher or evolutionary ethics will come to the conclusion that these ideas do not exist outside of this assumption. For example, during the Nuremberg Trials, the defense of Nazi officers who were being tried for crimes against humanity was that within the laws of Nazi Germany, the systematic killing of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals was perfectly legal. This (by the way) is a position which fits very comfortably within the subjective ethics of an evolutionary framework (as opposed to intrinsic value from Creation). The response of one of the judges was simply, “But is there not a higher law that governs us all?”
This is the very reason that Dr. King gave his life for. Not merely as a citizen of a country or evolved primate, but as human being bearing the image of his creator, which far surpasses any and all human legality. Any other reasoning or “ethical” foundation will crumble due to having no foundation for such an assumption. Any schema to try and affirm the conclusion without the supporting premises will again be a mere shell game. The question for us to reflect on in celebration of Dr. King’s life is not the fact that he died for something, however noble it is. The question is, Why would he? Why is it true and good?
In closing there are no better words to describe why Dr. King felt the way he did and never stopped than his own: ”Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”