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Martin Luther King’s secret religion

Thou shalt be maladjusted. A new religious commandment.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

(RNS) — If the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Jewish holiday, this would be second day yontif.

Which leads me to an encounter with one of his sermons – a sermon that I read, over and over again, always at this season.

Many years ago, Dr. King delivered a sermon from the pulpit of Temple Israel in Hollywood, California. In that sermon, he spoke about the need to be creatively maladjusted.

These are his words:

This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless calvaries; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism…human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted. (American Sermons: The Pilgrims To Martin Luther King Jr.).

Dr. King once gently chastised child psychologists on their fondness for children being well adjusted.

There are some things in our society to which we should never be adjusted. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence…

 Yesterday would have been Dr. King’s eighty-ninth birthday. He is forever frozen in our memory as the courageous thirty-nine-year-old man he was when his life was so brutally taken — fifty years ago, in April, 1968.

And yet, I imagine him walking to a pulpit, and re-delivering those words, uttered decades ago — and all of us understanding that they are as true today as when they were first spoken

I suggest that we look at Dr. King not only as a social activist — which he was — but as a religious thinker.

I believe, passionately, that religious faith must offer comfort — to those who are ill, torn apart, travelers through the valley of the shadow of death.

But, I have also long believed that the truest meaning of religion is to be creatively maladjusted.

To paraphrase the social critic H. L. Mencken: The role of religion should be to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.

That’s the real meaning of “prophetic Judaism.” As the Christian author Frederick Buechner once said: “There is no evidence whatsoever of a prophet being invited back a second time for dinner.” They were tough customers. They had to be.

The Jewish theologian, social activist and Dr. King’s compatriot, Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote: “The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions.”

Dr. King believed that as well. That was his religion.

The only question is: now that we need him, who will take his place?