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A Great Time to Be Alive

Yesterday, as I was browsing through the The King Center Archive, as I hope will be one of my MLK Day traditions, I came across an odd little note by Martin Luther King, Jr. called How My Theology Has Changed. It’s undated, but it begins “Ten years ago I was a senior in theological seminary”, which places it in 1960. It’s a lovely concept—It appears to be notes for an article—there’s a thirty-page handwritten draft called How My Mind Has Changed in the Last Decade, which I think is more or less the essay published as Pilgrimage to Nonviolence. The end of the short note that I began with, though, isn’t in the longer draft at all. Here’s my own transcription of the last item on the list:

I am happy to be alive during this period of history. With all of its tensions and uncertainties something profoundly meaningful is happening. Valleys of despair are gradually being exalted and mountains of injustice being made low. Yes, the glory of the Lord is being revealed. May we dare to believe that all flesh will see it together.

The beginning of the list, when he talks about the ten years since he left Crozer, is also absent from that longer piece draft:

Since that time many worldshaking developments have taken place—the emergence of many new nations as a result of the independence struggle, the momentous decisions of the US Supreme Court outlawing segregation, man dramatic exploration of outer space, the creation of more powerful nuclear weapons.

And here’s the closing of the published article, which is also new from the handwritten draft:

The past decade has been a most exciting one. In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of our age something profoundly meaningful has begun. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away and new systems of justice and equality are being born. In a real sense ours is a great time in which to be alive. Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that we face a world crisis which often leaves us standing amid the surging murmur of life’s restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. Each can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark, confused world the spirit of God may yet reign supreme.

So. In 1960 or so, at any rate, when he was thirty, Dr. King thought it was a great time to be alive. The thought that sparked in me was—do I think it’s a great time to be alive? Do I think that something profoundly meaningful is happening?

And the answer is, no. I don’t.

That may be an artifact of age: I’m a long way past thirty. In fact, I was startled yesterday to suddenly realize that I am a good deal older now than Dr. King was at the time of his death; he was so, so, so young. Also, despite his more wide-ranging description in the notes, Dr. King’s focus on the situation of black Americans has something to do with it—many white Americans don’t, at this remove, think of the 1950s as a time of worldshaking developments and profound changes. My Best Reader pointed out that a leader for LGBT rights, born in 1982 and ruminating on the events of the last ten years, might well describe this as a great and lucky time to be alive. That’s possible.

And, of course, there’s this: Martin Luther King, Jr. was shaping his world. I am not. By 1961 he was head of the SCLC, and was important enough to be asked to contribute to a collection of essays by significant thinkers. If he was not yet the marble hero he became, he was already—at thirty!—nationally prominent and hugely influential. I suspect that such a man is always going to find himself in times of worldshaking developments, if only because he is a worldshaker himself. So the difference is not in the world but in the people.

Still. I think it’s a great time to be alive (and to be a fairly affluent American) just because of the creature comforts. I have air conditioning and sinus medicine; I have shoe inserts and mp3s; I have meat at the grocery store and water at the tap. I would not trade these decades of my life for those decades without penicillin and pinterest. But profound changes and worldshaking developments? I’m afraid my outlook there is grim.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


We have easy access to a range of music and books and art and knowledge that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. We have automatic translators and libraries and advice from experts available 24 hours a day without leaving our homes. We can take and share photos without ever printing them. We can plan our own travels, and we no longer ever need to be lost. We can find community in the most obscure corners of our interests, and build community at home drawing on ideas from around the entire planet. We have the ability to reach the stranger without braving the street corner, and to allow the stranger to reach us. We can bear witness in a way that revitalizes that ancient human desire.

We are on the cusp of widespread 3d printing, and the end of all physical media, and the beginning of a truly democratic academy open to all. By the end of this decade we will be mining asteroids instead of coal. The course of human progress continues to accelerate, and each fight for acceptance and equality takes less time, and the next one will be even faster. We are in the final throes of our age's plutocracy, and we are developing the tools to collectively reimagine our economy and our society. Profound changes? You betcha.

Michael speaks many of my thoughts. I would only elaborate on the collective reimagining of our economy and our society, with which Michael closes. We are facing the profound challenge of reorienting our industrial civilization's relationship with the natural world, and there is a real possibility that environmental and cultural collapses will follow if we fail. If we succeed, this re-orientation holds out the prospect, however, of ending our economic dependence upon resource imperialism, which has fueled all of the infrastructure and technology advances the privileged members of industrial civilization enjoy, at the cost of vast systemic inequality and injustice and staggering environmental and cultural devastation. Dr. King's perception that "Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away and new systems of justice and equality are being born" is as true of our time as it was of his own, and his relentless work for civil rights, economic equality, and international peace, while still far from complete, has made possible the work that is now going on to reimagine our economy and our society.

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