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Martin Luther King Jr., moral philosopher

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Almost everyone has read Letter from Birmingham Jail – a brilliant essay. Just about everyone recognizes Martin Luther King Jr. as a great civil rights activist and orator. Which he certainly was. But this misses the full picture. Martin Luther King Jr. was not only an activist or simply an orator – he was a great moral philosopher. Frequent Acton Institute lecturer, Pastor Christopher Brooks, refers to Dr. King as the “greatest moral philosopher that this nation has ever produced.”

Many of us have not ventured any deeper into the work of Martin Luther King Jr. than reading Letter from Birmingham Jail or listening to a few tweetable sound bites. Because of this, we have missed the full scope of his teaching. Pastor Brooks, in this talk at Biola University, implores us to read Dr. King’s book Strength to Love.

Strength to Love was written at the height of the civil rights movement and contains a variety of sermonic essays that lay out Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence. The core message being that we don’t live for earthly recognition, fame, or resources, but for an audience of “One” – we live for God, our Creator. As Dr. King says, “We must rise above earth and give our ultimate allegiance to that eternal Being who is the source and ground of all reality. When we add height to length and breadth, we have the complete life.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” This is one of the most quoted passages from Strength to Love. I’m sure you have seen this great quote posted throughout various classrooms in the United States. A less well known quote, one you probably haven’t heard before, and my favorite from the book reads, “What the world so desperately needs are tough-minded, tender-hearted Christians… Men and women who can think critically and live compassionately. These are the type of people that God will use to change the world.”

What better advice could be delivered at this time in our nation? A time that has fallen prey to subjective sentimentality at the expense of tough-mindedness, critical thinking, and authentic compassion. If more young Christian men and women would take heed of these words from Dr. King, the world would surely change for the better.

In fact, this quote from Dr. King expresses why I believe our work here at Acton Institute is so important. Weeding through the fields of subjective sentimentality, we are working to connect the heads and hearts of future leaders. To advance authentic compassion that is constrained by reason and right thinking.

True compassion is not simply a vehement expression of a point of view. It requires sound thinking and good judgement to truly will the good of another person. This is agape love. This is what Dr. King spent his life advancing.

As we reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. today, we must remember him as not only a great orator, but as a great moral philosopher. Make it a goal this year to dive more deeply into what Dr. King has written than what you can find on Twitter or YouTube. Pick up a copy of Strength to Love; your life might just be changed.

Featured image: Herman Hiller / New York World-Telegram & Sun, via Wikimedia Commons

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Patrick Oetting

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