Suicide Prevention: Part V: The Courage to Live

The Choice to Live is an Act of Courage

There are all kinds of courageous men and women who risk their lives on the battlefield or in other kinds of service to the community, such as police officers, firefighters; and those who work for the FBI and CIA. Those who sacrifice their lives for their country or another human being display the utmost form of courage. I would like to discuss other kinds of courage, which, perhaps, are not as obvious as the ones I have mentioned.

I propose that if a person cannot overcome a problem by changing it, then enduring it should be seen as an act of courage. Enduring chronic conditions or diseases, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, are acts of courage. A person who has lost the use of his or her arms and legs, and has to endure those conditions for the remainder of his or her life, is living courageously.

There are many other examples of courageous living, even though they may go unnoticed. Sometimes, just getting out of bed in the morning, especially if a person is prone to depression or hopelessness, is an act of courage. If someone is an alcoholic or a drug addict, neither taking a sip of alcohol nor using heroin, each day is an act of courage. If a person has social anxiety disorder, learning to be around other people is being courageous.

There are courageous men and women, both young and old, throughout society – indeed, throughout the world – who go on living, despite their bodily and emotional kinds of sufferings. For such people, facing each new day is a challenge and completing it is an act of courage. Thus, to choose to live, despite all of life’s hardships and sufferings, is an act of courage. Dying may be easy; but living can be hard, to paraphrase Soren Kierkegaard. I congratulate the brave souls who choose to go on living, despite all the adversity they endure every day. They have, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich, “the courage to be.”

Suicide Prevention, Part IV: Choose Not to Die But to Live

Unless a person’s life is cut short, ends prematurely by some kind of tragedy or disease — such as dying slowly from an inoperable cancer, dying suddenly from a heart attack, being murdered, dying of a drug overdose or being killed by an automobile accident or the like — life, in a very real sense, is a choice. In a way, every day a person chooses to stay alive. In short, to live is to choose.

There is really no getting around it: Human existence, life itself, is a choiceTo state the same point in the first person singular: I choose; therefore, I am. Even if I “run” from choosing, not wanting to choose, I choose to run from choosing, making a choice against making a choice. Because I make my choices, I “own them,” that is, I am responsible for them, for I, not someone else, perform them. I am, then, responsible for my life and death.

By my choices, for better or worse, I make myself into the kind of person I am. Therefore, usually or normally, living and dying are matters under a person’s control. I make choices, then, that promote, undermine or even attack my well-being, as in living recklessly or committing suicide.

To make my point in the second person plural: Like it or not, you exist; life has been given to you. Because you have the faculty of free-will, you choose what to do with your life. Therefore, every day you make choices for or against being alive.

The natural, opposite alternatives, then, for human beings are life and death. In the words of Scripture,

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life….” (Deuteronomy 30:19, NIV).

Since, by nature, human beings have an aversion to death and an inclination and “gravitation” toward life, then life is a great good to be preserved, protected and cherished. In other words, human beings should prefer life to death.

Ultimately, life and death are under God’s control, but immediately, right now, you have the control, choosing one or the other. Choose, then, at this moment, on this day, to live. You can, if you will, “Say ‘yes’ to life, in spite of everything,” writes psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

A Declaration on a Patient’s Right to be Respected and Treated as a Person

Person-Centered Medical Care

I am a patient
and a patient is,
first and foremost,
a person
.
The physicians and nurses who take care of me are also persons
and expect to be treated as such.
As a patient, I expect to be treated as
a subject, not an object.
I am an end in myself,
not merely a means to serve the ends

of medical science and practice.
I will not allow my humanity to be reduced to a location.
Hence, I am neither a “bed number” nor a “room number.”
Nor will I permit being referred to in dehumanizing terms.
Thus, I am neither a “gallbladder” nor a “heart” nor a “kidney.”
My medical chart and history are about my life, about me;
but by them alone, you can never know me as a person.
I am not an illness,
which is what I have.
Nor am I a diagnosis
,
which describes my medical condition.
Rather, I am a person.
Treat me, then, as a person
and you will, at the same time,
treat my illness.
I am impressed by your medical knowledge and skills.
But I even more impressed by your affirming
my value as a person.
I am a patient
and a patient is,
above all,
a person.

