It's fashionable today to pose the theme of personal responsibility in opposition to the continued quest for social justice. We even hear Reverend Martin Luther King quoted out of context, as if judging people by the "content of their character" was meant to endorse the idea that some of us should starve, some should go homelss, and some should shiver naked in the midst of winter.
But Dr. King didn't think that the content of our characters was something coldly quantifiable, capable of being determined by the marketplace, like the price of pork rind or pig iron. When he spoke of personal responsibility he had a much more lofty view in mind: that we are each responsible not just for ourselves, but for each other, and for our collective redemption from the sins of our past that stain us still. He did not falsely oppose the ideas of personal responsibility and commitment to social justice. Rather, he saw the commitment to social justice--rooted in the Gospels--as a means for transforming mere egotism and blind ambition into engines of individual redemption--the crowning reward of personal responsibility.
In his famous speech, "The Drum Major Instinct," delivered two months to the day before his assassination, he spoke of the many ways in which the desire to be first, to be noticed, can distort our lives, beginning from Mark 10:35, the story of James and John petitioning Jesus, "Grant unto us that we may sit one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand in they glory." Dr. King spoke of people living beyond their means, buying a car or a house that cost more than they can afford. He spoke of people dropping names, calling attention to their influential connections--real or imagined. He spoke of people turning to crime and other forms of anti-social behavior, questing for notice, for distinction. He spoke of exclusive clubs, and the advertisers' constant appeal to our desire to be set apart, to be superior to others. And he spoke, finally of "tragic race prejudice," which leaves its mark on all of us, whatever race we are.
He recounted how he had been in jail in Montgomery, and talked with his white jailers there. After a day or two he came to ask them about where they lived and how much they earned. And when they told him, he replied, "You know what? You ought to be marching with us. You're just as poor as Negroes....all you are living on is the satisfaction of your skin being white, and the drum major instinct of thinking that you are somebody big because you are white. And you're so poor you can't send your children to school."
All the ills that he recounted then as coming from the drum major instinct are familiar to us today. They sound like a catalogue of the ills we cultivated during the "me" decade--the obsession with wealth, power and worldly influence shoulder-to-shoulder with the growing desperation of the middle class, the working class and the misdirection of their anger towards those who are even more desperate than they.
Is it mere coincidence that during that heyday of self-absorption it became so popular to blame others for their lack of personal responsibility? To blame the poor for being poor? To blame the homeless for being homeless? To blame welfare recipients for being on welfare?
Dr. King was not like that. He was not a blamer. He peppered this speech, as well as many others, with allusions to his own frailty; he included himself amongst those who had need to hear the message that he brought. He didn't just talk about responsibility for others, he took it upon himself. Rather than giving in to the drum major instinct, and exalting ourselves over others, blaming them for the selfsame irresponsibility we display, Dr. King said there is another way.
That way was revealed in Jesus' response to James and John, as King explained, "he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness.... If you want to be important--wonderful. If you want to be recognized--wonderful. If you want to be great--wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant."
And finally, he said, with eerie prescience, speaking of how he wished to be remembered when he died. "Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, that isn't important.... I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say, on that day, that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter."
On the day of his birth, if we want to remember Martin Luther King, we must first turn to his words and study them in depth. And if his words are worth remembering this one day, they are worth remembering every day. We should remember Dr. King's words every time we hear someone talking self-importantly about other people's lack of personal responsibility, every time we hear them speak of the poor, the tired, the hungry, the desolate as objects of contempt, lacking in responsibility, dignity, and worth. And we should remember his words as well every time we hear talk about "individual achievement," "competitiveness," or "being all that you can be."
Dr. King did not despise, belittle, or ignore the importance of individual achievement. Quite the opposite. More than anyone, he knew the meaning of real achievement--it belongs to the merciful, not the mercenary. It exults in social justice, not scapegoating. It consists in serving those who are "the least among us," even as the Gospels teach. Happy birthday. Dr. King. You are still with us, serving those in need through the instrument of all those celebrants today who hear your words with their hearts--and heed them with their hands.