The Contemplative King

2022 MLK day message

“Liberation does not entail moving to the “great beyond,” but instead implies a posture of radical attention and steadfastness in reality. This radical attention and steadfastness particularly involves relationship with those who struggle under the burdens of injustice and poverty.”

— Malik J. M. Walker

Today, the nation celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rather, I should say, the nation performs honorific lip service to the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the celebration of his 93rd birthday, while continuing to proliferate what King called the three evils of society—racism, extreme materialism, and the disease of militarism. Messages like this one, I am certain, have already crowded your inboxes, MLK quotes are flooding your social media feeds, and you more likely than not have the day off from work to observe the contributions to civil rights that the living and the assassination of this great human being catalyzed.

I write today—three years into a global pandemic and as my people continue after four centuries to endure the endemic, structural racism in this country and across the globe—not about the sanitized King, but the contemplative King: a human being with a vision of justice, indomitable spirit, a tough mind, a soft heart, and fierce intellect. I believe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the greatest modern contemplatives of our time.

Dr. King understood what we come to understand at the core of our practices—the hidden wholeness of everything in this Universe. In his sermon, “The Man Who Was a Fool,” Dr. King writes:

All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. 

King understood, as I argue, what most Black Americans and those Africans in the diaspora understand: ubuntu or the realization that human beings make and are responsible for one another. We, in the African diaspora, have held onto this sense of mutuality through enslavement, the legal enforcement of Jim Crow policies, brutal denigration, and the complete denial of our humanity at the hands of other human beings. Dr. King understood: first, that all of life is bound together by a divine and loving force, and secondly, the interdependence of all life.

In fact, his widow the late Coretta Scott King wrote in the foreword of Strength to Love (2010), it was Dr. King’s deep and abiding belief in these concepts that spurred and fueled his life as a social activist, as an advocate for nonviolence, and a visionary for a more dignified humanity. Imbued with a deep interior life saturated with prayer, lectio divina, and reflection, Dr. King was a contemplative in action working to create the Beloved Community. We too know a bit about the striving toward creating a community where our humanity is valued and shared, our actions are guided by right livelihood, and we are able to feel, hear, and melt into the great vibrations of the Universe through and in love.

Love. The King of contemplation was the King of love. In 1967, addressing the anti-war group Clergy and Laity Concerned, he declared:

The contemplative King reminded:

When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme and unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door, which leads to ultimate reality. The Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: Let us love one another for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.

In short, he tells us that God, however you call Her to be or imagine the Force to exist, is love. Love has many faces. It should proceed that if we love justly, then we have no choice but to practice truth and courage in the face of adversity and to invigorate our actions—individually and collectively—with the fierce urgency of now to reweave this world toward equity and justice. The contemplative and audacious King reminded us, “love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all.”

Now, what he also so deeply understood as evidenced by his sermons, was the necessity of mental toughness while maintaining soft-heartedness and joy. This sounds a great deal like the combination of mindfulness practice and compassion meditation. To put it more bluntly, the contemplative King suffered no fools yet simultaneously extended grace, had a wicked sense of humor, and exhibited an openness to love. He put into service his anger of racism, poverty, and war to fuel his action for a more humane and just world. He was both witness and worker; prophet and priest.

We are called to be-do similarly.

Transformation. Most importantly, King understood that societal change can only be brought about by the internal struggle for transformation. A transformation that requires us to search our own hearts, to bend and peer into the corners of our own unknowingness, to search out anything that hinders us from love—being loved or loving, and to encounter the shadows of our internal selves in the mirrors of our own hearts before we can earnestly work to bring about beloved community in the world. King’s integration of the visionary and the practical is an urging to be yet transformed by the renewing of our minds and the unhardening of our hearts. For me, this is contemplative practice, which forms contemplative being and catalyzes contemplative action—deep, troubling, peace evoking, truth-telling, anti-oppressive, anti-racist, justice emitting, equity-centered shared humanity toward the creation of the Beloved Community.

