Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Political Doctrine of Peaceful Protests in America from His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Civil Rights Leaders Praying during a Peaceful Protest
Protests Creating Nonviolent Tension
 
In his letter, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes it categorically and unequivocally clear that in the advancement of civil rights, he rejects any kind of public protests advocating or resulting in violence. For instance, he writes,
 
“I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”1
 
But, notes King,
 
“… we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”2
 
Protests Not Creating Violence
 
The nonviolent tension of public protests does not result in the destruction of property, looting, beating or killing people. Rather, the tension is meant to create constructive dialogue with civil authorities, in the hope of bringing about changes in the laws, equally advancing the civil rights of Blacks with Whites.
 
Dr. King, then, does not advocate public protests “That would lead to anarchy.”3 Rather, a public protest is a “positive peace,”4 leading to “the presence of justice.”5 King adds,
 
“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”6
 
The tension is brought out in public, revealing to the community and the nation the injustices which Blacks have suffered.
 
Protests Issuing from Anger and Hate
 
In his letter, reflecting his political philosophy, King again and again stresses that the protests he organizes are “nonviolent efforts”7 at achieving social justice and peace. There is, however, another approach that people have to public protests with which King disagrees, calling them “black nationalist groups.”8 Contrary to King’s approach to peaceful protests,
 
“The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence.”9
 
According to King, such people “have lost faith in America,”10 “have absolutely repudiated Christianity”11 and “have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil.’”12
 
Protests Issuing from Love and the Desire for Peace
 
King’s approach is a mean or middle ground between extreme approaches to public protests, noting, as he writes, that
 
“I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the ‘do nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”13
 
King teaches an approach to public protests, issuing from the decision to love others and to attempt to create peace with them. That approach is much harder to apply to public life than hate and violence, which require little, if any, discipline or self-restraint.
 
To whom or what should White and Black Americans look to learn the methods and attitudes involving peaceful, nonviolent protests? King answers,
 
“I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle.”14
 
The Black, Southern church can teach not only Blacks but also Whites how to organize and successfully implement such protests.
 
Creative Outlet of Protests Issuing from Repressed Anger
 
King himself, being a Black American, understands that
 
“The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march…. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.”15
 
Therefore, for King, there are two radically different kinds of public protests. The first results from repressed anger and hatred, leading to the destruction of property and human lives, resulting in a chaotic or disordered society. The second, while issuing from repressed anger, is creatively channeled by a disciplined, conscious decision to act out of love, choosing to protest peacefully, calling attention to the injustices suffered by Black Americans.  
 
Summary and Conclusion: King’s Hope for Racial Justice and Peace in America
 
Fifty-Seven years after King wrote his letter, Americans are still engaged in a racial struggle. In many urban and suburban areas of America, there is still anger, resentment, hatred and violence directed at public authorities, resulting even in the killing of Black and White human beings. I hope, along with probably millions of Americans — whether Black or White — that there will be new, positive developments in civil rights, resulting in a social climate of justice and peace. In the words of Dr. King,
 
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”16
 
Endnotes
 
1. Martin Luther King, Jr. 16 April 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania. [Web:]
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
 
 
 
 

Minute Meditation: Hating Our “Brothers” and “Sisters”

Americans Hating One Another

The sacred author writes,

“Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them” (I John 2:9-11, NIV).

Hatred is a form of moral blindness, leading to all kinds of vices, such as religious and racial discrimination, terrorism and death. Hatred breeds intolerance, seeking to eliminate other people because they are different.

It is a form of evil to teach a person to hate, for not only does it corrupt his or her soul but it also corrupts others, as he or she spreads hatred to them. Hatred, then, destroys both internally and externally. In other words, after a person’s mind has been distorted by false beliefs about others, he or she goes out and kills them, believing, at the same time, that he or she is right in doing so. Thus, killing is the result of teaching and spreading hatred. It can only be overcome by repeatedly, even habitually, teaching its moral opposites, which are truth and love.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theology on Race-Relations in His Sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor”​ or the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Preacher

[This article is dedicated to Quincy Bowens, a person of color. He befriended me as a teenager. We became best friends, despite our differences. He was tragically killed in Port Ewen, New York, on my birthday, 28 April 1974. Forty-six years after his death, he is still very much alive in my memory. I also keep his memory alive in discussing racism in my university lectures. Rest in peace, Quincy!]

