“What is Man?”: MLK Yesterday and Today

What is Man?

Unless you live under a rock, you already know about the shooting in downtown Dallas. While protecting a peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration, police officers were ambushed by a sniper from an elevated position. The night ended with several officers dead and several more wounded. My wife and I were concerned at yet two other seemingly unwarranted killings of young black men by their local police force. We wanted to attend, but time didn’t permit us to do so. Obviously, I am glad we didn’t go, especially with the fact that the shooter was targeting white individuals, in particular white police officers, who we probably would have been hiding behind.

What stood out to me is that after the first shots were fired, and the atrocity became live-streamed online, while murder became televised, while hate was being taken to its extreme logical conclusion, my friends, of all colors and philosophies, without any information, bridged the gap between what little fact we had with their presumed narrative. No need for facts. It was the “liberal media”, “progressive tyrannical left”, or the “war on blacks and/or police”, etc. Some of these worldviews had a little bit of truth to them, some of them were nonsense. But what was uniform was that without even a thought to grieve, we pointed fingers and saw the tragedy as we saw fit to see it.

Why are we like this?

I am angry at the shooter, I am. But I can’t be as angry as the families affected by this. I just can’t. I can’t be in their shoes, nor them in mine. This isn’t racist or insensitive, this is just the way reality is. Narratives, whether right or wrong, are born from experience. The worldviews that we have are made from our experiences and reason. We intake reality, respond and process it in our own way. That leaves us in a constant segregation from another’s reality. It’s not racist, that’s just true. There is something that it is like to be a particular individual, and I can’t personally grasp it as my own. I can’t.

Therefore, no matter what we’re doing or where we are, we cannot help but see things from within a bubble. This subjectivity is an objective fact about reality. We are all wearing our shades out in life’s sun, and I can’t know what your views are.

That is why most of my Black Lives Matter friends are black, why most of my All Lives Matter friends are white, and most of my Blue Lives Matter friends are retired military, police or family of them. Well, yeah, all are true, but that doesn’t make a movement false. It’s not either/or.

Blindness is required in order to even consider the thought “We don’t have a race issue in America”. We do. Blindness is also required in order to say, “We don’t have a hate problem in America”. We do. I’ve heard many say “We have a heart problem”, which is also true. But in that statement there is an assumption that things ought to be different, which is true, as well.

But what is by far the most important answer, regardless of race or ethnicity, left or right, gay or straight comes from the question that is fundamental to ALL of human experience that we all share:

“What is Man?”

I don’t know a more qualified person to speak to this current question than Martin Luther King, Jr. I am using him for a few reasons. One, he was a pacifist. He knew that violence bred violence. Second, he diagnosed cultures with the acuity of the finest physician. Finally, nothing has really changed from the time he spoke this sermon. Our hearts are still the same. The majority of the remainder of this blog will be in his words, for they are needed now more than ever.

In “Measure of a Man”, he writes, ”‘What is man?’ is one of the most important questions confronting any generation. The whole political, social, and economic structure of a society is largely determined by its answer to this pressing question. . . . In our generation the asking of this question has risen to extensive proportions . . . but there is fantastic disagreement in answering it. For instance, there are those who look upon man as little more than an animal. They would say that man is a cosmic accident, that his whole life can be explained by matter in motion. Then there are those who lift man almost to the level of a god. They would probably agree with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, ‘What a piece of work in man! How noble in faculty! How infinite in reason; in form and moving, how expressive and admirable . . . the paragon of animals!

Then there are those who seek to be a little more realistic about man. They would avoid the extremes of naturalism and humanism and seek to combine the truths of both. They see within man a strange dualism, something of a dichotomy . . . they cry with Carlyle, ‘There are depths in man that go down to the lowest hell, and heights of the highest heavens, for are not heaven and hell made out from him?

Man is more than whirling electrons . . . Man is a child of God . . . man is a being of spirit. This is what the psalmist means when he says, ‘Thou hast crowned him with glory and honor’ . . . Man is God’s marvelous creation, crowned with glory and honor. You can’t quite hem him in. You can put him in Bedford’s prison, but his mind will break out through the bars to scratch across the gorgeous pages of history Pilgrim’s Progress.

Yet, there is another principle: man is a sinner. Man is a free being made in the image of God . . . while we look at man, we must admit that he has misused his freedom . . . We take new depth psychology, and misuse it to justify our bad deeds. We find ourselves saying that they are due to phobias, or inner conflicts . . . But when we look at ourselves hard enough we come to see that the conflict is between God and man.

There is something within all of us that causes us to see the truth in Plato’s statement that man is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with St. Augustine, ‘Lord, make us pure! But not yet’. Something within all of us that causes us to affirm with St. Paul, ‘the good that want to do, I don’t do; yet the evil I do not want to do, this I do’.

In a real sense the ‘isness’ of our present nature in man is out of harmony with his eternal ‘oughtness’. We know how to love, yet we hate. We take the precious life God has given us and throw them away in a riotous living. We are unfaithful . . . ‘like sheep we have all gone astray’.

In our collective lives our sin rises to even greater heights. See how we treat one another. Races trample over races; nations over nations. We go to war and destroy the values and the lives that God has bestowed upon us. We leave the battlefields of the world painted with blood, and we end up with national debts higher than mountains of gold. We fill our nations with orphans and widows, sending thousands of men home psychologically deranged and physically handicapped.

This is the tragic plight of man. As we look at this, we know that man is not made for it. We know he is crowned with glory and honor, and so long as he lives on his preferred low level he will always be frustrated, disillusioned, and bewildered.

But this is also the glory of our religion: that when man decides to rise up from his mistakes, from his sin, from his evil, there is a loving God saying, “Come home, my child, I still love you” . . .

Might it be this voice saying to America: “You started out right. You wrote in your Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights . . . life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. But, dear America, you have strayed from that sublime principle. You left a great house of heritage and strayed into the separation of others and discrimination. You have trampled over millions of your brothers. You have deprived them of the basic goods of life, their self-respect and their sense of dignity. You treat each other as things and not persons.

In the midst of all your material wealth, you are spiritually and morally stricken, unable to speak to the conscience of this world. America, you collection of man in this famine situation, if you will come to yourself and rise up and decide to come home, I will take you in, for you, oh man, are made for something high and noble and good.”[1]

This is man and this is how we ought to understand him. No matter which position you take, we cannot move forward into a better future without coming to this conclusion: that man is meant for more than we are allowing him. We are men without humanity.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “The Measure of a Man”. Christian Education Press, Philadelphia. 1959, Print.

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