Viktor Frankl’s Tribute to Father Maximilian Kolbe: The Saint from Auschwitz

A Drawing of Father Maximilian Kolbe

The Saint from Auschwitz

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl had great admiration for Father Maximilian Kolbe, praising his courageous example of self-sacrifice. In 1941, Kolbe was arrested in Poland by the Nazis. He was taken as a prisoner to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. When a prisoner had escaped from Kolbe’s bunker, the prisoners were commanded to line up before Camp Commandant Karl Fritsch. To punish them, ten men were to be starved to death. Fritsch randomly selected one man from each line.

One of the men he had chosen was Francis Gajowniczek. However, he cried out: “My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?” It was then that Father Maximilianprisoner number 16670, stepped out from the ranks and asked to be selected instead of Gajowniczek, saying, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.”

Fritsch insulted Kolbe, asking, “What does this polish pig want?” Fritsch agreed to Kolbe’s offer. He and nine other men were sent to the death chamber, which was Cell 18. They suffered a slow death from starvation. Kolbe, after being starved, died from a lethal injection on August 14, 1941. Frankl writes,

“[T]oday you need no longer hesitate to use the word ‘saints’: think of Father Maximilian Kolbe who was starved and finally murdered by an injection of carbolic acid at Auschwitz and who in 1983 was canonized.”1

Meaning in Life and Death

For Frankl, Kolbe had found meaning in both life and death, giving his life so that another man may live. Frankl mentions Kolbe’s sacrificial death, saying,

“Father Maximilian Kolbe found meaning within the fraction of a second when he decided to sacrifice his life, asking the SS for permission to let himself be sentenced to death instead of a family father.”2

John Paul II’s Logotherapeutic Observations

At the canonization of Fr. Kolbe, Pope John Paul II describes Kolbe’s heroic example, saying,

“Maximilian did not die but gave his life … for his brother. In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love.”

The pope, then, in describing Kolbe’s heroic act, indirectly refers to three themes in logotherapy, which are self-transcendence (“gave his life … for his brother”), freedom (“human choice”) and love (“offered himself up to death out of love”). Although not a Catholic, Dr. Frankl would probably agree with the pope’s observations of Kolbe’s heroism in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. Frankl notes,

“The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”3

Indeed, Kolbe preserved “a vestige of spiritual freedom” in the camp, not allowing it to dehumanize him, destroying his human capacity to love. In fact, he transcended his horrific conditions by choosing love over hate, courage over fear and self-sacrifice over self-preservation.

Endnotes

1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 154. Actually, Father Kolbe was canonized on October 10, 1982.

2. ———-, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York, N.Y.: Insight Books/ Plenum Press, 1997), p. 157, note 8.

3. ———-, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed., p. 74.

 

Suicide Prevention, Part III: Paying Attention to Another Human Being May Actually be a Form of Suicide Prevention

Suicide is on the rise in the United States, probably due, in no small measure, to the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in a widespread loss of employment, social isolation and alienation, loneliness, a pervasive sense of hopelessness and despair. There is one way, though, which is quite practical and requires no formal education to prevent suicide, namely, caring for another human being.

Viktor Frankl, for example, although he was was a busy psychiatrist, professor and traveled throughout the world, giving lectures on Logotherapy, his life, on one occasion, was interrupted in the early morning hours by a suicidal woman. He recalled the episode,

“I received a telephone call at three in the morning from a lady who told me that she was determined to commit suicide but due to her curiosity wished to hear what I should say. I evolved all the arguments speaking against this resolution and for survival, and I talked to her for thirty minutes — until she finally gave her word that she would not take her life but rather would come to see me in the hospital. But when she visited me there it turned out that no one of all the arguments presented by me had impressed her. The only reason why she had decided not to commit suicide was the fact that, rather than growing angry because of having been disturbed in my sleep in the middle of the night, I had patiently listened to her and talked with her for half an hour, and a world, she found, in which this can happen, must be a world worth living in.”

To take time from one’s busy schedule to care about another human being, be it ever so briefly, means, in effect, “I notice you, recognizing you as a person.” To listen to someone express his or her feelings and concerns is to validate him or her, saying, in effect, “You matter or have value to me.” Such a response gives the other person the impression that he or she is somebody, someone, a worthwhile individual. Caring, then, for another human being, paying attention to him or her, focusing on his or her life, moving into his or her “world,” literally has the power to prevent suicide.

Arguments against suicide, although they may be impressive logically, are not always convincing to a suicidal person. The reason is that data, facts alone, only appeal to a person’s intellect, head. Arguments are often detached, dispassionate, impersonal. That is why, on a profound level, they do not really “touch” someone who is emotionally hurting. They need to be supplemented, “backed up,” by a person’s life; a life that genuinely feels for and is concerned about another human being’s problems. That personal quality is called “empathy.” Thus, the saying is true:

“People don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

A Declaration on a Human Being’s Right to be Respected and Treated as a Person

One’s View of the Human Person is Inextricably Related to Human Rights

I am a person
unique, precious and unrepeatable in worth.
I also inhabit a world of other human persons who are
unique, precious and unrepeatable in worth.
As a person, I expect to be treated as a subject,
not an object.
I am an end in myself,
not merely a means to someone else’s end.
I will not allow myself to be used;
nor will I tolerate being abused.
I will respect my body
as well as the bodies of other human persons.
I will not undermine the dignity of another human being;
because in doing so, I undermine my own dignity.
I will not label others in dehumanizing terms,
because persons are infinitely more
than all labels, classifications or categories.
Except in the context of appropriate humor,
I will not take others “lightly,”
negating their inestimable value as human persons.
I will not reduce my humanity to a color.
Hence, I am not, first, a white person.
Rather, I am a person who is white.
Nor will I reduce my humanity to a function.
Hence, I am not, first, a teacher.
Rather, I am a person who teaches.
Therefore, I am valuable, first and foremost,
because of who I am, not what I do.
I am someone, not something;
a “who,” not a “what;”
begotten, not made.
I am a person.

Suicide Prevention, Part II: Encouraging People to Live May be a Form of Suicide Prevention

Usually, a person who wants to commit suicide is not thinking rationally, clearly; his or her mind is clouded by emotional distress. The reason is that it is instinctive, even unconsciously rational, for the human creature to want to live, to gravitate toward being. That is why, according Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, there is no good reason to end one’s life.

Suicide is a negative act that ends the possibility all positive acts. It is the wrong answer that ends any right answers to a problem. It is the ultimate choice against ending all choices. It is an act against oneself, because true self-love will always care for the self it loves. Frankl writes,

“[I]t is our duty to convince the would-be suicide that taking one’s own life is categorically contrary to reason.”

If a person is in despair, contemplating suicide, not knowing why he or she should stay alive, then that person needs to be given reasons to live, to be reminded constantly that life, despite the emotional distress of the present, is a great good to be cherished and preserved. There are, for instance, other persons to encounter in love and service. There are also projects to complete and possibilities to actualize in the future, even if a person does not clearly recognize them in the present. There are, in fact, always good reasons for a person to live, even if he or she, at the moment, may not recognize them.

At the end of virtually everyone of my university classes I have taught in the greater Philadelphia area for almost 20 years, I constantly remind my students to choose life over death; “to say ‘yes’ to life, in spite of everything,” to borrow a phrase from Dr. Frankl. I do that by enthusiastically saying to them two words: ‘Stay alive!’ To be, to stay alive, to exist, is, in the final analysis, as Frankl says, “nothing other than a decision.”

Suicide Prevention, Part I: Applying Logotherapeutic Principles to Suicide Prevention

Viktor E. Frankl, Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor

The Meaning of Logotherapy

 Viktor E. Frankl, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, worked with countless patients who were in despair and attempted suicide. From his work, he developed a school of psychotherapy, which is called “Logotherapy.” It literally means “healing through meaning.” In other words, if a person has meaning, that is, a reason to live; if he or she faces life with a goal or purpose, it is psychologically healthy. It helps a person stay alive.

