Tag Archives: social change

Rev. Martin Luther King – Spiritual Activist

In the modern secular world, it takes courage to cross the boundary from watching the events of the world, to becoming an activist in bringing about change and transformation of the direction of society. Likewise, even for those immersed in a religious tradition, there is a boundary to becoming a truly spiritual being. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. crossed both of those boundaries and changed our world. I was honored to be asked to write a piece about him for the Fellowship of Reconciliation which I’ve linked to here.

Rev. Martin Luther King – Spiritual Activist

                                                                                    –Alan Levin

“Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hate never yet dispelled hateOnly love dispels hate.” – Buddha (from the Dhammapada)


With an iconic figure such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose brief life shook this nation forever, people pick and choose what they want to see of his multi-faceted legacy.

Currently we have the literal whitewashing of his very radical message as politicians who want to discredit affirmative action and impose voter I.D. laws use quotes from Martin Luther King to justify their supposed “color-blind” objectives.

On the other hand, activists of the Left often overlook the fact that Reverend King was a truly religious, spiritual man. He was a Christian. But more so, he was a holy man in the prophetic tradition that transcends any one religion.

I have no knowledge of King’s inner life, but from what I do know of his life and statements, he regularly sought counsel from the divine within for guidance and tried to walk and talk in alignment with that.


I do not know if he ever studied formal meditation from Eastern teachers, but he found deep friendship, mutual respect and admiration with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It was after his talks with Nhat Hanh that Dr. King came out publicly against the Vietnam War. In 1967 Dr. King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In any case, King found from his inner sojourns, his reflections and prayers, his own unique understanding and expression of many of the deepest teachings of spirituality, East and West.

Everything is interconnected. Everything affects
everything else. Everything that is,
is because other things are.
–Basic Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination

“All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality … And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.”

–Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Commencement Address at Oberlin College, 1965)


His call to, “remain awake” as a primary goal testifies to the importance King placed on consciousness, not just our behavior as humans, as activists. He wanted us to be awake not just to the suffering, or even the systemic causes of suffering, but awake to the nature of reality. In this, he is in alignment with His Holiness the Dalai Lama: “What the world needs is a spiritual revolution.”

I believe Dr. King understood from his own experience the need to take time to cultivate that spiritual consciousness, to cultivate a heart filled with compassion and love in the face of injustice, hatred, and violence. This cultivation is the very heart of meditation.

King’s good friend Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk, deeply involved himself in Eastern philosophy and spirituality. He counseled us to “withdraw into the healing silence of the wilderness … not in order to preach to others but to heal in (ourselves) the wounds of the entire world.” And yet, King did preach once he felt his voice was a channel for that greater whole.

Somehow, through his inner searching and his confrontation with the realities of the world, King realized for himself that freedom from the fear of death is the promised land of spiritual work, the realization of the greater awareness that lies beyond the phenomenal world. What else could he have experienced that brought him to say:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

As I was writing this, a good friend, Sister Dorothy Maxwell, sent me a profound article, “The Ecology of Prayer” by Fred Bahnson in Orion Magazine. In it, Bahnson quotes the seventh century Saint Isaac of Syria, “An elder was once asked, ‘What is a compassionate heart?’ He replied: ‘It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists.’”

Surely, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was actively engaged in transforming his heart towards that fuller compassion through his meditations, his prayers, and his activism. Surely, it is our task to carry on that work.

Alan Levin is cofounder of Sacred River Healing. A member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Alan is involved in a range of initiatives in New York’s lower Hudson Valley that engage the intersections of racial justice, peacemaking, ecological sustainability, mind-body healing, and spiritual awakening.

Photos: (1) Rev. King with Thich Nhat Hanh in June 1966, courtesy of FOR Archives & Plum Village Monastery; (2) Photo by Bob Fitch, used with permission, FOR Archives.

Rethinking Heresy

One of the core issues that I sought to explore in Crossing the Boundary is the nature of heresy. In fact, I originally wanted to call the book “The Way of the Jewish Heretic,” and I wanted to put forth the idea that what some call heresy, others call creative adaptation. In other words, though it generally has a negative connotation, heresy is often the source of a positive turn in thinking and experience. However, the negative association was felt to be too strong, even for some of the book participants, so I chose to make the case about heresy within the book (and here) instead of in the title.

The issue came to mind recently when I found a very interesting blog post on the internet by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin entitled, “I’m Proud To Be A Heretic.” Rabbi Salkin writes in response to an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who recently made the claim that not only the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism, but the modern Orthodox movement itself is “steeped in apikorsos – filled with apikorsim, (heretics).”

A bit of history can help here. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairetikos, meaning, “able to choose” (from the New Testament Greek Lexicon). From Plato’s time, the word heresies was used to describe the teachings of particular schools without any negativity implied. Jews in the first century (C.E) referred to their various sects, the Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees as heresies. This was also the term for the “sect of the Nazarenes” (the early Jewish Christians). It wasn’t until the second century that the term heresy came to be seen negatively, as it is now, implying a deviation from the true path or beliefs.(1)

The term apikoros is also taken from the Greek, and according to Rabbi Salkin originates with the philosopher Epicurus (regarding his philosophy). Salkin argues that the early Jews changed the meaning of the term to refer to “someone who mocks or scoffs at the tradition of Torah,” giving it the negative understanding it now has in the Jewish world. He then points out the irony that some of the most influential Jewish philosophers and visionaries, including Maimonides, Spinoza, Marx, Freud and Einstein, were seen by some as apikoris. Not bad company.

The spiritual teachers in Crossing the Boundary all chose paths of belief and practice that could easily fit with the definition of heretic or apikoros. As seen in the book, they all made a conscious choice (the original meaning of heresy) as to the way in which they access the divine and creatively practice living in harmony with life. It was a choice that was different, in some cases radically different, from their family tradition. Though the words and rituals they use may sometimes be alien to the Jewish religious worldview, they see themselves (appropriately in my view) as contributing to the well-being of humanity, including their Jewish brothers and sisters.

As I say in Crossing the Boundary, “Abraham was a heretic to those who maintained the old ways, but he became the heroic founder of a new religious path for his followers and descendants, who now include Jews, Christians and Muslims. He heard an inner voice and broke with the path of his family and community. Jews honor him as the father of their people and universally accept the idea that he found the true God and left behind the superstitious, idol-worshipping pagan beliefs of many gods and goddesses. Ironically, now some Jews, (such as myself), have the heretical idea that the early indigenous, animistic and shamanistic traditions hold wisdom we need for our lives today. We don’t think of statues of gods and goddesses (which Abe is reputed to have smashed) as idols to be worshiped, but as windows to the spirits of higher consciousness.”

Today, those who choose the path of peace in times of war, who choose non-violent activism as a means to bring about social change, who enter non-ordinary realms of consciousness for healing or vision, are the heretics of modern time. While they are mocked by the media and attacked for their thoughts and actions, it is my view that they (we) hold the keys to transforming the catastrophic direction of humanity’s more destructive impulses.

-Alan Levin

1. 1 See “Orthodoxy – Just Another Heresy,” by Peter Nathan: http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=145