Why Being a Person Matters

For Martin Luther King, Jr., before a human being becomes a member of any religion, he or she comes into the world as a person. Theologically speaking, every human being is a sacred person, because he or she is made in “the image of God” (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). The ultimate reason a human being should care for another human being, is that he or she is a person and a person matters more than anything in all creation. In the natural (not spiritual) order of things, one person is united to another by virtue of his or her common humanity. A human person matters, is of utmost importance, regardless of his or her religious differences.

In Dr. King’s sermon “On Being a Good Neighbor” or the Parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:25-37), King teaches that the Samaritan, who has no special reason for helping a Jew and almost every racial reason for despising him, is moved by compassion at the suffering of another human being and cares for him. The Samaritan is an example that human life matters, the human person himself or herself, matters, because the Samaritan, a stranger to the wounded man, takes care of him.

Humans Despite Human Differences

For the Samaritan, at the moment of an immediate human need, it does not matter what the wounded man believes, as in differences of creeds; nor does it matter that the man’s faith-community is different from the Samaritan’s, as in differences of religion; nor do ethnic differences, such as the differences between Jews and Samaritans, matter. As Dr. King observes,

“If the Samaritan had considered the wounded man as a Jew first, he would not have stopped [to help him],” for the Jews and the Samaritans had no dealings. He saw him as a human being first, who was a Jew only by accident [i.e., external or outer properties of a human being]. The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.”1

In other words, first or foremost, the Samaritan sees the wounded man as a human being, a person; his race and religion are secondary to his humanity or personhood.

Humans of Different Colors

Color, for example, is secondary to being a human, a person. Let me state the same truth from two different perspectives. The first is negative and the second, positive. Negatively, a person’s humanity cannot be reduced to a color, because a human is, first or foremost, a person, not a color. Positively, while a human being is a color, he or she is much more than that. In other words, there is more to being a person than the color of his or her skin, because he or she is the imago Dei, the “image of God.”

Therefore, while I do see a human being’s color, if I only see that, then I am not viewing him or her as a person, but as a racial classification, category, and, thus, an object or thing. Being the imago Dei, a sacred icon, a person has non-reducible value. That is to say, his or her life cannot be “boiled down” to a single material thing or factor. A person is, then, infinitely more than all racial, religious, ideological and political categories or classifications.

Limited by a Spiritual Myopia

Today, unfortunately, for not a few people, differences in color, race and religion do matter. So, unlike the Samaritan, they refuse to see a different human being as a human, a person, viewing, instead, him or her as racial, ethnic or religious category. In the words of King,

“Too seldom do we see people in their true humanness. A spiritual myopia limits our vision to external accidents. We see men as Jews or Gentiles, Catholics or Protestants, Chinese or American, Negroes or whites. We fail to think of them as fellow human beings made from the same basic stuff as we, molded in the same divine image.”2

For King, such thinking tends to ignore or even reject the universal Christian doctrine that from the very beginning of the human race, God made and continues to make every human being in his “image” and “likeness” (cf. Genesis 1:26-27; James 3:9).

A Critique of the Dehumanizing Forces of Racism

By the Samaritan’s actions, his example, he is immediately aware, knows intuitively, that there is no superior race, rushing to the aid of the Jewish man. The Samaritans accept the divine authority of the Pentateuch, the first Five Books of Moses, learning that every human being is equally human, having the same human nature, being an image-bearer of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). No one person, then, is more human and, thus, more valuable in his or her humanity than another.

In his sermon, King also gives a critique of the dehumanizing forces of racism, such as segregation and discrimination, noting that

“If a white man is concerned only about his race, he will casually pass by the Negro who has been robbed of his personhood, stripped of his sense of dignity, and left dying on some wayside road.”3

King appeals not only to the divine law, the law of God in Holy Scripture, to overcome the twin evils of segregation and discrimination, but he also appeals to the natural moral law, a law God implants in human nature, saying,

“A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities which are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation.”4

Summary and Conclusion

As a civil rights activist, Dr. King would definitely affirm that black lives matter! By his life, his example, he often defended that proposition and, ultimately, died for it. But for King, he would add that all black lives matter. He cared about the plight of all his black brothers and sisters. However, as a Minister, using the Bible as the authority for his preaching, King would go even further and say that all human lives are sacred, that they all matter, because all human beings, regardless of their color or race, are made in the “image of God.”

Endnotes

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 24-25.
  2. Ibid., p. 24.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., pp. 29-30.

Viktor Frankl’s Choice

Entrance to Auschwitz

Viktor Frankl’s Choice to Enter the Concentration Camps with His Family

An Excerpt from Viktor Frank’s Autobiography Recollections

Context or Setting: Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, while having an opportunity to leave Vienna and go to the United States, escaping from the Nazi concentration camps to which his father and mother were destined, decided to stay in Austria and enter the camps with his parents.

“… [S]hortly before Pearl Harbor, I was asked to come to the American Consulate to pick up my visa. Then I hesitated. Should I leave my parents behind? I knew what their fate would be: deportation to a concentration camp. Should I say goodbye, and leave them to their fate? The visa applied to me alone.
“Undecided, I left home, took a walk, and had this thought: ‘Isn’t this the kind of situation that requires some hint from heaven?’ When I returned home, my eyes fell on a little piece of marble lying on the table.
“‘What’s this’ I asked my father.
“‘This? Oh, I picked it out of the rubble of the synagogue they have burned down. It has on it part of the Ten Commandments. I can even tell you from which commandment it comes. There is only one commandment that uses the letter that is chiseled here.’
“‘And that is…?’ I asked eagerly.
“Then father gave me this answer: ‘Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.’
“Thus I stayed ‘upon the land’ with my parents, and let the visa lapse.”

Endnote

Viktor E. Frankl, Viktor Frankl Recollections: An Autobiography, trans. Joseph and Judith Fabry (New York, N.Y.: Plenum Press, 1997), pp. 82-83. Note: In 1938, Hitler’s troops invaded Austria, deporting Jews to the Nazi concentration camps. In order to escape from deportation, and possibly death, Viktor Frankl applied for a visa to emigrate to the United States. In 1939, he was supposed to go to the American Consulate and pick up his visa. Thus, he had an opportunity to leave Vienna and go to the United States, but he never did. Not wanting to desert his elderly parents, he allowed the visa to lapse and remained with them. Gabriel and Elsa, Viktor Frankl’s parents; Tilly, his wife; Walter, his brother, and he were deported to the concentration camps. Viktor, in effect, chose to enter the camps with his family, preferring to die with them rather than live without them.

 

One American Family: An Excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Sermon “The American Dream”

The Preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the United States, what unites Whites and Blacks, despite their differences in color? What unites Italians and Irish men and women, despite their ethnic differences and differences in gender? What unites Jews and Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, despite their religious differences? What unites atheists and theists? In the United States, what unites its citizens from all peoples, nations and languages, despite their differences? The fact that they are all Americans! As Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

“The other day Mrs. King and I spent about ten days down in Jamaica. I’d gone down to deliver the commencement address at the University of the West Indies. I always love to go that great island which I consider the most beautiful island in all the world. The government prevailed upon us to be their guests and spend some time and try to get a little rest while there on the speaking tour. And so for those days we traveled all over Jamaica. And over and over again I was impressed by one thing. Here you have people from many national backgrounds: Chinese, Indians, so-called Negroes, and you can just go down the line, Europeans, European and people from many, many nations. Do you know they all live there and they have a motto in Jamaica, ‘Out of many people, one people.’ And they say, ‘Here in Jamaica we are not Chinese, (Make it plain) we are not Japanese, we are not Indians, we are not Negroes, we are not Englishmen, we are not Canadians. But we are all one big family of Jamaicans.’ One day, here in America, I hope that we will see this and we will become one big family of Americans. Not white Americans, not black Americans, not Jewish or Gentile Americans, not Irish or Italian Americans, not Mexican Americans, not Puerto Rican Americans, but just Americans. One big family of Americans.”