The Existential Vacuum

According to Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning (Simon and Schuster, 1984), one possible reason a person may commit suicide is the “existential vacuum,” which is “the experience of a total lack, or loss, of an ultimate meaning to one’s existence that would make life worthwhile.” If the vacuum goes unfilled, if one does not see any meaning to life, nor find any reason to live, then he or she may commit suicide or live in despair, which can lead to suicide.

Means without Meaning

In his book The Unheard Cry for Meaning (Washington Square Press, 1985), Frankl says that many suicidal persons “have good jobs and are successful but want to kill themselves because they find life meaningless.” They may also kill themselves even if they are well-educated and “on good terms with their family and friends.”

Even successful people, those who “have it all” or everything they could possibly want, commit suicide. When they finally achieve success, they ask themselves: “What has all my success been for?” They experience, in Frankl’s words, “means without meaning.”

The Uniqueness of Meaning

In Psychotherapy and Existentialism (Simon and Schuster, 1967), Frankl explains why a person should go on living, no matter what crisis he or she may be facing. He says that every person is unique and has “has a unique mission to carry out.” Thus, a human being is “neither expendable nor replaceable.” In other words, every individual “experiences a unique historical context in a world which has special opportunities and obligations reserved for him [or her] alone.”

Finding a Reason to Live

According to Frankl, it is up to each person to discover his or her reason for being alive. Frankl would maintain that even if an individual does not yet know his or her meaning, nevertheless, it can begin right now by reaching out to others in love, dedicating oneself to a worthwhile cause, serving others and having faith in God.

For Whom are You Voting in November, 2020?

Vote in 2020

Today, my neighbor asked me, “Tim, for whom are you voting in November?” I told her, ‘Ultimately, I will know in November.’ It was, admittedly, an evasive answer. The reason is that it is really not anyone’s business for whom I am voting. That is a private matter and, therefore, it is between a person and his or her conscience; or, if someone is a person of faith, between him or her and God.

While persons associated with different political parties have the right to encourage and tell me, “Vote Democrat,” “Vote Republican” or “Vote Libertarian,” my right to vote is still a voluntary act, which is from the Latin word voluntas, meaning “will.” I have, therefore, the right to vote as I choose. Using tactics or forms of manipulation to have people vote in a certain way is just as wrong as using religious forms of manipulation to “convert” a person, say, to Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Politically, since 1979, I have been a registered Independent. The reason is that I am more concerned about the person running for an office than his or her political party. On election day, for example, I never tell my students, ‘Vote Republican’ or ‘Vote Democrat.’ I simply tell them, ‘Go, and vote; let your vote be an expression of your conscience and values.”

Politically, I am neither on the Far Right nor the Far Left. I am a centrist. To me, being on the Far Right is just as misguided as being on the Far Left. Similarly, I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I try to see the value of opposing political viewpoints, bring them into a synthesis and make an informed decision, to the best of my ability, about a candidate running for office. If I believe that a Democrat is the best candidate for a particular office, I vote for him or her. Conversely, if I am convinced that a Republican is the best candidate, I vote for that person.

I hope that you will vote in November! I will vote as an expression of my conscience and religious faith. But for whom you are voting is none of my business. However, if you wish to make it someone else’s business, well, then, that is your business!

The Theological Personalism of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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(An excerpt from a lecture on Religions in America, which I taught in the Fall Semester, 2018.)

