KING & CHRISTIANITY
Reading Gary Dorrien’s “King and His Mentors: Rediscovering the Black Social Gospel” (October 6) allowed me once and for all to uphold my own critique of Steven Pinker’s characterization of Dr. King. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Pinker credits the civil-rights movement with being an important precursor to the women’s liberation movement, gay rights, and other struggles for the rights of minorities. But he dismisses the role of Christian faith in these progressive movements and makes the following outlandish claim (p. 677): “MLK rejected mainstream Christian theology and drew his inspiration from Gandhi, secular Western philosophy and renegade humanistic theologians.”
When teaching recently at Manhattan College, I asked my students to critically evaluate that claim after having read and worked through King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” with them. I told them it counted as one of the most important statements to come out of American Christianity. Dorrien’s nuanced account of the impact that King’s teachers had on him should put the last nail in the coffin lid of Pinker’s reductively secularist reading of King’s love for his ministry and for the church.
UNJUST TO JUSTICE
Kevin Cantwell’s poem “Old Miami” (October 20) includes the lines “Levine used to say if you remember one of his readings / that Donald Justice had never seen / a worker” and then goes on to recount Justice, during a childhood piano practice session, catching only a glimpse of a “sunburned man with a bucket of masonry trowels.” Presumably this “Levine” is the poet Philip Levine, Justice’s one-time classmate at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (they were in John Berryman’s class together). Did Levine really say that? Actually, Justice saw plenty of workers, including his father, who made a living as a carpenter. When, as a child, Justice had to miss a year of school because of his osteomyelitis, his father worked after the hours of his regular job, building a house pretty much on his own. My friend Donald Justice revered his father and held in high regard people who do manual labor for a living.
Lewis & Clark College
ADULTS IN THE ROOM
Bernard G. Prusak’s article “A Right Not to Fight” (December 1) was curiously litigious about a young man’s ethical options when seeking to avoid fighting in Vietnam. Never once, however, did he mention the egregious moral culpability of President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk for prosecuting the Vietnam War.
I had an acquaintance during that era who received his draft notice. He was a gentle, timid, bookish youth passionately opposed to the war. He told me he didn’t know what to do in response to the draft notice. I told him to go to one of our parish priests and seek advice on how to become a conscientious objector, selective or otherwise. Having not heard from him for a while, I kept wondering whether he took my advice. Several months later I read in the local paper that he had immolated himself. An empty wine bottle and gasoline can were found next to his burnt body.
Prusak’s article mentioned the word “kid” twice when alluding to the prospective youth seeking exemption from military service. Grown men sending youth off to that war makes them guilty not only of the Vietnamese deaths but also of the deaths of thousands of American youth. Count their names on Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial.