Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I met Dr. King on April 22nd, 1967, slightly less than one year before he was killed. I had just turned six. He was coming to Brown University to speak, and my father, who was a chaplain at the university, was given the job of meeting Dr. King at the airport. I went along for the ride and shook the great man’s hand. I remember the total attention that he gave to me as he met me. Two weeks earlier, he had come out publicly and forcefully in opposition to the war in Vietnam, and an ocean of criticism had fallen on him for doing so. Here was a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and yet, he had the time and attention for an unknown six-year-old white kid from Rhode Island.
In August of 1967, in what was to be his final address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said,
…we must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society… When I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. (Where Do We Go From Here?16 August 1967.)
On April 4, 1967, in the speech at Riverside Church in New York City, where Dr. King declared his opposition to the war in Vietnam, he also began to articulate the nature of the transformation he envisioned:
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit… Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken—the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.
I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
1967 was also the year that the precursor organization to Greenpeace was founded and Lynn White’s essay in Science, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” laid blame for the crisis at the feet of Christianity. It was the year after the National Organization of Women was founded. I imagine that over time Dr. King would have seen that environmental destruction and sexual exploitation are also inextricably intertwined in our society and our psyches with racism, economic exploitation, and the hideous violence of war. The sickness is very deep.
Dr. King, in his final year, was calling us to a complete change of heart and mind and society. It is not unreasonable to ask whether the revolution that Dr. King envisioned is possible, or whether human nature is such that we will always have war and racism and exploitation. Social and economic inequity, the creation of underclasses and enemies, sexual abuse, and environmental destruction have been part of the human experience for millennia.
If we are going to face our situation honestly, we have to admit that our attempts at change often remain superficial. We talk about change, but we fail to change. We fail to acknowledge our deeply entrenched mental habits, fail to accept the physical limits of the planet, and engage in a false optimism that thinks our cleverness is so complete that it can overcome any obstacle with new technology, even when our technology is the source of the problem. We like to believe that we are free to do whatever we want, that there are no limits—no planetary limits and no psychological limits—constraining what we can do. It is our nature to modify our environment rather than to adapt to it and we carry on as if that ability to modify the world to suit ourselves extends infinitely. We like to believe that, with us, all things are possible. Earth, meanwhile, is groaning under the weight of those assumptions. This is the hard question: can we change at the depth required or are violence and exploitation the final word on human nature and civilization? Is this just the way we are?
The civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s is one of our best examples of positive, nonviolent resistance to entrenched social and psychological structures, but Dr. King, toward the end of his life, was beginning to realize that the sickness at the heart of the American individual/political/economic/military system is so deep that the tactics of the movement were inadequate. Something more like a religious conversion was needed, what the English Bible calls repentance.
I found a note in the MLK Archives in which Dr. King commented on the meaning of the word repentance. He wrote,
The true meaning of repentance (in the Old Testament) is expressed in the verb shub, which means to turn or return. Repentance is not the mere passive act of feeling sorry about sin. It is the active turning away from it to a new goal and direction.
What Jesus likely called tub in his native Aramaic (Hebrew shub) was translated into Greek as metanoia (“beyond mind”) and then into Englishas repent. Shub means a change in direction, turning back or turning away. It also means “to vomit.”
Shub is not just an idea or an intention. The Greek translation metanoia makes it sound like something that happens only in the mind, and repent makes it sound like we have done something wrong for which we must pay a penalty. I experience shub as a complete emptying, followed by a change of direction that encompasses mind, body and way of life, turning away from all of those interrelated evils of exploitation and division and turning toward the wholeness of life.
The civil rights movement was a powerful force for achieving political and social gains within the exploitation system, but apparently not for unraveling or transforming the system itself. We can see today that racism went underground; it did not go away. Social and economic inequity did not go away; it got worse. Militarism did not go away. Sexual abuse did not go away. Environmental destruction did not go away. Dr. King got into trouble when he started talking about the root sickness, because that sickness is in all of us. We need shub, a complete change of direction at the deepest levels, a complete rejection of the status quo, a change of mind, yes, but a deeper change that goes to the root.
In his final Christmas sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King pointed in the direction that this change represents. He said,
Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation… It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… This is the way our universe is structured… We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of reality. (A Christmas Sermon On Peace. 24 December 1967.)
There is no such thing as a separate self. We all are tied together in “a single garment of destiny,” and that “we all” includes the whole Earth. Because we all are in this together, the solution requires that we all come together, even while we continue to address the greatest violations of the integrity of life. I am not suggesting that we turn a blind eye to injustice. I am suggesting that we face it. We need to admit it. We need to address the roots of exploitation and abuse in society and in ourselves.
We need to get real here. The environmental destruction being wrought by humanity has no simple solution, no technological quick-fix, no natural evolution from where we are now to where we need to be, no solution within an economic system that is founded on infinite growth, no “new story” that can penetrate to the deep layers of the mind where our behaviors originate. We need to be stopped in our tracks. We need to be emptied. We all must be changed, deeply.
Real change will disrupt our lives at every level. It will be difficult. It will be painful. We will lose status. We will be profoundly inconvenienced. Willingly accepting those losses requires changes in deeply entrenched psychological structures: the desire for power, the desire for absolute safety, our deep attachment to the familiar, our almost infinite ability to deceive ourselves about our true motives. Changing those structures requires an unrelenting honesty that is foreign to our current way of functioning in this world.
This is the nature of shub: turning away from the course we are on, because we see it is a disaster, even if the way forward is unclear, even if our friends tell us we are crazy, even if society says it is impossible. If we do not know how to proceed, we can simply stop. Stop blaming others. Stop believing in fantastic scenarios of technological deliverance. Refuse to accept the bribes society hands us to buy our allegiance. Abandon the empty promises of civilized society and rediscover the beauty and profundity of the living world, the world not created by humans. Stop everything, and start paying attention. Be emptied of the poisonous beliefs we have absorbed, and become oriented toward life. Be still. Listen. Pay attention to the whole living world. Be changed by what we hear and see and feel.
Shub is not a fantasy. Deep change is possible. It holds the promise of a more satisfying life than industrial civilization offers, but we don’t get there by bypassing the loss of our illusions, bypassing our loss of power, bypassing our mortality, bypassing our deep devotion to our selves. We have to face our demons, internal and external, and not be seduced by them, in order to enter into a healing relationship with the living world. Shub is not a choice we make, not in the way we normally think of making choices. Choice remains within the realm of what we know, our familiar worldview. In shub, reality grabs us and shakes us and removes our choices so we can move along the path of necessity, that necessity informed by the incontrovertible awareness that everything is interrelated, and Earth has its limits.
Aligning with reality requires us to face hard truths about ourselves and our society; it requires truly daunting changes in how we live, individually and collectively; it requires us to be emptied of much that we think we need and think we are. The only chance life has of surviving and thriving is if we reject our own self-serving lies and align ourselves with the whole living world. Fifty years have passed since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for trying to convert an entire nation away from systemic violence toward justice and peace. His call to repent, to shub, to a total change of heart, mind and society, is more relevant now than it ever was.