Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

M.L.King Jr. and the Five Forms of Human Poverty

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Delivered at the Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, Birmingham Community House, Birimingham, Michigan

January 16, 2011

America has made great progress in the granting Civil and Human rights to African Americans and other groups the last sixty years. Blacks are no longer the victims of the virulent and violent forms of racism so prevalent in the South in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. Voting rights laws have been passed and public lynching has ceased. The disabled can now have unhampered physical access to public buildings and spaces. Women have gained greater ascendancy and equality in the work place. Economic opportunities have expanded for minorities. There are more Latinos, blacks and women holding political office than ever before, and America, said one commentator, has finally shown that it is maturing as a nation in the area of race relations with the election of its first black president.

Since the dawning of the modern Civil Rights era, America has demonstrated a moral capacity and a heartfelt willingness to move beyond the artifices and adolescence of race prejudice and racial injustice.

Such achievements should be roundly and jubilantly celebrated as part of our continuing national legacy, and is certainly something in which Martin Luther King, Jr. would take immense pride and satisfaction. And we too should be proud of the steps this nation has taken and is still taking in making good on the promissory notes of freedom, justice and equality for all Americans enshrined in the three great documents of freedom; the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

But with all that has been achieved in the area of civil and human rights, many of us would admit today that America is still a work in progress; that we are still en route to full freedom and justice for all as many people in our nation still wage sovereignty struggles to be gainfully employed; to be recognized as full persons and to finally obtain their complete inalienable rights as citizens.

Thus emerging today are other groups, waging similar battles for human dignity and Civil and Human Rights which include same gender loving and trans gender people, people of Middle Eastern descent, Hispanics, Latinos and Chicanos, labor unions, common laborers and migrant workers, immigrants, the poor, black, brown, white and native urban and rural under classes, the sick and infirm, the elderly, the homeless, prisoners, and political prisoners, the disabled, disenfranchised, marginalized and dispossessed, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Baha’is, atheists and agnostics all desiring to sit at the table of freedom; all wanting to drink fully from the cup opportunity and equality; all seeking to realize and fulfill the great promises offered to all who come to this promised land called America.

On one hand it is the struggle to be recognized as full human beings; to live in safe neighborhoods and have safe transportation; to obtain quality housing education and health care, make a living wage, and raise their children to grow healthy and strong and live gracefully to old age.

On the other hand it is the struggle to have clean water, breathe clean air and have clean energy; to eat fresh untainted food from organic soil; to live in harmony with the earth and live in peace with their neighbors; to actualize their God given potential to make the world a better place.

Dr. King worked lived, worked and died for this kind of America and this kind of world. If he returned today, the idealist in him would be disappointed that we have not fully achieved his dream, but the realist in him would understand that the road to full human and civil rights for all persons in this society will, in one sense, always be under construction, but that we must honor the struggle and keep faithfully to it even if we have not completely arrived at our desired destination.

Notwithstanding these realities, Dr. King believed that America’s potential for fairness and justice could be still be actualized into the beloved community; where each person could realize his or her gifts and grow into persons of inestimable worth who could make themselves, their families, country, communities and  world a better place in which to live for all.

Dr. King was a meliorist; someone who believed in the moral progress and improvement of humankind, society and civilization as a whole. He believed ever so fervently and worked ever so diligently for these high ideals. If Dr. King were alive in the flesh today, he would be happy with the progress we have made but saddened at how we have in some instances regressed and increasingly polarized into a nation of have, have mores, to use George Bush’s terms, and have nots. He would probably pick up where he left off before he was assassinated, with his poor people’s campaign, for his primary mission then as it would be now would be the eradication all forms of human poverty that threaten all forms of human life on all levels of American society and the global human community. In order to really appreciate and understand the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr,. we must understand poverty as a parental source of injustice and inequality.

For Dr. King, virtually all of the woes, ills and suffering of humankind, including the denial of human and civil rights are fundamentally related to poverty. He would say that all human beings share these various forms poverty in varying degrees manifested principally in five basic forms: poverty of soul, poverty of spirit; poverty of mind and heart and the poverty of society and until we work to eliminate them, on all levels we will never be fully free.