The Theological Basis for King’s Personalism: The Human Person as the Imago Dei

One of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s primary concerns is for “the Negro who has been robbed of his personhood [and] stripped of his sense of dignity.”1 For King (Ph.D.), the Baptist Minister and Civil Rights leader, persons, regardless of their color, matter more than anything in all creation. He would, for example, often say, “Every man is somebody because he is a child of God.”2 Dr. King, by the phrase “child of God,” means human beings are “made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such.”3

The Brotherhood of Man

King’s theological personalism is the basis for viewing all members of the human race as one human family, as brothers and sisters, sharing the same nature, namely, a human nature. Because all human beings are made in the “image of God,” King could say,

“God is not interested merely in freeing [from racial inequality] black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in freeing the whole human race. We must work with determination to create a society … in which all men will live together as brothers and respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”4

Elsewhere, King makes the same point even more forcefully, saying, “even though there may be political and ideological between us, the Vietnamese are our brothers, the Russians are our brothers, the Chinese are our brothers; and one day we’ve got to sit down at the table of brotherhood.”5 On a strictly natural or human level, then, all human beings are brothers and sisters, originating from a common source, namely, God. In that sense, there is a “fatherhood of God and … brotherhood of man.”6

King teaches that there is a natural moral law or a law that is built into the moral order of the universe, which is that “all men must respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”7 However, when a nation or government consistently violates human rights, when it does not pay heed to the cries of its oppressed citizens, it will, sooner or later, be removed from power and replaced by a more just government. Hence, For King, those who break the natural moral law will, in the end, be broken by that law, because human beings are meant or, in his words, “made to live together as brothers.”8

The “Thingification” of the Human Person

King is critical of any society in which persons are viewed as things among other things. That is especially true of America and its view of the Negro or, as King says, “A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them and make them things.”9 By “thingify,” King is saying that it is wrong to reduce persons to the level or status of things. It is, philosophically, an ontological error, a distorted sense of the hierarchy of being, to confuse persons with things. Such confusion results in a distorted sense of human worth. King writes,

“[W]e see people as entities or merely as things. 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.”10

For King, then, persons are always, and infinitely, more important than things, such as material possessions and property. He says, “A [human] life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.”11 In other words, property is a material thing, being derived from the earth and, as such, property is not as important as a human person, a divine-like being; one who is made in the image of God.

Thus, King criticizes a capitalist economy on personalist grounds, stressing the primacy of persons over things. Such an economy places more value on property-rights than basic humans rights, such as the rights of a man, woman or family to have food and shelter, which are basic necessities for life. Therefore, according to King, persons are not meant to serve things; rather, things are meant to serve persons, their well-being; because in the hierarchy of value, the lower serves the higher being.

Human Exploitation

True to the Christian personalist tradition, Dr. King teaches that it is wrong to use and abuse other human beings. His objection to such treatment is rooted in the biblical teaching that humans are the imago Dei, the “image of God.” King writes, “when we truly believe in the sacredness of human personality, we won’t exploit people, we won’t trample over people with the iron feet of oppression.”12

Human exploitation, then, which is unjustly taking advantage of human persons, is using them as merely a means to an end. For King, it is wrong, because it treats persons as if they were only tools or instruments in the “hands” of others, especially economically and politically powerful men and women.

Discrimination and Segregation

According to King, segregation is to treat human beings, whose human nature is equal, unequally. For instance, to tell a human being who is black, “Sit in the back of the bus,” is to discriminate against him or her, to treat him or her unequally, that is, unjustly or unfairly, simply because of the color of his or her skin. Segregation, then, regards Negroes or humans of color as inferior or sub-human beings.

Again, to tell a human who is black, “You cannot eat at the front counter of a restaurant, because that is reserved for ‘whites only,’ is to say, in effect, to him or her, “You are not as good as, as high a being as, a human who is white.” Hence, segregation regards humans as though they were not-quite human, as if they were not fully members of the human race.

Martin Buber’s Personalist Phraseology

Borrowing from the phraseology of Martin Buber, the eminent Jewish philosopher, Dr. King insists that segregation substitutes “an ‘I-it’ relationship for the ‘I-thou’ relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.”13 According to the Buber, there are, in general, two fundamental ways in which human beings relate to each other. The first relation is called “I-It;” the second is “I-Thou.”14 The I-It is “a relation of a person to thing, of subject to object, involving some form of utilization, domination, or control.”15 For King, then, segregation strips “Negro people of their sense of dignity,”16 gives them “a sense of inferiority,”17 robs “them of their birthright of freedom”18 and “personhood.”19 In short, segregation is the dehumanizing or depersonalizing treatment of human persons, specifically, men, women and children of color.