Fifty-five years later, it would be well to remind Americans — in the midst of so much unrest in the country — of Dr. King’s words, because Americans are hating one another, destroying each other’s cities, fighting with one another, destroying each other’s livelihood and killing one another.

E pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” That is both a motto and an ideal of the United States, celebrating the differences of Americans, while recognizing that America is one nation. In other words, the motto refers to diversity within unity in America. It is a unity without uniformity. Even to this day, millions of people still believe in America, sharing with King his dream: “One day, here in America, I hope that we will see this and we will become one big family of Americans.”

Source: Martin Luther King, Jr. 4 July 1965. The American Dream. Stanford University: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. [Web:] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/american-dream-sermon-delivered-ebenezer-baptist-church [Date of access: 8 September 2020]. Italics are mine.

A Christian Theology of the Imago Dei and Human Equality: Their Applications to Race-Relations in America

The Human Person as “the Image of God”

The Biblical Basis of Human Equality

Human equality is rooted in the human person as the imago Dei, the “image of God.” Sirach, the sage or wise person, writes, “The Lord created human beings out of earth” (Ecclesiasticus 17:1a, NRSV). Hence, all human being are created by God. Then the sage goes on to say that the Lord “made them in his own image” (Ecclesiasticus 17:3, NRSV). Sirach takes his readers back to the beginning of the Hebrew Bible, where the sacred author writes,

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, ESV).1

To be created by God as a human being or a human person is to be made in the image of God. “Man” — in the Hebrew Bible (adam), the Greek Bible (anthropos) and Latin Bible (hominem) — is a generic word, including male and female human beings. Thus, God created “humankind” or all human beings in his image.

What All Human Beings are Made in the Image of God Means

St. Basil of Caesarea, echoing the words of Genesis 1:26-27, writes, “[B]y nature every man is of equal honour with the rest.”2 Ultimately, whether one accepts the miraculous, direct creation of the first human persons or theistic evolution, with God setting the evolutionary process in motion, resulting in the first humans, all human beings have the same origin, coming from God the Creator. That makes them equally human. In the words of Elaine Pagels, formerly professor of history and religion at Bernard College of Columbia University,

“[T]he Hebrew account … [of Genesis] describes Adam, whose name means ‘humanity,’ as being created in ‘the image of God.’ … The account implies the essential equality of all human beings, and supports the idea of rights that all enjoy by virtue of their common humanity.”3

There are five similar, yet related, theological meanings to being made in the image of God. First, it means, “without exception,” that all humans are equal in being, that is, in dignity or worth.4 Second, because all human beings are made in the image of God, they are all equal as persons.5 Third, “no human being is more or less human than another.”6 Fourth, all humans are equal “by virtue of their common humanity,” being made by God.7 Fifth, all humans are members of one or the same species, namely, the human species.8

Since every human being shares equally in God’s image, then some, say, white people, do not have more of his image than others, such as black people. Each human being is equally endowed with the divine imprint and, therefore, each is equal in being. Each has the same sacredness or God-likeness in being human persons. That point is expressed well by Martin Luther King, Jr., the prominent Civil Rights leader and Baptist Minister. For example, he writes, “Every man is somebody because he is a child of God.”9 What does King mean by the phrase “child of God?” A human being, says King, is “made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such.”10

Philosophically, the image of God means every human being has the same human nature, the same kind of being. There are no superior human beings, as though some have more of the divine image than others. Conversely, there are no inferior human beings, as if they possessed less of God’s image than others. All human beings are made in the image of God. Therefore, all human beings are equally human, equal in being, regardless of their race, religion, color, gender, nationality, age or socio-economic status.

