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Lions Roar : January 2005
42 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 THE KING WE NEED The great problem facing modern man is that the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. — MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. WHEN MOST OF US THINK about that American apostle of nonvio- lence and peace, Martin Luther King, Jr., even some who marched beside him in demonstrations nearly fifty years ago, we do so with an almost deliberate forgetfulness and precious little understanding of the specific “content of character” (to borrow one of King’s most famous phrases) displayed by a man who insisted in his sermon “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” that, “Somewhere along the way, we must learn that there is nothing greater than to do something for others.” Despite the overwhelming presence of this man in our lives, King in his magnificent fullness—as this nation’s Socratic “gadfly of the state” and our most prominent moral philosopher of the second half of the twentieth cen- tury—is strangely absent. Too many of us, especially those born after his assassination thirty-seven years ago, see him only in the oversimplified terms of race—as an eloquent, segregation-era “voice of his people,” frequently and falsely compared in political conversations with his very different (and philo- sophically antithetical) contemporary, Malcolm X, whose daughter’s obser- vation in the 1980’s about her father’s popularity applies equally as well to King: “He’s getting attention, but I think he’s misunderstood... Young people are inspired by pieces of him instead of the entire man.” CHARLES R. JOHNSON is a novelist and essayist who has won numerous awards, including the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships and the National Book Award. He is Professor of English at the University of Washington. His 1998 novel, Dreamer, is based on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was more than just the “civil rights leader” he is remembered as today. Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of America’s greatest moral and political philosphers, his life founded on deep, sophisticated and courageous spiritual conviction. C H A R L E S R . J O H N S O N looks at King’s teachings and example and why they are important to all Americans. King and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh issue a joint call for an end to the American bombing of North Vietnam. In 1967, King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. TEACHINGS FOR A NATION IN SEARCH OF ITSELF ©AP/WORLDWIDEPHOTOSPHOTOBYREGLANCASTER/EXPRESS/GETTYIMAGES