Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pope Francis Invokes Martin Luther King

Pope Paul IV Met Martin Luther King Jr. at the Vatican in 1964
Everyone seems excited that Pope Francis invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in his short speech today at the White House.  Here is what he said:

Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our “common home”, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the changes needed to bring about “a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change” (Laudato Si’, 13). Such change demands on our part a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them. Our common home has been part of this group of the excluded which cries out to heaven and which today powerfully strikes our homes, our cities and our societies. To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.

Here is what Martin Luther King Jr. said in his famous"I Have a Dream Speech" (which was also delivered in Washington D.C.) on August 28, 1963: 

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The historical analogy is not perfect.  King uses of the phrase "promissory note" in the context of civil rights for African Americans.  Francis is using it in the context of poverty and the human consequences of climate change.   (Of course race and poverty are not unrelated in American history and culture).

But as rhetorical device, the appeal to MLK works well for two reasons:

1. His mention of King reveals that Francis is concerned about the problems of race in the United States. His speech did not address race, but by invoking King he is saying that he is aware of these problems. Perhaps he will address this issue in later speeches.  

2.  King's reference to the "promissory note" has implications for justice that go beyond just the historical context of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.  It is  a reference to any situation in which American citizens are not guaranteed their rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  If we see the promissory note reference in this more universal context, Francis's reference seems fitting and fair.

Francis's reference to King here also fits well with the Pope's brief reference early in the speech to the nation's "founding principles."

Francis's remarks also echo the words of Paul VI, the first Pope to visit the United States.  When MLK met the Pope in the Vatican in 1964, Paul VI promised King that he would aid him in the fight against racial segregation.