Let me share briefly insights on these five forms of poverty as we celebrate his life and legacy and express them in light of the continuing quest for Civil and Human rights in America.

Poverty of the Soul

The concern then was not just economic poverty, but poverty of the soul; poverty of the human spirit which germinates poverty of mind and heart which gestates ignorance, antipathy and a lack of compassion. It is a poverty rooted in fear and a lack of human experience; a poverty that compels those who have more to ignore, refuse or deny those who have not, and those who have not, to demonize and denounce those who have.

It is a poverty whose ugly face is gaining more prevalence in our nation today most evidenced in the recent rise of incendiary political discourse and language of malice, fear and hatred, used as political tools to silence and discredit certain beliefs. The recent assassination attempt of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords may be linked to this combustible and inflammatory political ethos which sanctions the use of violence as acceptable means of attacking and discrediting political opponents. The philosopher Plato said “Mislogos leads to misanthropos.” The misuse of language can lead the hatred of humankind. The hatred of humankind fuels the misuse of language.

The Civil Rights and Human Rights, for which Dr. King fought, must be understood in light of his concern for the spiritual poverty of the human soul and how it instigates a poverty of heart, mind and body. For Dr. King, poverty of soul is essentially the absence of compassion, epitomized by the question,  How could a country so materially rich be a country so spiritually poor; a country so abundant in material possessions be so lacking in compassion for so many in need?

This paradox is captured in a memorable line from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch” who as a frostbitten Siberian work camp inmate, asked a cruel, antipathetic prison guard if he could go inside the cabin and get heat by the fire, to which the guard unmercifully responded “No, you cannot,” of which Ivan’s reply was, “How can a man who is warm understand a man who is cold?”

Dr. King believed that a poverty that leads men and women to turn a deaf ear to the material and human needs of those languishing in despair in our land is rooted in a poverty of the human soul which he believed detached and estranged such persons from their creator as well as from the deeper needs of their fellow human beings.

Philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson developed a concept called the Over Soul, which is another name for a transcendent power known to many as God who gives a soul to each living person. Every man, woman and child created by the creator has a soul; and that soul is the pathway into the heart of God and the hearts and souls of other human persons. It all begins with the elan vital; that creative spark breathed by God into human beings as “ruach,” “pneuma,” which engenders a compassionate and empathic concern for all of life.

Emanating from the human soul then is a “satyagraha,” soul force, says Mohandas K. Gandhi ultimately grounded in Ahimsa, love for God, love of others and love of self simplified in the profound observation of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, “I am a part of all I have met.”

Dr. King felt that those systems of power that subjugate and suppress human rights are lead by people who have lost feeling for other human beings. They have essentially lost their souls and their connection with God, for to have a connection with God is to have empathy and compassion for others. The divine spark of which the Christian mystics speak is compassion, for it links us one to the other and binds us into common community or to use Dr. King’s words, into” a single garment of destiny.”

Howard Thurman, a mentor of Dr. King’s wrote an article titled, “America In Search of a Soul, which affirms the necessities of compassion and empathy as bridge ways into the hearts of others. Thurman concluded as did Dr. King that America was still in search of it and would not obtain it until we cement the things that unite us and surmount the things that divide us.

If America could overcome a poverty of the soul by having compassion for each person and find its true soul center and actualize true soul force through genuine compassion for every living soul, America could become an even greater nation.

This compassion, emanating from disinterested, agape love, was not only for people who had become the victims of oppression, but for people who directly participated in upholding these unjust systems; people who unwittingly or knowingly benefitted from them; people who were impervious and oblivious to them; and people who knew them and witnessed their human devastations through their various forms of violence and did nothing to stop or change them. This compassion ultimately means recognizing one’s adversaries not as nameless, lifeless, careless, faceless objects or as “others,” but as us.  As long as we see the other as something other than ourselves we cannot see ourselves in them. As long as we see them as wholly other we can justify our mistreatment, denial and even our annihilation of them.

