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Dr. King’s Essential Question: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

It’s a tough question. It’s a question we can only answer if we admit that our country and the world must be better. It’s a question about directions. Because our present moment is not peaceful or just, the question is still essential: “Where Do We Go From Here?

Dr. Martin Luther King‘s final book takes this question as its title: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  He completed this insightful book in 1967, offering a robust analysis of the state of social justice in both the United States and many parts of the world. This book is not the simplified Dr. King. It presents a far more complex analysis than many want to explore. It speaks a searing analysis of poverty, racism, and militarism in 1967 that is easily true today.

Dr. King warns “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 becomes 2013 very easily. Our country, and much of the world, still suffers under weight these giant triplets. We know too well the suffering caused by all three of these scourges. We in the United States, still live very segregated lives, knowing little about those of other races and cultures. We see the daily sadness caused by the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. We see a world dominated by weapons and force, with little effort given to honest negotiation and listening. The “giant triplets” Dr. King named so boldly are alive and well more than 40 years after he wrote those words.

He also still offers us hope. He closes that powerful 1967 book with this offering: “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose chaos or community.” In his mind, we still had a choice. I hope that is still true and I believe it is. But only if we listen and explore his words carefully and honestly.

Of poverty, he writes: “We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few…” We live in a world so interconnected, that every economic act can have a profound effect on those who live with little. Whether it’s our use of energy in the first world, or our demand for smart phones requiring minerals from poor parts of the world, our actions here in the United States quickly echo in other parts of the world. We must take responsibility for this. We must learn, listen, consider, and think our decisions through carefully. This is hard to do when our leaders and our political system so often reduce every idea to simplified sound bites. So those of us who live in the most powerful nation have a responsibility to seek information and insight. We cannot just roll along blindly, refusing to look at the plight of those who lack the necessities for a dignified human life.

A powerful image Dr. King uses in his last book, is that of the “World House.” He reminds us “We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together…who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.” He reminds us “All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.” It’s true. No one is far away, not really. We must use this new reality to learn, not just to profit.

Today, January 20, 2013, how will you answer that question: Where Do We Go From Here? As President Obama takes the oath of office for the second time, I wonder how he would answer that question? For me, I need to reinvigorate a practice of kindness, of learning more about those whose lives seem far from mine. I need to revive a gentleness that can get lost in the hurried rush of modern life. I’ll carry that question with me. “Where Do We Go From Here?”

For more reflection on this question and other information about the life and work of Dr. King, check the extensive website at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. 

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