What All Human Beings are Made in the Image of God Does Not Mean

However, being made in the image of God does not mean that “all human beings are equal in all respects.”11 The extreme view of equality, insisting that human beings should be equal in all respects is called “egalitarian democracy.”12 But that view is patently false, because it can be known by both human observation and experience that humans are unequal in not a few respects. First, take, for example, virtue: Some men and women are good, law-abiding citizens; while others are evil, constantly committing crimes. Hence, they are not equal in virtue. The second is skill or talent: Some men are great baseball players; while others are average or good at baseball. Similarly, in a foot-race, the person who is faster than I is superior to me as a runner. However, he or she is not superior to me as a human being. The third is physical abilities, with some men and women being stronger than others.13 They are equal in being human, though they are not equal in human strength. The fourth is intellectual aptitude, with some being smarter than others.14 A person, then, who is smarter than I is superior to me in intelligence. However, that person is not more human than I. The fifth is differences in skin-color. Although my neighbor and I are equally human beings, made in the image of God, my neighbor’s color may not be the same as mine. That, however, does not make him or her inferior to me as a person. Rather, it only means that he or she is different from me as a human being. Therefore, all human beings are made in the image of God applies to humans of all colors, all different kinds of skin-pigmentation. In short, it applies to people everywhere, on all parts of the earth.

Political, Social and Moral Lessons Following  from the Human Person as the Imago Dei

At least four political, social and moral truths follow from the doctrine of being made in the image of God. First, that people do not and have not lived up to the truth that all human beings are equally made in the image of God does not mean it is not true. It is true objectively, true in itself, regardless of the subjective or human errors of appropriating its truth. That is to say, the theological doctrine of human equality it is true, whether people fail to live up to it or not. Second, it is also true, whether people understand it or not. Third, it is true, even if people do not recognize the universalism of the doctrine. In other words, it applies to all human beings. Fourth, it is true, whether people believe it or not. Therefore, the biblical doctrine that all human beings are made in the image of God “stands” above them, judging them in their shortcomings and challenging people to live up to it.

Moral Clarifications about Racism, Nationalism and Hate in America in the Light of the Human Person as the Imago Dei

In the light of the doctrine that all human beings are made in the image of God, it would be well to make four moral clarification about racism, nationalism and hate in America. First, racism is still racism, whether it comes from white or black persons. It is equally wrong for whites and blacks. Second, racism is still racism, whether is directed at white or black persons. It is equally wrong for persons of every color. To “nuance” or make an exception to those principles is already to justify racism. Ultimately, racism is rooted in the human heart, not in a person’s color. The heart, therefore, not a person’s color, needs purification. Third, nationalism is still nationalism, whether its advocates are white or black. It is equally wrong for whites and blacks. There are no exceptions to that moral rule. Nationalism, ultimately, is rooted in the human heart, not in a person’s color. The heart, then, not a person’s color, needs purification. Fourth, hate is still hate, whether whites hate blacks or blacks hate whites. It is equally wrong for whites and blacks. To make exceptions for that principle is to begin to justify hate, which, ultimately, is rooted in the human heart, not in a person’s color. The heart, therefore, not a person’s color, needs purification.

