Essay On Martin Luther King And Lao Tsu
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Martin Luther King was born on January 15, 1929, and killed on April 4, 1968. He was an American Baptist minister, humanitarian, activist, and primary leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights based on nonviolent confrontation, sadly, he was assassinated. His death was a huge loss to his family and the Civil Rights Movement, but everything kind of broke open after that, and eventually this country did accept desegregation.
In the mid-twentieth century, a consensus emerged among scholars that the historical background of the person known as Lao Tzu is doubtful. Lao Tsu (aka “Laozi”) is traditionally honored as being the author of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), though the identity of its author(s) and/or compiler(s) has been debated throughout history. Lao Tsu explains his ideas by way of paradox, the use of ancient sayings, analogy, repetition, and sometimes rhyme. The whole book, “The Tao Te Ching,” can be read as an analogy—with the “ruler” as awareness or self, and the “empire” or multitudes as the experience of the body with all its senses and awarenesses.
My first very simplistic impression was that Lao Tsu was talking directly about Martin Luther King. “A person of great virtue is like the flowing water His governing is natural without desire which is like the softness of water that penetrates through hard rocks.” (Lao Tsu) But this paper is meant to go deeper than that; it is meant to address the truth of every individual. “The basis for judgments of good and bad conduct.”
Martin Luther King was one of the most powerful speakers in the history of America. He had a way with language and elocution that was astonishing. And most of what he addressed was the difference between “good” and “bad.” (“His words are sincere like the constant flow of water.”) (Lao Tsu.) Martin Luther King, Jr. dedicated his entire adult life to the civil rights movement, and to trying to end segregation in America, and the world. He was the embodiment of good, and the enemy of evil. De-segregation seemed to be all that he cared about along with his fervent Christian beliefs.
And herein Martin Luther King and Lao Tsu may diverge for a bit. Says Lao Tsu, “His work is of talent like the free flow of water. His movement is of right timing like water that flows smoothly. A virtuous person never forces his way and hence will not make faults.” (Lao Tsu)
It seems that Martin Luther King spent most of his life in battle, going against the prevailing winds and forces. The water that was flowing along was flowing with segregation in it, and it was dammed up, and King used the force of numbers to break through the dam. “Water benefits all things and contends not with them. It puts itself in a place that no one wishes to be and thus is closest to Tao.” (Lao Tsu). I think of King in the Birmingham Jail, a place no one would wish to be, and I see a strong similarity.
“MY DEAR FELLOW CLERGYMEN:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my
present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’ But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statements in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.” (King) Later on he says,
“But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.” (King)
As well as being an activist, King became an American icon, and a representation of “goodness,” (for the majority, anyway). He was willing to risk his life, and he did, for the causes that he believed in so strongly. Yet he constantly broke the law with demonstrations, sit-ins, etc., so he was not a “good, law-abiding citizen.” He suffered injustice, he saw injustice all around him, and he felt he had to take action. Finally, in order to break the dam, these people, in this case, had to violate laws that were evil and archaic.
So what does that say about a “good” person? Normally we think of “good” people following the laws of the nation. But we also think of “good” people intervening when justice is not being served. This is quite a paradox in the case of human rights issues, given that the Constitution declared that “all men are created equal” and then a culture developed in which there was a huge schism between the rights of white people and people of color. In order to fight the “bad,” “good” people were forced to behave “badly” until the situation righted itself. (Which it is still doing, in my opinion.)
And what is a bad person, looking at this from King’s perspective? A bad person is not just the one who promotes acts of outright brutality against his fellow citizens, like the Ku Klux Klan; it is also the huge body of people whose indifference and failure to take action allowed a bad situation to continue. In his letter he states: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (King) The vast majority of citizenry during the years when King was waging his campaign for freedom simply seemed not to care, and did nothing to help the cause. “Good law-abiding citizens?” Well, think again.
I would imagine that Lao Tsu would think a bad person to be one who resisted the flowing of the water, or tried to force it into places that it didn’t want to go. In this country, the Glen Canyon damming process is a literal example of forcing water into places that it did not want to go. Glen Canyon was reportedly as beautiful a canyon as the Grand Canyon is, until the Lake Powell Dam was built, and most of Glen Canyon was flooded, forming the lake. Many environmentalists were outraged, and of the opinion that the people who did the damming were “bad” people. It seems that often we tend to pronounce people as being “bad” when they act out of beliefs and opinions that are different from ours. Sometimes there seems to be an absolute for right or wrong, good and bad, and sometimes the area seems to be shady.
But both of these pieces of writing give us different angles from which to look at the issue of good and bad. King’s angle was very clear—that racial injustice had to be abolished—and his course of action was very direct. To him, it seems that the “good” people were the ones who supported the cause, and the “bad” people were the ones who went against the cause actively, or simply ignored it, preferring to stay inside their own little shell of comfort.
What would Lao Tsu consider to be bad behavior? Anything that is out of rhythm with nature, I presume. Nature has its own living order, a flow and organization that work. Nature has its turbulent times just as humans do, but the difference is that nature does not intend to hurt anything. When hurricanes hit our coastal beach houses and actually wash some of them away, it was really our fault for interfering with the coastline in the first place. The hurricane had no ill intentions. The same when the volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii re-erupts and the lava flows down the mountainside and takes houses and other structures with it. The lava meant no harm; maybe the houses shouldn’t have been there in the first place? Nature is orderly and obeys its own laws. When we get into trouble with nature is when we violate its laws. So a “good” person would be one who honors the laws of nature. Nature does not care who is walking its pathways: a white person or a black person. It doesn’t know the difference; one footfall is the same as another.
And for us to be “good,” we should feel the same way about humanity that nature does. All of us were created to walk this same earth, and no one has either a greater or a lesser right to be here.
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