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Reflections on Dr King's sermon at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 60 years on

Reflections on Dr King's sermon at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 60 years on

By Simon Woodman, Minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

60 years ago this year (on October 29, 1961), Martin Luther King Jr preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, which is part of West London Citizens. This church has a long history of engaging with issues of global and local justice, and Dr King was invited to speak there as part of a flying visit to London which included an anti-apartheid rally and some TV interviews. It was the first time he preached in the UK.

In the sermon he spoke of the "Three Dimensions of the Complete Life", using the image of a city shaped like a cube from the Book of Revelation in the Bible, and he used this as a metaphor to call people to live lives of equal length, breadth, and height. He said that a “long” life is one where a person’s talents are harnessed and developed to the full, a “broad” life has an outgoing concern for the welfare of others, and a life of “height” recognizes the need for transcendence as the pinnacle of a complete life, and that personal and humanitarian concerns are too small without this third dimension.

Dr King’s language in the sermon resonates with the writings of Saul Alinsky, the founding father of Community Organising.

Alinsky suggests that successful organizing begins with understanding each person’s self-interest, saying that "in the initial stages of organization [one] must deal with [the] qualities of ambition and self-interest as realities". This tactic of appealing to self-interest is evident in the first of King’s three points in his sermon. His call to the "length of life", to a life lived well and with purpose, is compelling and motivating. King says "Once we discover what we are made for, what we are called to do in life, we must set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we can muster up … as something with cosmic significance; no matter how small it happens to be, or no matter how insignificant we tend to feel it is..."

However, Alinsky is clear that discovery of self-interest is only the first step, and neither does King leave it there: the discovery of a life lived with purpose for the length of days that it has available to it is only the starting point. The discovery of self-interest should initiate the discovery of shared responsibility, and this is what King refers to as the "breadth of life". He asserts that a person without breadth to their life will live a selfish life, love with a utilitarian love, and serve only their own self-interest. But a person who learns to be concerned for the interests of others “can rise above the narrow confines of … individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

But a struggle for self-interest, or a struggle for the interests of others, will be just that - a struggle. Where does one go to lay down the struggle? The organizing cycle can feel like stretching an elastic band - we stretch ourselves thin with effort. But if we don’t build into the cycle times of relaxation - allowing the band to go slack for a while, we run the risk of snapping or becoming brittle.

And here we meet the challenge of discovering the third of King’s "three dimensions of a complete life". Rather damningly, King says that institutions that never get in touch with the third dimension, the "height of life" - the spiritual, the transcendent, whatever that means for us - are in danger of developing what he describes as "a high blood pressure of creeds and an anaemia of deeds?"

Let’s hear one last time from Martin Luther King’s sermon. He said, "So let us go out with a cultivation of the third dimension, for it can give life new meaning. It can give life new zest, and I can speak of this out of personal experience. Over the last few years, circumstances have made it necessary for me to stand so often amid the surging of life’s restless sea. Moments of frustration, the chilly winds of adversity all around, but there was always something deep down within that could keep me going, a strange feeling that you are not alone in this struggle, that the struggle for the good life is a struggle in which the individual has cosmic companionship."

The struggle for justice is the struggle for the complete life - and as we struggle to live our own lives well, and as we struggle for justice for others, let us not neglect the strength that we can encounter in King's "third dimension".

If you would like to hear more reflections on the ongoing significance of King's message for the UK, join Bloomsbury Baptist Church on 29th October 2021 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his visit to the Church.

This event will explore how Dr King’s speeches and writings continue to speak to the issues of racial injustice, economic and social inequality, poverty, violence, and hope for world peace that shape the 21st Century British context.

Confirmed Contributors:

  • Richard Reddie, Director of Justice and Inclusion, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI)
  • Dr Hannah Elias, Lecturer in Black British History, Goldsmith's, University of London.
  • Professor Anthony G. Reddie, Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, Oxford.
  • Revd Dr Simon Woodman, Minister, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
  • Impact Dance! Hip-Hop Theatre Company, Street Dance Organisation and Educational Facilitator, now based at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
  • Emmanuel Gotora, Lead Organiser, TELCO & North London Citizens
  • Ife Thompson, community- based activist, writer, Human Rights Defender and Barrister and the founder of two civil society organisations; BLAM UK and Black Protest Legal Support UK

Posted by Hilal Yazan on 18 Aug, 2021