Vilifying and Demonizing the “White Man”

Even in his struggle for civil rights and his opposition to segregation and discrimination instituted in American culture by white men and women, King refused to label all white people as “racists.” In fact, he says,

“In using the term ‘white man,’ I am seeking to describe in general terms the Negro’s adversary. It is not meant to encompass all white people. There are millions who have morally risen above prevailing prejudices. They are willing to share power and to accept structural alterations of society, even at the cost of traditional privilege. … It is not the race per say that we fight but the policies and ideology that leaders of that race have formulated to perpetuate oppression.”20

Elsewhere, King writes, “We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.”21 Hence, King does not teach his followers to hate white men and women. Nor does he seek to vilify and demonize them in less-than-human terms. To King, white racists are seriously misguided, morally blind. Nevertheless, he teaches that they are persons.

Not Mere Sentimentality

King’s personalism is not a form of sentimentality, a feeling of “love,” say, for racists. He, being a Christian, follows the simple, but extremely difficult, command of Jesus, namely, “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44, NIV). Lest Jesus’ imperative be misunderstood, King explains what Jesus does not mean, saying,

“He didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies,” because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me. I can’t like anybody who would trample over me with injustices. … I can’t like anybody who threatens to kill me day in and day out. But Jesus reminds us that love is greater than liking.”22

The reason “love is greater than liking” is that love is a commitment, an act of the will, not to hate one’s enemies. It is a choice to love the unlovable. That requires moral strength, which develops over time by resisting the “natural” inclination to attack one’s enemies. After all, they are, for King, the imago Dei or “image of God.” In other words, they are subjects, not objects. In short, they are persons.

Society of Persons

For Dr. King, a human being is not merely a “drop of water” in the vast ocean of humankind. According to King, the modern world has become increasingly impersonal. Thus, many people feel as though their humanity were reducible to a number, such as statistical data for government records or a Social Security number.

Particularly, King is concerned about an impersonal, dehumanized American culture in which “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people.”23 At its best, community or society, for King, is a society of persons. That is why he says, “We must rapidly begin … the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.”24 For King, then, abstract, collective humanity is reducible to concrete, particular, here-and-now human persons, entering into dialogue or interpersonal relationships.

Self-Reflexive Moral Acts

To the extent that human beings are living in community, they fulfill or complete their lives. That is why, for King, hatred is personally degrading, because it “wounds” the community of persons, but even more than that, hatred degrades oneself. As he says, “If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.”25 Moral acts, then, are self-reflexive, coming back, as it were, and going into the one who commits them. In King’s words, “To the degree that I harm my brother, … I am harming myself.”26 In short, “If you harm me,” King says, “ you harm yourself.”27

King’s Objection to Statism or Communism

Dr. King objects to the political view, which he calls “communism,” of the person existing for the sake of the state. His or her freedom exists for the good of the state, the government. If personal freedom gets in the way of the “good” of the government, then that freedom is either restricted or denied. The government, then, can revoke or deny a person’s freedom to vote for a president, censor what a person writes, watches on television or reads and determine the wages or income from his or her place of employment. For King, “Man becomes hardly more, in communism, than a depersonalized cog in the turning wheel of the state.”28

King’s personalist opposition to communism is based a religious principle, which bears some similarity to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. King says,

“[M]an is an end because he is a child of God. Man is not made for the state; the state is made for man. To deprive man of freedom is to relegate him to the status of a thing, rather than elevate him to the status of a person. Man must never be treated as means to the end of the state; but always as an end within himself.”29

In other words, because a human being is a “child of God,” that is, made in God’s image, a human is a person, not a thing; a subject, not an object; a “someone” to be respected, not a “something” to be used and abused by a government.

The Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968

In March, 1968, Dr. King flew to Memphis, TN., to call attention to the 1,300 black sanitation workers who had gone on strike, because they wanted safer better working conditions and a “living wage,” that is, an income to support their families, because many of them were on welfare and received food stamps. In the last speech before his assassination, King explains why, on personalist grounds, the workers went on strike:

“We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying … that we are God’s children.”30 In other words, to insult human beings is also to insult the sacredness of human persons, divine image-bearers, who should have, at the very least, a right to ear a wage that is befitting of human dignity.31

Application of King’s Personalism to the 21st Century

King reminds the Negro of his inestimable value as a human being, encouraging him to affirm his value, saying, “I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor.”32 Similarly, the sanitation workers took to the streets of Memphis in protest, wearing a placard which said, “I AM A MAN.” That, in a nutshell, is personalism! Today, the placard is equivalent to saying, “I AM A PERSON.”

When a human, then, is dehumanized or depersonalized, when others fail to recognize the humanity of another human being, they need to be reminded that all humans beings – regardless of their race, color, nationality, language, gender, sexual inclination, politics or ideology – are persons and should be respected and treated as such. Not only that, but personhood is to be ascribed to them, whether they worthy or deserving of it or not. That is the application of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personalism to human beings in the 21st century.

Endnotes

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 24.
  2. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience (Boston, MA.: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 74. The book consists of five talks, during November and December, 1967. They were made public by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as the Seventh Annual Series of the Massey Lectures, which were in honor of the Right Honorable Vincent Massey, former Governor General of Canada., ibid., p. v. “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” was delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, 24 December 1967. It was the last of King’s Massey Lectures, which was made public by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on 24 December 1967, ibid., p. 69. Note: For King, the word “man” was an inclusive noun, referring to both men and women. Hence, during the time in which King lived, preached and wrote, “man” was not meant to exclude women. Today’s equivalent to “man” would be “humankind.”
  3. Ibid., p. 74.
  4. ———-, “Give us the Ballot,” Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, Washington, D.C., 17 May 1957, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., eds. Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard (New York, N.Y.: Warner Books, Inc., 2001), p. 53. I have taken the editorial liberty of deleting the remarks from King’s audience, such as “Yes” and “All right,” so as not to interrupt the flow of his words.
  5. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, op. cit., p. 74.
  6. ———-, “The Birth of a New Nation,” Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, 7 April 1957, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., op. cit., p. 41. However, as a Christian theologian, I cannot conclude from King’s words that all human beings, by virtue of being human, are regenerate, that is, “born again” or Christian brothers and sisters.
  7. Ibid., p. 38. Cf. pp. 39-40.
  8. Ibid., p. 41.
  9. ———-, “Where Do We Go from Here,” Delivered at the Eleventh Annual Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, 16 August 1967, in ibid., p. 195.
  10. ———-, Strength to Love, op. cit., p. 24. Italics are the publisher’s.
  11. ———-, “Nonviolence and Social Change,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, p. 58.
  12. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in ibid., p. 74.
  13. ———-, Strength to Love, p. 149.
  14. Francis J. Lescoe, Existentialism with or without God (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1974), p. 158.
  15. Martin Buber, The Writings of Martin Buber, ed. Will Herberg (Cleveland, OH.: The World Publishing Company, 1956, 7th printing November 1963), p. 14, quoted in Francis J. Lescoe, Existentialism with or without God, p. 158. Cf. Will Herberg, Martin Buber: Personalist Philosopher in an Age of Depersonalization, in McAuley Lecture Series: Lecture 15 (West Hartford, CT.: Saint Joseph College, 1972), p. 3.
  16. Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, p. 29.
  17. Ibid., p. 113.
  18. Ibid., p. 29.
  19. Ibid., p. 113.
  20. ———-, “Impasse in Race Relations,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, p. 9.
  21. ———-, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1958), p. 103.
  22. ———-, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in The Trumpet of Conscience, pp. 75-76.
  23. ———-, “Beyond Vietnam,” Delivered at Riverside Church, New York, New York, 4 April 1967, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., p. 157.
  24. Ibid.
  25. ———-, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, op. cit., p. 106.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., p. 93.
  29. Ibid.
  30. ———-, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee, 3 April 1968, in A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 210.
  31. Ibid.
  32. ———-, “Where Do We Go from Here,” in ibid., p. 184.