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Dr. King’s Faith-based Initiative

On Martin Luther King Day, we are reminded of the significant role that progressive religious leadership can play within American society. When that leadership reaches beyond its own religious boundaries and builds working relationships and authentic bridges with other religious communities, the opportunities for positive social change become immense. In contrast to our present times, when religious leadership is often divisive, insular and even encouraging of violence, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an unparalleled force for dialogue, mutual recognition and creative political engagement based on classical prophetic values. King was a giant among men; although small of physical stature, he was a spiritual colossus. America’s loss in 1968 continues to be felt in the 21st century. Nonetheless, his short life gave America a glimpse of what could be, and continues to inspire and challenge us as we remember him each year at this time.

In March of 1968, just days before he was assassinated in Memphis, King was introduced to the annual gathering of the Rabbinical Assembly of America by his friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel with these words: “Martin Luther King Jr. is a voice, a vision and a way…. Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.’’ It is hard to imagine a leader of one religion introducing a leader of another religion with such a powerful invocation today, almost 40 years later.

Today, religious thought and leadership is often perceived as representing a conservative political and social perspective. Yet King and Heschel spoke in the language of the classical prophets and brought to America a powerful religious message of social justice. Heschel taught: “There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception, becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.” King challenged the religious community to stand up to its true mission when he said: “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. Religion deals with both earth and heaven, both time and eternity…. It seeks not only to integrate [people] with God, but to integrate [people] with [people] and each [person] with him or herself.”

These two men, one the great-grandson of slaves, the other the descendent of a dynasty of Hasidic rabbis from Eastern Europe, could not possibly have come from more different and distant backgrounds. Yet their shared interpretation of the Hebrew prophets resulted in strikingly similar beliefs and perspectives. They taught a set of values that centered on the need to bring peace and justice to the world. They were committed to fairness, to equality, to nonviolent resolution of inevitable conflicts. Most of all, they shared a conviction that each individual has a significant if not pivotal role to play in the great drama of life. No one is exempt. King said: “Every [person] must decide whether [to] walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” In one of the most strikingly parallel expressions of their shared theology, Heschel called out: “Over and above personal problems, there is an objective challenge to overcome inequity, injustice, helplessness, suffering, carelessness, oppression. Over and above the din of desires there is a calling, a demanding, a waiting, an expectation. There is a question that follows me wherever I turn. What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?”

The legacy of value-based education and social activism is legitimate and alive in the teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King. It is for us, their students, to bring it back to life.

Peter A. Geffen is executive director of the Center for Jewish History and founder of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York. He served as a civil rights worker with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the summers of 1965 and 1966.

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