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MLK Was an Interfaith Visionary

Today is the 45th anniversary of the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel. One of the often overlooked aspects of King's life and activism is his commitment to interfaith cooperation. In this post first featured here a couple of years ago, Eboo Patel explores how King used his own faith as a bridge of cooperation. Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. He is the author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation and Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.

Today is also the Interfaith Youth Core's Better Together day, a time to wear blue to raise awareness of interfaith cooperation. Read more about it here.


One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, "The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line."

History proved DuBois correct. His century saw the struggles against, and ultimately the victory over, systems that separated and subjugated people based on race—from colonialism in India to Jim Crow in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa.

No American did more than Martin Luther King, Jr., to address the problem of the color line. He spearheaded the marches that revealed the brutality of segregation, made speeches that reminded Americans that the promise of their nation applied to all citizens and expertly pressured the nation's leaders in Washington to pass landmark civil rights legislation.

But to confine King's role in history only to the color line—as giant as that challenge is, and as dramatic as King's contribution was—is to reduce his greatness. In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King showed that race was one part of his broader concern with human relations at large: "This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ... a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ... Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."

This ethos, as King's examples make clear, applies not only to the question of race, but to faith as well. In the same way as the headlines of the 20th century read of conflict between races, headlines in our times are full of violence between people of different religions. Indeed, what the color line was to the 20th century, the faith line might be to the 21st.

Faith as a bridge

King's life has as much to say to us on the question of interfaith cooperation as it did on the matter of interracial harmony. A prince of the black church, deeply rooted in his own Baptist tradition, King viewed his faith as a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.

When, as a seminary student, King was introduced to the satyagraha ("love-force") philosophy of the Indian Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, King did not reject it because it came from a different religion. Instead, he sought to find resonances between Gandhi's Hinduism and his own interpretation of Christianity. Indeed, it was Gandhi's movement in India that provided King with a 20th century version of what Jesus would do. King patterned nearly all the strategy and tactics of the civil rights movement—from boycotts to marches to readily accepting jail time—after Gandhi's leadership in India. King called Gandhi "the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force."

Following Gandhi was King's first step on a long journey of learning about the shared social justice values across the world's religions, and partnering with faith leaders of all backgrounds in the struggle for civil rights. In 1959, more than a decade after the Mahatma's death, King traveled to India to meet with people continuing the work Gandhi had started. He was surprised and inspired to meet Indians of all faith backgrounds working for equality and harmony, discovering in their own traditions the same inspiration for love and peace that King found in Christianity.

King's experience with religious diversity in India shaped the rest of his life. He readily formed a friendship with the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, finding a common bond in their love of the Hebrew prophets. The two walked arm-in-arm in the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Later, Heschel wrote, "Our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

King's friendship with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh inspired one of his most controversial moves, the decision to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. In his letter nominating Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, King wrote, "He is a holy man... His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to a world brotherhood, to humanity."

Better together

In his famous sermon "A Time to Break Silence," King was unequivocal about his Christian commitment and at the same time summarized his view of the powerful commonality across all faiths: "This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality" is that the force of love is "the supreme unifying principle of life."

We live at a time of religious conflict abroad and religious tension at home. This would no doubt have dismayed King, who viewed faith as an inspiration to serve and connect, not to destroy and divide. During King's time, groups ranging from white supremacists to black militants believed that the races were better apart. Today, the same is said of division along the lines of faith.

King insisted that we are always better together. Indeed, that pluralism is part of divine plan. To paraphrase one of his most enduring statements: The world is not divided between black and white or Christian and Muslim, but between those who would live together as brothers and those who would perish together as fools.

This post originally appeared in USA Today.

Interfaith Activism Reading List:

0067Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The last book written by King—his final reflections after a decade of civil rights struggles

Read the introduction by Vincent Harding.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In this prophetic work, which has been unavailable for more than ten years, he lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America's future, including the need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. With a universal message of hope that continues to resonate, King demanded an end to global suffering, asserting that humankind-for the first time-has the resources and technology to eradicate poverty.


8605"In a Single Garment of Destiny": A Global Vision of Justice 

by Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Lewis V. Baldwin

An unprecedented and timely collection that captures the global vision of Dr. King—in his own words 

Too many people continue to think of Dr. King only as "a southern civil rights leader" or "an American Gandhi," thus ignoring his impact on poor and oppressed people around the world. "In a Single Garment of Destiny"is the first book to treat King's positions on global liberation struggles through the prism of his own words and activities. 

From the pages of this extraordinary collection, King emerges not only as an advocate for global human rights but also as a towering figure who collaborated with Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert J. Luthuli, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other national and international figures in addressing a multitude of issues we still struggle with today-from racism, poverty, and war to religious bigotry and intolerance. Introduced and edited by distinguished King scholar Lewis Baldwin, this volume breaks new ground in our understanding of King. 

Featuring the essay: "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."


7748Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America

by Eboo Patel

An inspiring call for Americans to defend the values of inclusiveness and pluralism by one of our best-known American Muslim leaders 

There is no better time to stand up for your values than when they are under attack.

In the decade following the attacks of 9/11, suspicion and animosity toward American Muslims has increased rather than subsided. Alarmist, hateful rhetoric once relegated to the fringes of political discourse has now become frighteningly mainstream, with pundits and politicians routinely invoking the specter of Islam as a menacing, deeply anti-American force.

In Sacred Ground, author and renowned interfaith leader Eboo Patel says this prejudice is not just a problem for Muslims but a challenge to the very idea of America. Patel shows us that Americans from George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr. have been "interfaith leaders," illustrating how the forces of pluralism in America have time and again defeated the forces of prejudice. And now a new generation needs to rise up and confront the anti-Muslim prejudice of our era. To this end, Patel offers a primer in the art and science of interfaith work, bringing to life the growing body of research on how faith can be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division and sharing stories from the frontlines of interfaith activism.

Patel asks us to share in his vision of a better America—a robustly pluralistic country in which our commonalities are more important than our differences, and in which difference enriches, rather than threatens, our religious traditions. Pluralism, Patel boldly argues, is at the heart of the American project, and this visionary book will inspire Americans of all faiths to make this country a place where diverse traditions can thrive side by side.


0622Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation

by Eboo Patel

A renowned Muslim activist's personal story of building a global interfaith youth movement that might just change the world. Includes a new afterword by the author.

Acts of Faith is a remarkable account of growing up Muslim in America and coming to believe in religious pluralism, from one of the most prominent faith leaders in the United States. Eboo Patel's story is a hopeful and moving testament to the power and passion of young people-and of the world-changing potential of an interfaith youth movement. 


0045Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman's Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence

by Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. Foreword by Walter Earl Fluker

The first biographical exploration of one of the most important African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century—Howard Thurman—and of the pivotal trip he took to India that ultimately shaped the course of the civil rights movement.

In 1935, at the height of his powers, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal trip to India that would forever change him-and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States.

After the journey to India, Thurman's distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi's prescient words that "it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world." Thurman went on to found one of the first explicitly interracial congregations in the United States and to deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers-among them Martin Luther King Jr.