The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968,
two years before the first Earth Day environmental teach-in was held. I
never thought that Dr. King had ever considered the state of the
environment. That was before I had the wonderful experience of
listening to 11 of his sermons recorded on the Time Warner audio book
A Knock at Midnight. I was actually in a car on my way to Los
Angeles, but it seemed as if I was in church listening to King preach.
His sermons are as meaningful to me today as I believe they were to
those who first heard him preach 50 years ago.
During his time on this planet, King did not confine his preaching
to civil rights. He came out strongly against the Vietnam War and
worked hard to bring about economic justice. In fact, he was in
Memphis, Tenn., supporting the garbage workers when he was shot. I
believe that if he were still alive, he would be active in the
sustainability movement. His 1956 sermon, “Paul’s letter to
American Christians,” hints at this possibility.
In the sermon, he imagines that the apostle Paul has written a
letter to American Christians. The apostle begins by describing his
amazement at the fantastic advances made by Americans.
“I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that
you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing
subways and flashing airplanes. … You have been able to carve
highways through the stratosphere. So in your world you have made it
possible to eat breakfast in New York City and dinner in Paris, France.
I have also heard of your skyscraping buildings with their prodigious
towers steeping heavenward. I have heard of your great medical
advances, which have resulted in the curing of many dread plagues and
diseases. … All of that is marvelous.”
Then the apostle turns the table.
“But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether
your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your
scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags
behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about
‘improved means to an unimproved end.’ How often this is
true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to
outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed
your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your
civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific
genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your
moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.
So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with
your scientific advances.”
Isn’t this really what the environmental movement is asking
for? Fifty years later, all I can say is “Amen.”