01/22/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Spiritual Death Can Be Avoided

It's the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at this writing. That means that it's the day in which we can return to forgetting about Dr. King's values or we can take a new stride in making Kingian principles tangible.

This year my faith community and I again teared up over re-reading some of Dr. King's poetically transformative words. We choked up while together singing "We Shall Overcome," "Oh Freedom," "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and "This Little Light of Mine."

But something was different for me this year. I heard in a deeper way than ever before Dr. King's warning that a "nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Those words are found in his stunningly inspiring book, Where Do We Go From Here; Chaos or Community? In that, his last book, Dr. King also tolls the bell of our approaching spiritual death relative to the growing gap between rich and poor. Since Dr. King's assassination that gap has widened. Not only does that gap threaten us spiritually, contemporary economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, among others, tell us that failure to reverse this gap weakens our financial and economic system.

Among the many attractive facets of Dr. King's living is that he was full of hope. His hope had a deep tap-root that weathered many a storm. This tap-root of hope was his two-fold belief in the presence of the divine in every human soul and in the moral universe that is always bending toward justice, truth, and "the right." That two-fold belief meant that he never let despair seduce him into giving up his hope. He was energized by an unconquerable belief that we can change.

Another believer in the divinity of the human soul, John O'Donohue, said, "If you cash out what it means to have a soul, it means that your identity is not equivalent to your biography." For Dr. King, the identity of each of us human beings is not equivalent to our biography of the evil trinity of racism, classism, and militarism. We can change.

And so, Dr. King said, "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered people have torn down, people who are other-centered can build up."

All of this will not happen willy nilly of course. God uses our exertion to bend the arc. As Frederick Douglass told us, "Power concedes nothing without a demand." We have a responsibility to make those demands buoyed by the hope that we can avoid spiritual death and economic oppression as individuals and as a people.

Dr. King believed that all of us must evolve spiritually. He often noted that our souls must grow to keep pace with the advances in material, economic, and technological powers. Soul progress has not kept up with scientific progress. He lived his life dedicated to teaching us that "our moral and spiritual 'lag' must be redeemed. When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men ['and women,' Dr. King would have added today]." (Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community?, p. 183)

He believed that acts of mercy must be threshold to lives of justice, where compassion is radicalized. "We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (Ibid., p. 198)

And so, on this first day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2014, let us recommit ourselves to Dr. King's agenda of both spiritual evolution and action. Let us develop spiritual practices that lead our consciences to be awakened, our souls mature, our spirituality oriented to justice, peace, and inclusion. Let us keep alive in our minds those greats who never gave up hope in the human soul, the morality of God's universe, and who believed that evil is not our true nature. Nelson Mandela said: "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is human-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings."

In my faith community we are adopting a two-fold strategy for living into Dr. King's dream, which we understand to be the dream of God, of Jesus, and of all prophets. We are learning about two things for spiritual maturation and effective action: we are learning more about mindfulness (some call it contemplation, meditation, prayer) as well as about economic justice. We are offering a variety of education and practical opportunities to grow in our practices of contemplation and we are reading as one parish Robert Reich's book, Beyond Outrage; What Has Gone Wrong With Our Economy and Our Democracy And How To Fix It.

Whatever we do, let us remember that it is Interconnectedness in Love that leads us. "The universe is so structured that things go awry if we are not diligent in our cultivation of the other-regarding dimension of life. 'I' cannot reach fulfillment without 'thou.' The self cannot be self without other selves.... all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly." (Ibid., pp. 190-191)

Dr. King would have us make tangible his conviction that it is in Interconnectedness in Love that we discover that "our deepest sense of morality harmonizes with our self-interest."