To purify the heart is to “see” black and white persons with new eyes, the eyes of human equality, being made in the image of God. To purify the heart is to “see” black and white persons with new eyes, the eyes of God’s love. Now, neither politics nor government alone can purify the human heart. However, love can do that, the love of God and neighbor. Therefore, an appropriate prayer for a change of heart for anyone struggling with racist, nationalist or hateful tendencies in America is “Create in me a pure heart, O God.”15

Endnotes

  1. Cf. Genesis 2:7; 3:19.
  2. St. Basil of Caesarea. 2020. Letters, Letter 262,1. Translated by Blomfield Jackson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, N.Y.: Christian Literature Publishing Company,1895). Revised and edited by Kevin Knight. New Advent. [Web:] https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202262.htm [Date of access: 19 August 2020].
  3. Elaine Pagels, “The Roots and Origins of Human Rights,” in Human Dignity: The Internationalization of Human Rights; Essays Based on an Aspen Institute Workshop, eds. Robert B. McKay and Harlan Cleveland (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana, 1979), p. 4.
  4. Mortimer J. Adler, We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution (New York, N.Y.: Collier Books/ Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), adapted, p. 42.
  5. Ibid., adapted, p. 45.
  6. Ibid., adapted, p. 43.
  7. Ibid., adapted, p. 141.
  8. Ibid., adapted, p. 42.
  9. Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 74.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think about the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization, ed. Max Weismann (Chicago and La Salle, IL.: Open Court Publishing Company, 2000, 5th printing 2002), adapted, p. 418.
  12. Ibid., p. 419.
  13. Ibid., adapted, p. 422. 
  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO.: Liguori Publications, 1994), no. 1936.
  15. Cf. Psalm 51:10a, NIV.

Death in the City

Urban Unrest in America

Love abating,
Truth evading,
Hate pervading:
There is death in the city.
Lots of crying,
No more buying,
Hopeless sighing:
There is death in the city.
All the clashing,
Window smashing,
Tire slashing:
There is death in the city.
Anger churning,
Buildings burning,
Loss of earning:
There is death in the city.
Police swarmed,
People harmed,
Feeling alarmed:
There is death in the city.
Abusive railing,
Discord prevailing,
Reckless assailing:
There is death in the city.
People beware;
Injustice there.
Does anyone care?
There is death in the city.
Hurt and maimed,
Behold the pain,
And the bloodstain:
There is death in the city.
Disbelieving,
Owners’ grieving,
Many leaving the city.
There is death in the city.
Death in the city.

On Real and Apparent Friendships

Childhood Friends

What Friendship is Not

1.Affability

In this article, I want the explore the difference between real and apparent friendship. I shall briefly explain what friendship is not; then I shall explain what friendship is or what it involves. First, friendship is different from affability or friendliness. A friendly person is usually sociable and pleasant or agreeable (relatively easy to get along with). He or she laughs with others and, typically, expresses good-will toward them.

2. Companionship

Second, companionship, such as two or more persons being together, laughing, eating and drinking together, in itself is not proof of true friendship. For example, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, traveled with him for three years. Judas ate and drank with Jesus. However, Judas will forever be remembered as the one who “betrayed” Jesus (cf. Matthew 10:4, NIV).

3. An Acquaintance

Third, friendship is not merely an acquaintance. Sirach, the Jewish sage, advises his students and readers, “Let your acquaintances be many, but one in a thousand your confidant” (Ecclesiasticus 6:6, NAB). One may have many acquaintances but few friends, because friendship is a rare gift, a special kind of social union.

Friendship as a Gift from God

A true friend is “a precious treasure,” of inestimable value, a gift from God. For example, Sirach says,

“Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter: whoever finds one has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price; no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; and those who fear the Lord will find them” (Ecclesiasticus 6:14-16, NRSV).

The Greek verb phileo and the noun philia refer to “love.” Friendship is a form of love. To allow another person into one’s life, to admit that person into the inner regions of one’s soul, is to be a friend. As Aristotle teaches, “The good person is related to his friend as to himself (for his friend is another self).”1 In short, in friendship, one person recognizes in the other a second self.

The Test of True Friendship: Adversity

At times, it is often difficult to tell the difference between false and true friends. For example, when a person is always buying the drinks, treating others to lunch and dinner, he or she has many “friends.” But such “friendships” have not been tested by adversity and, therefore, are not yet true friendships.

