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'The Least of These' -- Martin Luther King's Advocacy for the Poor

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Martin Luther King Day memorials tend to celebrate King the Civil Rights leader, stressing his activism on behalf of interracial equality and reconciliation. We slight his emphasis on the link between racism and poverty and so neglect King the advocate of the poor. At the time of his assassination King was participating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers' struggle to achieve a decent wage while simultaneously planning the Poor People's Campaign. King's sermons, speeches and writings echo ancient Christian teachings on poverty and wealth, which may still serve as a resource for the contemporary struggle to overcome economic inequality. He was a 20th century exemplar of a very old tradition.

Princeton Historian Peter Brown argues convincingly that "a revolution in the social imagination occurred between 300 and 600 C.E. closely associated with the rise to power of the Christian bishop. For the Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the 'lover of the poor' par excellence." The 4th century bishops, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus elucidated this novel virtue and its centrality to the community life of Christians. In 369 a severe drought followed by famine prompted Basil to preach a sermon on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18), the man who decides to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold his surplus grain. "But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God." Basil elaborates:

"Who, then, is greedy? -- The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked, when he was able to do so -- what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!"

Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen for the famine victims and later developed a large complex to house the poor, tend the sick, and where the poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades. Around 369, St. Gregory of Nyssa preached on almsgiving: "Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor." In a sermon on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, in which care for the poor is the standard of judgment "for in as much as you did it [or did it not] to the least of these you did it to me." St. Gregory of Nazianzus warns that we should fear condemnation if we "have not ministered to Christ through those in need ... Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day." .

In 1956, King preached a sermon that echoed Basil's condemnation of greed: "God never intended for a 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." In 1962, King preached, "I see hungry boys and girls in this nation and other nations and think about the fact that we spend more than a million dollars a day storing surplus food. And I say to myself 'I know where we can store that food free of charge - in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people in our nation and in this world who go to bed hungry at night.'"

In 1961, preaching on the same text from Luke as Basil, King linked racism and poverty, "You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually.... This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others... Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations... For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people; what is white supremacy but the foolishness of believing that one race is good enough to dominate another race?...And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God...because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature."

Like the ancient "Fathers of the Church" King emphasized that "the least of these" are children and "icons" of God, whose treatment is the measure of our "salvation or damnation" as persons and as a nation. Like them he argued that excess wealth is "robbed from the poor." Like them he cautioned us against the ineluctable tendency of consumption to addict us to status and power. Like them he exhorted us to "move from being a thing-oriented, to a person-oriented" society. This year, as economic crisis threatens severe cutbacks to social services for the needy, we would do well to celebrate Martin Luther King Day by remembering and resolving to emulate his advocacy of the poor in our personal and political actions.