Before history intervened, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had dreams of teaching philosophy or theology, and sometimes spoke of his desire to return to the college classroom. King, the thinker, the orator, the writer was nourished by mighty intellectual streams and a steady flow of books.
One of his influences, Paul Tillich, has a unique Indiana connection with lessons for us today.
For half a century, Tillich was a major voice in Protestant theology. Born in Germany, he made a name for himself as a Lutheran pastor, a philosopher, and a public voice.
In exile in the United States—first at Union Theological Seminary in New York, then Harvard and the University of Chicago, he mastered the English language, writing popular books on faith, theology, and philosophy.
An important theme of Tillich’s writings is the “courage to be” in the face of meaninglessness, hopelessness, and political indifference. Though a veteran of the German army during WWI, Tillich had the courage to speak out against the evil of the Nazi regime, broadcasting speeches to the German people from his refuge in New York City.
This moment in American history calls for us to cultivate the “courage to be.” We’ve had a year to reflect on the Capitol riots, the threats to Democracy by mobs riled by demagoguery. Today’s America is a nation deeply divided. To bridge that divide, we’d do well to recall the heroic struggles of King and Tillich and resist the idolatry of nationalism, militarism, and racism.
Just months before the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the event that would catapult Martin Luther King Jr. to the international spotlight, King finished his doctoral dissertation on modern theology. Paul Tillich was the main subject of his thesis.
In the fall of 1960, wrongfully imprisoned in Georgia, and facing down a long stay, King asked his wife, Coretta, to bring him two volumes of Tillich’s “Systematic Theology”—no light reading!
In the famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963), King writes “Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?”
In King’s final book, “Where do we Go from Here? Chaos or Community” you can hear echoes of Tillich’s ideas about love, power, and justice. King and Tillich both championed traditions that transcended their abuse: King spoke of an American promise that could overcome racism, as Tillich spoke for an inclusive Germany that abolished antisemitism.
Both King and Tillich stood for a Christianity that believed in social equality, economic justice, and true freedom for the individual grounded in responsibility for others. “Sin” for Tillich, as for King, had a social dimension: racism, exploitation, indifference.
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Their lives, their writings stand as a testament to their courage “to be” in the face of adversary and oppression.
In New Harmony, Indiana you will find Paul Tillich Park, a meditative grove behind the Red Geranium Restaurant filled with quotations and a bust of its namesake. In 1963, Tillich had spoken at the “Roofless Church” and dedicated the park that would bear his name.
When he died two years later, Tillich’s ashes were interred in New Harmony, but his spirit lives on through King’s words and, hopefully, our actions.
As King and Tillich showed us, it takes courage to stand up to injustice and racism. It takes courage to listen — and hear with empathy — other perspectives. It takes courage to be.
Elliot Ratzman is Chair in Jewish Studies, teaches in the Religion Department at Earlham College.