Dr. King’s compassion most optimally expressed itself in nonviolent struggle. America regaining its soul meant a compassion for both oppressor and oppressed and developing strategies that agitated for complete freedom recognizing the full humanity of both dominator and dominated. The use of nonviolence was a way of affirming the humanity of the oppressor and engaging in transformative actions that would change his mind and heart; that would move him from a non compassionate caring person to one who could genuinely feel the pain of those he oppressed.

It was King’s belief that this lack of soul or compassion allows for the proliferation of various forms of physical and structural violence in society. Physical violence involves such things as war and various forms of physical brutality. Structural violence is more insidious such as hunger, unemployment, the use of hate filled language as public and private discourse to devalue, demean, deceive and destroy persons who are other. It also includes unemployment, exploitation of the environment and nature; and the negation of human rights used as a pretext to enforce and maintain hegemonic and tyrannical power to control the lives and destinies of others.

It is the perpetuation, says David Korten, of those hierarchical systems of empire which reinforce the injustices and inequalities of the world order, and support says Rene Eisler dominator power which is the power to take, control and destroy by coercive means.” Such power organizes and stratifies every relationship at every level of society according to a hierarchy of power, control, status and privilege exemplified in such dichotomies as male over female, material over spiritual; white over black; rich over poor; master over slave; powerful over powerless; educated over non educated etc. Such hierarchies of power are the structures of empire which reinforce the cultural, relational, economic and political disparities that promote self interest, reinforce injustice and perpetuate unjust systems of power that foment the indignities and poverties of oppression.

For Dr. King the actualization of soul force or the power of compassion for the needs of others helps overcome the obstacles to true social change. “We must be the change we wish to see in the world,” says, Gandhi.

Perhaps it was the experience of Robert Kennedy that epitomizes such powerful compassionate change; who went to Mississippi and various parts of the South to witness with his own eyes the ravages of human poverty. It was through that experience that his subsequent metamorphosis from a person of wealth, power and privilege to one who could compassionately feel and intimately empathize with the poor, that defines the power and breadths of a life changing soul transformation that emanates from life awakening soul force.

Even in my own experience as one who been deprived of some material things as a child growing up in Detroit- I dare not call it poverty- and while living in Chicago as a student at the University, I had witnessed poverty’s urban sprawl in places like Cabrini Green, but it was not until I travelled to Houston Texas by Am Track train shortly after 911 that I developed a deeper compassion and could see with my very own eyes the horrendous humiliations of rural poverty as we passed trailer homes with roofs caved in, downed power lines, and emaciated mud faced children flapping their tiny hands in fecal infested waters. It was there and then that I awakened to the kind of raw, decimating poverty that transcends race and perishes the human soul. It was then that I was able to move beyond my own stereotypes of what the color of true poverty was and who the poor really were. It was then through this intimate personal experience that I was able to develop a deeper compassion that compelled my transcendence beyond the narrow prisms of my own myopic thinking.  Through this experience, I had in one instance over come the poverty of my own soul and was able to see for the first time what poverty was really like and who was really poor. I came away from that experience with a profound sense of my own poverty; a poverty born of ignorance and social conditioning; a poverty of soul that reinforced the debilitating social labels of others that did not allow me to see them as true human beings thus confirming the axioms that “we see things not as they are but as we are,” and that often” our window limits our view.”

By overcoming a poverty of the soul, we can once again connect meaningfully with other human beings in ways that will help positively transform the internal and external conditions that prevent our full freedom which was an integral part of Dr. King’s dream.

Poverty of Spirit

If poverty of the soul is the absence of compassion, poverty of the spirit is the absence of charity and generosity.  Dr. King saw the denial of human rights as symptom of this poverty of the spirit. Christians always go back to the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 and the words of Matthew 25:40 which exhort compassion not only for the neighbor but charity for the stranger. While we all know that charity abounds in our land more than we care to admit, particularly in response to human catastrophe and suffering, we are often left with the cold grey images of the stone cold faces of people devoid of charity who cannot bring themselves to empathize with the pain and plight of others which bespeaks of wealth and privilege as obscenities rather than as opportunities whose generosities abound in true charity.

