Editor's note: This piece was coauthored by Hagelin's daughter, Kristin Carey.
We know the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy we celebrate as a nation in just a few days. We know how he fought with words and love and never with his fists. We know about his dream and his martyr’s death - and that he was not a perfect man. But perhaps even more important than the story is the lifeblood of his legacy—the truth, the faith that drove him forward—the spirit that would will for us to press on further, in spite of our own spiritual failures.
In his earliest recorded sermon, Martin Luther King, Jr. noted something that nearly every person who has ever lived has felt: “There is something wrong with our world.”
Of course, he didn’t stop there. He didn’t point out what was wrong and leave us hungering after an answer. He wasn’t opening our eyes to reveal only darkness. He was the kind of man who led others toward the light. And in so doing he made history.
King believed the great problem of mankind isn’t a need for more knowledge. It isn’t that we need to make more scientific progress. The problem, he said, is in the hearts and souls of men.
“The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood.”
He continued on, “My friends, all I’m trying to say is that if we are to go forward today, we’ve got to go back and rediscover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind.”
The Hope: Rediscovering King’s Principles
King put forth two principles that he deemed most important to mankind’s ability to move forward. And no one could say it better than King himself. Our words in this column will be few as we honor Dr. King by sharing his own words:
“The first principle of value that we need to rediscover is this—that all reality hinges on moral foundations. In other words, that this is a moral universe, and that there are moral laws of the universe, just as abiding as the physical laws… We never doubt that there are physical laws of the universe that we must obey… we unconsciously know that there is a final law of gravitation, and if you disobey it, you’ll suffer the consequences—we know that. Even if we don’t know it in its Newtonian formulation, we know it intuitively.
"But I’m not so sure if we know that there are moral laws just as abiding as the physical law. I’m not so sure we really believe that there is a law of love in this universe, and that if you disobey it you’ll suffer the consequences… we have adopted in the modern world a sort of relativistic ethic. Now, I’m not trying to use a big word here. I’m trying to say something very concrete. And that is that we have accepted the attitude that right and wrong are merely relative.
"But I’m here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It’s wrong to hate. It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong!
"It’s wrong to throw our lives away in riotous living. No matter if everybody in Detroit is doing it. It’s wrong! It always will be wrong!
"The other thing is that we have adopted a sort of a pragmatic test for right and wrong—whatever works is right. If it works, it’s all right.
"My friends, that attitude is destroying the soul of our culture! It’s destroying our nation!
"All I’m trying to say is, our world hinges on moral foundations. God has made it so! If we don’t learn it, we will destroy ourselves, by the misuse of our own powers.
"And then there is a second thing, a second principle that we’ve got to go back and rediscover. And that is that all reality has spiritual control. In other words, we’ve got to go back and rediscover that principle that there is a God behind the process.”
Because he was preaching to church-going people, Dr. King realized that some in the audience might find it odd that he was telling them to believe in God, so he hit them with a challenge:
“We must remember that it’s possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny his existence with your life…And the world, even the church, is filled up with people who pay lip service to God and not life service.
"And there is always a danger that we will make it appear externally that we believe in God when internally we don’t. We say with our mouths that we believe in Him, but we live with our lives like He never existed. That is the ever-present danger confronting religion.
"And I think, my friends, that that is the thing that has happened in America. That we have unconsciously left God behind."
“In a nation as ours where we have so many conveniences and luxuries and all of that, there is the danger that we will unconsciously forget about God. I’m not saying that these things aren’t important. But whenever they become substitutes for God, they become injurious.
"And I say to you this morning in conclusion that I’m not going to put my ultimate faith in things. As a young man with most of my life ahead of me, I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute. Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow. But to the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
"Not in the little gods that can be with us in a few moments of prosperity. But in the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of Death, and causes us to fear no evil. That’s the God.
"Not in the god that can give us a few Cadillac cars and Buick convertibles, that are in style today and out of style three years from now. But the God who threw up the stars, to bedeck the heavens like swinging lanterns of eternity.
"Not in the god that can throw up a few skyscraping buildings, but to the God who threw up the gigantic mountains, kissing the sky, as if to bathe their peaks in the loftitudes.
"If we are to go forward this morning, we’ve got to go back and find that God. That is the God that demands and commands our ultimate allegiance.
"If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover these precious values—that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control. God bless you.”
To understand more about Dr. King's principles, we invite you to order an inspiring book by his niece, Dr. Alveda King. "King Rules: Ten Truths for You, Your Family, and our Nation to Prosper" shares personal glimpses into how Dr. King taught his own family to strive to live according to God's laws, and to know the difference between making America a neighborhood and making it into a brotherhood. To get the book and learn about Dr. Alveda King's efforts to spread her uncle's legacy, visit her website, www.AlvedaKingMinistries.com