How, then, does one distinguish between what is genuine and counterfeit, say, a dollar bill? It is not by the similarities between dollar bills but by their differences, such as their subtle shades of color; texture; and, especially, the serial numbers on the money. Similarly, Sirach observes,

“And there are friends who sit at your table, but they will not stand by you in time of trouble. When you are prosperous, they become your second self, and lord it over your servants; but if you are brought low, they turn against you, and hide themselves from you” (Ecclesiasticus 6:10-12, NRSV).

What Friendship Involves

1.Exclusive Choices

There are certain characteristics of friendship. First, it involves exclusive choices. Because a human being’s existence is finite, limited; because there is only so much time allotted to a person’s life, he or she must choose his or her friends. It is simply not possible to form in-depth friendships with everyone a person meets. By choosing some individuals as friends, one also, by that choice, excludes other persons as friends.2 In short, every choice for is, in some sense, a choice against, limiting the range of possible friendships.3

2. Trust

The second characteristic of friendship is trust. The Jewish sage says, “When you gain friends, gain them through testing, and do not trust them hastily” (Ecclesiasticus 6:7, NRSV). A person must proceed cautiously in establishing a friendship. That is to say, trust must be earned.4 There should be good reasons to trust another person as a friend. In other words, a person must provide evidence that he or she is worthy of trust. Until then, that other person is not a friend but an acquaintance, an associate.

3. Loyalty

The third characteristic is loyalty. Not only during the good times but especially the bad ones, friends are “there” for each other. In sorrow or grief (cf. Ecclesiasticus 6:10), misfortune (cf. Ecclesiasticus 6:12) and even in a disagreement, resulting in a quarrel (cf. Ecclesiasticus 6:9), friends do not give up on each other.5 True friends will not betray each other, seeking personal advantage at the other’s expense.

4. Caring and Confronting

Fourth, true friends really care about each other, so that one person, when necessary, is willingness to confront the other, even report the other to the appropriate authorities, when he or she is out of control. For example, an individual, when morally necessary, will not remain passive, neither say nor do anything, when he sees his friend destroy his life or the lives of others by driving drunk or drug addiction. A good friend will hold the other responsible for his or her actions. To overlook evil, to turn “a blind eye” when a friend is destroying his or her life, is not true friendship.

How Friendship is Violated and Ruined: A Betrayal of Trust

A true friend is a confidant (male) or confidante (female), one who can be trusted with another person’s private information, secrets or those things which no one else knows. In short, friends confide (from the Latin fidere, meaning “to trust”) or have faith in each other. About confidentiality, Sacred Scripture says, “He … who is trustworthy conceals a matter” (Proverbs 11:13, NASB).

However, a friendship can be “wounded,” if not completely ruined, by a betrayal of trust, such as “leaking” confidential information, spreading it abroad. Sirach writes,

“Whoever betrays secrets destroys confidence, and will never find a congenial friend. Love your friend and keep faith with him; but if you betray his secrets, do not follow after him. For as a person destroys his enemy, so you have destroyed the friendship of your neighbour” (Ecclesiasticus 27:16-18, NRSV).

In general, confidential information about a friend should not be made known to others, because in “leaking” it, his or her reputation and profession may be ruined. However, under certain circumstances, it may be divulged, if, for example, the friend is going to do serious harm to himself or herself (e.g., threatens to commit suicide), someone else or any group of people.6

The Risk of Friendship

Friends take a risk in “opening up” their lives to each other. As C. S. Lewis observes,

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies …; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in … your selfishness.”7

Friendship, which is a special form of love, involves vulnerability, the risk of being misunderstood, even rejected, and, thus, wounded emotionally or psychologically. But the alternative to friendship is even worse: It is to love no one, to let no one into his or her life. However, such a person cannot be happy, because, in the words of Soren Kierkegaard, “[H]e who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man [person] of all.”8

Summary and Conclusion

Think about the article for a moment. How many friends can a person really have in a lifetime? For example, I have over 6,000 connections on LinkedIn. But, certainly, all of them cannot be my friends! The reason is that life is simply too short and a human being is too finite to enter into friendships with 6,000 people. It is simply neither possible nor desirable to be friends with everyone a person meets. To say, then, “I have lots of friends” usually means many “acquaintances” or “friendly associations,” but not deep, meaningful friendships. Friendship, indeed, is a rare, precious gift! And a person is most fortunate or blessed to have maybe 10, perhaps 20, friends in a lifetime.