The issue for Dr. King was not so much the reality of gaining more wealth, which is a hallmark of the Capitalist system, but what we do with it after we gain it. His concern would rather be the poverty of spirit which leads to pure selfishness; and the emergence of a kind of feudal apathy which we see now in Washington Gilded Age, politburo, theater politics, evocative of an epoch where human greed wins out over human need; where profits are more important than people and a cold hearted disregard for the least of these eclipses a warm blooded concern from the most of these.

He was concerned how money and power hardened the hearts of some people, compelled them to construct and support social arrangements of power whose tenets and tentacles, processes and policies continued the spiritual and economic disparities in our society and prompted that society  to ignore the pain of the poor and oppressed. He was also concerned how the lack of money and material resources often lead to apathy; and kill a a genuine desire to conquer and overcome that lack; and how poverty of the spirit creates its own cultures and systems and regimes of behavior and belief that perpetuate their own clinical forms of oppression, depression and despair.

Poverty of the spirit can engender a form of personal oppression where the person who has more, keeps getting more and gives nothing to alleviate or even eradicate the pain and suffering of others, is oppressed by his own getting and thus loses the power to positively change those external conditions that help make himself and all people in society well and whole.

Poverty of the spirit is a form of personal depression, where the person who has less, keeps getting less and does nothing to eliminate his own pain and suffering, and is depressed by his lack of getting, and thus loses the power to positively change those internal conditions that help make himself and his society whole and well.

Dr. King was especially perplexed at how many of those who had ascended to great wealth in our great nation and were once themselves poor, had lost that spirit of charity in giving aid others. Had they lost their souls? What profits a man that he should gain the whole world and lose his soul? He was also concerned at how many of the have “nots “descended into a loss of spirit devoid of humanity and a desire to radically and positively change their condition.

His concern then was for the ways in which poverty of spirit became its own contagion and instigate the various dis-eases of society; and the ways in which those dis-eases metastasize into the American Body politic causing its eventual weakening and decline. To eliminate poverty of the spirit, we must be more charitable and generous, in giving the things we value most highly to others. “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” If every living person gave something of value to help the least of these, society would become more equal and just for all by giving values such as time, talents and treasure.

Poverty of Mind and Heart

If poverty of soul is the absence of compassion and poverty of spirit is absence of the charity and generosity; poverty of mind is the absence of knowledge and wisdom and poverty of heart is the absence of love.

I do not have time to delineate these ideas but let me just say that Dr. King believed that we could dispel the poverty of mind by eliminating ignorance and fear, for these are often the twin engines of injustice and oppression. “Many of our fears are born of ignorance and much of our ignorance is born of our fears.” If we can replace ignorance and fear with knowledge and wisdom, borne out by empirical experience with the other, we can begin to eliminate injustices in our land. And if we can have more love in our hearts, by having compassion and not just seeing others as others but truly as ourselves, the walls that divide us can be made into bridges that can unite us. “The heart of education should then be educating the human heart.” By growing in knowledge, wisdom and empathic love for others in our hearts, we can overcome the barriers and constraints to a full and complete freedom. We must all work to overcome poverty of mind and heart, where we are held captive by systems of belief that limit our capacity to positively change ourselves and thus change our world.

Poverty of Society

Dr. King believed that all of these various forms of poverty were at the root of the perpetual opposition for full freedom for all people in America and that these various forms of spiritual privation and deprivation helped create  the poverty that so easily besets us.

If poverty of soul is the absence of compassion, poverty of spirit is the absence of charity and generosity; poverty of mind is the absence of knowledge and wisdom and poverty of heart is the absence of love, then the poverty of society is the absence of justice.