As you know, we have not yet achieved the ideal of Beloved Community as a nation or humanity. As we live and die in this pandemic, which if it has done nothing else should have revealed for those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear the hidden wholeness, the inextricable web of mutuality; however, it has instead laid bare this nation’s, and indeed the globe’s, prize creation: the perfect capitalist. In many ways, the perfect capitalist reinforces King’s three social ills of racism, poverty, and militarism because each in an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy are about the maintenance of power and control through the exploitation of those who already suffer.

Impatience. Dr. King was murdered in the prime of his life during his thirty-ninth year on this earth; as I enter the same, I can only imagine the hopes he held for this country, the dreams he conjured for his children, and tenacity with which he worked to make those dreams a reality. I am tired of living in this reality and I know that Dr. King was too, but I remain persistently and impatiently hopeful. In fact, like the contemplative King, I am impatient for social change. I am impatient for full civil rights. I am impatient for the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. I am impatient for an end to the killing and extrajudicial murders of Black and Brown human beings. I am impatient for the dismantling of systems, institutions, ways of being, bodies of thought that produce suffering, division, and inhumane treatment. I am impatient for environments that feed the flourishing of the human spirit and fuel the flame of limitless possibility. I am impatient for a global recalibration of our relationship with the Earth and nature. I am impatient for the eradication of poverty and an end to war. I am impatient for an education system that forms the mind and shapes the heart for the love of knowledge and not for workforce development.

Are our hearts not broken enough that we begin to be-do differently; be-do radically to dismantle and/or transform any system or institution that creates, prolongs, or exacerbates human suffering?

Hope. “Our only hope,” said King in 1967, “today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes-hostile world, declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill shall be made low and the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

Collective Action. With his tough mind and soft heart, the contemplative King reminds us that we can quench the thirst of impatience through an imperative for action. As contemplatives-in-action, we are to make certain the works of our hands manifest the transformation of our hearts, while resisting our own arrogance. To be contemplative is to embody love and practice an ethic of love. To be contemplative is to question and to live the question with courage and endeavored consistency.

…cowardice asks the question, is it safe; expediency asks the question, is it politic; vanity asks the question, is it popular, but conscious asks the question, is it right. And on some positions, it is necessary for the moral individual to take a stand that is neither safe, nor politic nor popular, but [they] must do it because it is right.

In the spirit of the contemplative Dr. King, will you join us as we work to reimagine systems, promote healing, realize justice and equity, end racism and oppression, realign our relationship with the planet, and uplift the human spirit for flourishing? Will you align your spiritual practice with your intellectual analysis to build the Beloved Community with a fierce urgency of now? More importantly, will you work to free yourself and others?

Freedom. The contemplative King is free—liberated; perhaps, this is the secret joy of the dead. Liberation is all of life living in right-relationship. It is a world in which all beings are free in every sense of the word, where all of us get to show up whole and valued as our full selves in every part of our lives. For us and for the contemplative King, seeking liberation is the work of faith and deep dreaming, of imagining the unimaginable and trusting that the unimaginable is possible, despite all of the daily evidence to the contrary. I hold liberation as possible and as the center of everything I do because it is the foundation that hope thrives on. It is a radical act of resistance and faith to keep moving toward liberation.

Our Practice. CMind friends, in a system that has made it impossible to recognize ourselves and understand that there is no Other, I hope that you will join me in making freedom intelligible, love real, and liberation a lived reality through our practice(s) and work. As a community of contemplatives, our collective striving is to dwell in radical, embodied amazement of the ordinariness of our being while our humanity unites in collectively working to achieve equilibrium, that is, the liberation of our interior lives makes necessary liberation in the world. This is what, I believe, the contemplative King was attempting to make real—a reweaving of the world with the unrelenting threads of justice and truth stitched with the needle of love. May it be so.

May we be free from the burden of injustice.
May we collectively dismantle, disrupt, and disassemble all oppressive systems and institutions.
May we work for justice and know peace.
May we be transformed as we transform society.
May we know freedom is our birthright and may ease be our resting post.
May all beings be well.


David W. Robinson-Morris, Ph.D.
Executive Director
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (CMind)

17 January 2022

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