"There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally, basically wrong ... The great danger facing us today is not so much that atomic bomb that you can put in an airplane and drop on the heads of hundreds of thousands of people, as dangerous as that is. But the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb that lies in the hearts and souls of men capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness ..."
-- Martin Luther King Jr., Feb. 28, 1954, in a sermon at Second Baptist Church in Detroit
Had he not been struck down by the very hate that he devoted his life to fighting, Martin Luther King Jr., who was gunned down at 39, would have turned 84 last Tuesday. On Monday, Americans will observe a federal holiday in memory of King -- the Baptist preacher and Nobel Peace Prize-winning civil rights leader who inspired people all over the world with his courageous nonviolent movement for racial and economic justice.
The national holiday coincides this year with the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. The election of American's first African-American president is the fulfillment of part of King's dream that his four children would "one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." We are certainly not all the way there, but Obama's election was a huge milestone.
What would King have said about the nightmare he could not have foreseen. America's -- out-of-control gun violence epidemic?
About the hate that drove a disturbed young man in Newtown, Conn., to walk into an elementary school last month -- for reasons no one seems to know -- and kill 26 people, 20 of them 6- and 7-year-olds?
Or about the illness that makes boys and young men in urban neighborhoods all across this country shoot and kill each other -- and anyone else who gets in their way -- by the thousands year in and year out?
Or about the scary number of people who are killing their partners and children, then themselves?
King, I suspect, would have raised the kinds of questions that challenged us to go deeper -- beyond arguments about gun laws. He would have urged us to look at ourselves and what we have become as a society, at the fact that the violence is merely a symptom of the underlying disease of moral decay that no gun plan by the president or anyone else can fix.
Sometime back, I bought "The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.".¿ The CD set is a treasure trove of 16 hours worth of recordings.
In February 1954, King spoke at Second Baptist Church in Detroit. His talk was called "Rediscovering Lost Values."
He might as well have been talking about January 2013.
King said America had made amazing technological progress, that it was now "possible to eat breakfast in New York City and supper in London, England." Yet, what he called "man's moral genius" had taken a giant leap backward.
King decried a modern world that had adopted what he called a "relativistic ethic" where there was no right or wrong, where the prevailing attitude was that as long as everyone else was doing something, it must be right. Yet if no one else was doing it, it must be wrong. Where it was OK to lie and steal as long as you didn't get caught. He called it "survival of the slickest." Far too few, he said, were willing to stand up for what they believed in.
In a never-ending quest for the material, King said, we had become a thing-oriented society that had lost its moral compass and "unconsciously left God behind."
To illustrate his point, King told a story from the Bible about how Joseph and Mary were walking to Nazareth from Jerusalem when they realized they had left Jesus behind. They had to return to get him before they could continue.
"We've got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we've left behind," King said.
We can begin by remembering King's teachings -- not just on his birthday but throughout the year.