In 1953, Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that we need to hear today, because it’s about something we’ve forgotten as we stoke the flames of anger and blame others for our real and perceived sufferings — it’s about personal responsibility.
Our refusal to accept responsibility is a rot within our society, a cancer that is eating away at our institutions, relationships, and liberty. We point fingers at others instead of pointing them at ourselves. We see ourselves as victims of everything — the economy, government action or inaction, other people, our parents, our ancestors. Everything but our own choices.
In this sermon from years ago, when Americans saw more injustices than we can even imagine today, Martin Luther King Jr. told us how we can be healed from this cancer, if only we are brave enough to listen and humble enough to accept his message.
“One of the most common tendencies of human nature is that of placing responsibility on some external agency for sins we have committed or mistakes we have made,” he said. “We are forever attempting to find some scapegoat on which we cast responsibility for our actions.”
Our society is replete with scapegoats. Blacks blame whites. Women blame men. Whites blame immigrants. Muslims blame Christians. Homosexuals blame heterosexuals. Voters blame politicians. Politicians blame each other.
Name it, and you can find a scapegoat. King rejected this, because he didn’t perceive human beings as powerless, devoid of agency, perpetual victims of people and things outside their control. We are active in life, not passive, and we always have choices in how we act. “Ultimately,” he said, “individual responsibility lies not in the external situation but in the internal response.”
We are all familiar with the most common agencies on which we project responsibility for our actions. First we turn to environment. How easy it is for one to affirm that one’s whole personality make-up and indeed one’s very destiny itself is determined by one’s environment. Here is a man about forty now whose life has been given in riotous living. Now as he looks back over these wasted years his comment is: “I would have been if I had been [in] a rich family with prestige and fame or if I had been in a more progressive community. It is my environment that has corrupted me.” Yet such persons as this fail to realize that many individuals rise from the very lowest of environments to be some of the most noble characters of human history.
There is a Marian Anderson, born in a poverty stricken area of Phila. Pa. She could have very easily given up in despair and cried out that she was born in the wrong environment. But she was not one to make excuses. This same Marian Anderson rose from a poverty stricken environment to be one of the world’s greatest contraltos, so that a Toscanni can say that a voice like this comes only once in a century and a Seballius of Finland can say, “My roof is too low for such a voice.”
There is a Roland Hayes, born on the red hills of Gordon County Georgia under the most crippling restrictions. At a very early age he found himself working in an iron foundry of Chattanooga Tennessee. But from these red hills of Georgia, he rose to the palace of Queen Mother of Spain. From this iron foundry in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he rose to the palace of King George the 5th.
There was an Abraham Lincoln, born in poverty and insecurity, later working as a Kentucky rail splitter. Yet this same Abraham Lincoln rose from a Kentucky rail splitter to be one of the greatest characters in the great drama of history.
These are but few of the many examples that could be used to refute the claim that one is completely determined by his environment. Those who hold such a position fail to see that many fine and noble persons stem from bad environments and many very bad and corrupt persons stem from comfortable and desirable environments.
Given that King was the leader of the civil rights movement, a man who didn’t let his environment and circumstances go unchallenged, he was not advocating that external situations be ignored.
I must hasten to say that the above assertions do not mean to imply that heredity and environment are not important. I happen to be a firm believer in what is called the “social gospel.” Indeed, no one can intelligently care for personal life without caring about genetics and social reform. Moreover, the above assertions do not mean to imply that our actions are not somewhat conditioned by external influences.
When one considers the cosmic setting of our lives, our absolute dependence on the maintenance of the earth’s heat and moisture, the determining effect on each individual of the race’s biological evolution, the momentous consequences of heredity, and the conditioning effect of environment, one cannot lightly talk about being the master of one’s fate and the captain of one’s soul.
Far from saying that environment and heredity have no importance in human personality, what I am really saying is that there is another factor which is the ultimate determining factor — personal response.
This is the heart of the matter, King said, and the difference between a life lived to its fullest and one floundering in misery.
We are not responsible for the environment we are born in, neither are we responsible for our hereditary circumstances. But there is a third factor for which we are responsible namely, the personal response which we make to these circumstances.
And so the challenge which confronts all of us is to respond to our circumstances with strength and courage rather than with weakness and despair.
We are a nation responding to our circumstances with weakness, despair, and anger. Rage roams our streets looking for those to blame, always searching for fuel to maintain its fire. And there is always plenty to find in this fallen and imperfect world. Bitterness never fails to find a broken promise, a thoughtless word, a failed policy, or a lingering disappointment on which to feed.
King refused to let bitterness and anger over disadvantage or difficulty determine his path in life. Instead, he chose a better way. “Not environment; not heredity; but personal response is the final determining factor in our lives,” he said. “And herein lies our area of responsibility.”
We can’t force people to be what we want or need them to be. We can’t change the past, we often don’t have the power to change our circumstances, and we certainly can’t change the hearts of others. All we can do is respond in a particular way, and that response needs to be one of love, not hate. Sometimes it means we must simply let go of the pain others have caused and move forward.
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive,” King said. “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”