He would concur with the assessment of the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who stated that on the individual level the highest human virtue is love and on the social level the highest human virtue is justice, which is loves moral equivalent. While societies cannot love their citizens in the same way individuals love each other, the cardinal expression of love on the social level is justice. If justice is actualized on the social collective level as love is realized on the inter personal level then we can overcome the various forms of poverty that prevent us from working together to build a freer more just nation for all. To actualize justice for all in society requires moral courage on the part of citizens in that society. While physical courage elicits the praise and admiration of our fellows while moral courage often elicits their wrath and indignation because it often means standing alone against the opposition, realizing, I the words of Henry David Thoreau, that “one on the side of God constitutes a majority.”

King here also borrowed a concept from Mohandas K. Gandhi known as the Trusteeship of society. Everyone in society is a potentially or actually a trustee. Trusteeship of society is driven by a concern that all citizens are treated compassionately and justly. Society is essentially made whole through justice. With justice everybody does better and everybody does better when everybody does better and this can start with the basic means of subsistence, like food, clothing, shelter and meaningful work.

King believed that in order for society to maximize its greatest potential and optimize its greatest strength, all of its citizens would realize some form of justice through equality, which means that every living person would not only gain something of value from that society but give something of value back to that society to make it better than it was.

That is why the constitution is so important because it accords every living person, notwithstanding race, gender, age, creed, place of origin, sexual orientation etc full rights as citizens, which means granting them justice. By so giving, the society and nation gain strength, for the strength of the nation is in its capacity to actualize the potential of its citizens, and to see that actualization not as a threat to people in power but as a consolidation of that power which makes for a viable future for all.

Perhaps I can use here the story of the German businessman who was asked by an interviewer how he felt about paying taxes whereupon he admonished the interviewer to move on to another subject because had had always happily and thankfully and justly paid his fair share. You don’t have a problem paying taxes, the interviewer asked. “No! Why should I?” he said sharply.  That is something I gladly do!” Why? She asked. “Because I don’t want to be a rich man living in a poor country! By paying his taxes that businessman understands his role as a trustee of his society.

Each of us then is a trustee in society called to take our gifts, potential, knowledge and resources and use them for a greater good because it is just and good. Such justice is not only concerned about the treatment of all of society’s citizens, but the use or misuses of those resources that make or prevent the greater good of society.

Accordingly, Dr. King today would be perplexed at how we misprioritize our resources; how we spend 53 percent on a Defense Budget and 3 percent on Education and 6 percent on health care. He would be concerned about the bail out of Wall Street, the put out of Main Street and the throw out of back street. He would be alarmed that we would spend 306 million dollars a day on a war in Afghanistan while the working poor have increased to nearly 45 million persons. He would be aghast at the middle class virtually being wiped out; that millions children are going hungry and starving while we waste millions of dollars on pet projects and pork and other frivolities that drive deeper our divisions and make harder our pain. He would be concerned that we are still more concerned about guns than we are about butter and bread. He would be perplexed at how 3 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the nation’s wealth; how 1.2 million homes have been foreclosed and counting, and the millions of jobs shipped overseas. He would be concerned at how we have denied full human rights to same gender loving people; how we have used scriptures as a means of denying people their full citizenship rights rather than using the constitution as the proper basis for granting those rights.

Every trustee of society should be concerned about the well being of that society and seek ways to charitably invest in his own society through justice, even for others, and, until we achieve some sense of responsibility for all of America’s people we will, each of us, languish in the indignities of our own deprivations.

As a trustee of society Dr. King would be also be concerned at the rising corporatization of America, the sell out, buyout and payoff of politicians who in the words of Howard Zinn, “Look good to the people who elect them but are good to the people who finance their campaigns. He would be especially alarmed at how rising corporatism is leading to what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism,” where human and civil rights of John and Jane citizen are revoked by some corporations in the name of national security and thus undermine the anchoring pillars of our representative democracy. He would have predicted and would be horrified at the rising power of the corporate state; whose budgets are more than some countries, who do not pay their fair share in taxes; whose propensity is to please only their shareholders and put profits before people; who destroy the environment and our various ecosystems; who ravage and pillage the land, and the air and the seas with impunity and are not held accountable by the law.

If the poverty of society is injustice, each person as trustee of that society should work to eradicate it. “For injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Furthermore, he would be concerned about torture of prisoners, the criminalization of undocumented workers, the virtual exoneration of their employers and the increasing repression of human rights activists.

Dr. King understood creative, nonviolent protest as a means of addressing various injustices and viewed it as a legitimate strategy of the trusteeship of society. It was a means of calling attention to social problems, of mobilizing resources to solve those problems and designed overall to make that society a better place for all citizens.

Dr. King was well aware, as history has so painfully proven, the society that suppresses dissent and creates a culture of silence and deference will one day be haunted by that silence in ways that may spell that society’s undoing. Every trustee of society should take both ownership and responsibility for making that society better for all persons and not just a few persons and speak to those concerns and work to bring liberty and justice for all.


Well I have said enough today, and perhaps gone on too long. But let me say in closing. That each of us can begin to make this nation better by eliminating these various forms of poverty and work to ensure that all are free in America. Each of has something to contribute by overcoming these various forms of poverty.

Dr. King was an optimist, a man of deep faith and belief.
He would concur with the words, “This is my country, land that I love.” He believed in America and we too must believe in America that we can still overcome.

We can have compassion for each other. We can stop demonizing people who are different or other and give a helping hand to those in need. We can refrain from demeaning and humiliating public and private discourse. We can build a better America. We can live in peace. We can prosper again as a nation. We can eliminate injustice. We can hurdle the various obstacles in our path. We can build the beloved community but we must be committed seeing that every living soul is treated as a person; that every living person is accorded his or her full human rights as a citizen of this nation; not simply as something other but as something simply- us!

But this means that each of us recognizes his own poverty. It means that as a collective humanity we are all poor spiritually or materially, that each of us can work to eradicate poverty in all of its various life strangling and potentially life destroying forms; poverty of soul and spirit; poverty of heart and mind; poverty of body and purse and poverty of society, community and world.

We can all start where we are and work to overcome notwithstanding race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, place of origin, religion or non religion, economic station or political or social status. Yes we all can be free, obtain equality, have true justice and peace.  This was Dr. King’s dream and the dream can become a reality for all of us if we take this work seriously and keep working to overcome.

Friends, we have come a long way, but still have some distance to go. We are still on the road to freedom, justice and equality for all, but still have miles to travel. And as we celebrate whence we have come, plant road markers for where we must yet go, we must not take for granted the blessings and privileges of our great nation; the privileges and blessings of being American; and what that means to each of us; to those who have gone on before us; to our families present and our children and our children’s children’s children and future generations.

So let each of us work to eliminate these various forms of poverty not only for us but also for them.

University of Chicago President Robert Hutchens said some years ago, “America is not a perfect place but it is still the best place on earth.” Now some would take issue with that, but I believe many people in this room would concur with that statement and so would Dr. King. America is not a perfect place, but America is still a great place. America has struggled however imperfectly to bring to perfection the images and visions of freedom, justice and self government for all of her people. Were he alive today he would tell us to press on and not to give up or give in to the forces of despair and defeat.

So let us go forth to overcome these various forms of spiritual, relational and moral poverty by increasing our moral and spiritual capital so that we become a truly wealthy people; rich in mercy and rich in grace; rich in compassion and rich empathy; rich in wisdom and rich in knowledge, rich in love, and rich in justice; rich in charity and rich in peace; rich in freedom and rich in equality rich in health and rich in wealth. Let us march on. Let us never give up. Let us fight on until victory is won and we create this kind of America where every living person is a person, entitled to and fully granted full human and civil rights, for then and only then will we become the people our creator has called us to be and fulfill the potential we were meant to have.

Thank you. God bless the life, legacy and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, and those who stood by him and fought with him.  God bless America and God bless you all!!!



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