Endnotes

  1. Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics,” 1166a, in A Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations, eds. A. J. Ayer and Jane O’ Grady (Malden, MA.: Blackwell Publishing, 1994), p. 17. 
  2. John Macquarrie, Existentialism (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1972, reprinted 1982), pp. 182-183.
  3. Ibid., p. 183.
  4. Thomas H. Weber, “Sirach,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968). The edition from which I am quoting is the one-book-in-two volumes, Vol. I, p. 544.
  5. The New American Bible: Saint Joseph Edition (New York, N.Y.: Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1970). The edition from which I am quoting is the one-book-in-two volumes, Vol. I, p. 776.
  6. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO.: Liguori Publications, 1994), no. 2491: “Professional secrets – for example, those of political office holders, soldiers, physicians, and lawyers – or confidential information given under the seal of secrecy must be kept, save in exceptional cases where keeping the secret is bound to cause very grave harm to the one who confided it, to the one who received it or to a third party, and where the very grave harm can be avoided only by divulging the truth.”
  7. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York, N.Y.: A Harvest Book/ Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988), p. 121.
  8. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Vol. II, trans. Walter Lowrie (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1959), p. 164.

Minute Meditation on the Struggle to Maintain One’s Dignity in the Struggle for Self-Preservation: A Lesson from the Nazi Concentration Camps

That human beings have a natural or instinctive drive to live and survive is virtually undeniable. Animals, in general, also have that instinct. While I grant that a human being is a creature or animal, I also maintain that a human is a different kind of animal, one that is different from other animals in this respect: He or she may choose “how” to respond to a life-threatening situation, maintaining his or her dignity in it. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl calls that distinctively human choice “attitudinal values.”

From his observations of human suffering in the Nazi concentration camps, including his own suffering, Frankl concludes that a human “may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.”

There is, then, no problem with the biological instinct for self-preservation. But “how” a person expresses that instinctive drive remains, for the most part, under his or her control. Therefore, the struggle for self-preservation challenges a person to “rise up,” to transcend himself or herself, to be more than an animal, by acting as a dignified human being.
 

Minute Meditation on Patriotism without “Patriolatry”

Civil Rights Demonstrators Peacefully Protesting Injustices in America

Being a patriot, loving the country or nation in which a person lives, serving and defending it a soldier or in some other form of public service – even being willing to die for it – is right. But a citizen that supports a particular government, saying, “My country, right or wrong,” is not really a patriot. Rather, that is “patriolatry,” which attributes to a government, a human-made institution, the moral status of God.

In Sacred Scripture, the Lord God declares, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, ESV). Patriolatry is a form of idolatry, because a person’s loyalty to a nation takes the place of his or her loyalty to God. However, a person’s conscience can only give ultimate loyalty to an Ultimate Being and that, for most people, is God, not government.

Criticism of a country, then, is not necessarily equivalent to being non-patriotic; nor does it mean a person hates his or her country. Rather, a patriot, precisely because he or she loves his or her country, is willing to see its moral shortcomings and criticize them, not turning a “blind eye” to injustice, with the hope that the country will make moral and economic progress, resulting in a better nation, “with liberty and justice for all.”

America is not only a nation but also a “project.” The American project concerns good citizens, patriots, always seeking to find new ways to make America better than its past and in its future, better than it was and will be for coming generations.

Love America; but love God even more. Be a loyal American citizen; but be even more loyal to God. Not only recognize America’s problems and injustices, but also work for a solution to them. In doing that, a person is patriotic. Therefore, an American, in being realistically and optimistically patriotic, can truly say, “God bless America!”