MLK Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign and Occupy Wall Street #OWS

This coming Sunday will mark the official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. While inclement weather ruined the first day originally scheduled in August, Sunday’s ceremony will come in the midst of a stormy political climate, I would say, that shares in part with the non-violent spirit of MLK Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign. Before I was invested in the intersection of theology and economics, I was a teaching assistant for a course on the Economics of MLK Jr. in seminary. Although I was not a registered student in the class, I still joined in the conversation with the professor and my peers by doing the weekly readings.

As I remain ever self-critical of my own theological and political commitments, I will have to say I have come back to reading a little bit of MLK Jr.’s works. He is more than just that one speech you play during the MLK Jr. Holiday. His writing style, his interpretation of Scripture, and his sermons reflect influences of his Christian upbringing and his education. It is King Jr.’s assumption of a common narrative with his white neighbors that I believe differentiates his Poor People’s Campaign from the Occupy Wall Street movement. In what I consider to be a thorough orthodox and progressive interpretation of Paul’s Letter to the Americans Ephesians, MLK Jr. preached a sermon, assuring whites that Negroes were not out to get revenge or embarass them, but to remind U.S. American Christians of their religious heritage: “The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God.” Another significant point that MLK Jr. makes is that it is not capitalism that is inherently evil, but that it is misused:

“All of this is marvelous. But Americans, there is the danger that you will misuse your Capitalism. I still contend that money can be the root of all evil. It can cause one to live a life of gross materialism. I am afraid that many among you are more concerned about making a living than making a life. You are prone to judge the success of your profession by the index of your salary and the size of the wheel base on your automobile, rather than the quality of your service to humanity.

The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem.”

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shares in the very Pauline theo-logic of Ephesians 2, that Christ Jesus had eliminated all walls of hostility, in order that we may reject the I-It dialects of capitalism and socialism, but seek to implement personalism, justice, and human dignity into our economic systems, whatever shape they come in.

For all the flack that the OWS has taken over the past couple of weeks, what is needed is a particular set of policy suggestions, more than just the vague “raise his or her taxes” or eliminate capitalism. What I am calling for is in the mold of MLK Jr.’s PPC, concrete calls to justice, and not just abstract tantrums and pouting. To participate in movements of liberation also requires that one embrace responsibility for one’s own actions, and this should include cleaning up after your own messes, kindegardeners. OWS should not give Satan any room to speak ill of them, no room at all.

In MLK Jr.’s final Sunday sermon, on Passion Sunday of all mornings, he preached an interpretation of Revelation, “Behold I make all things new” along with the story of Rip Van Winkle, who went to sleep when King George III was king, only to wake up when George Washington was President. The sermon was entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Rev. Dr. MLK Jr. was a Christian and a patriot, a lover of God, and his country. It was his version of American exceptionalism that is dredfully missing today, the idea that “the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India, and every other nation.” It was the potential for the U.S. to win the War on Poverty which made it the greatest nation on earth, for MLK. The purpose of his Poor People’s Campaign was embodied in these words, “We are not coming to engage in any historionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.”

My hope is that #OWS and future movements like it will learn from the wisdom of the past so that we can all work toward a better future.

0 thoughts on “MLK Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign and Occupy Wall Street #OWS

  1. Kelly West Figueroa-Ray

    Great piece Rod!
    One of my main interests at UVA has been to tease out biblical logics/tendencies (or lack there of) of Christians such as Dr. King, John Perkins, Clarence Jordan, Bonhoeffer… And most recently J.Falwell (ie. In the lack there of category). Your post describes exactly the type of situation that eventually I hope my work will help facilitate.
    Thanks again!


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