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The World House

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February 6, 2020

In the year before his death Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. published the book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  In one of the chapters, based on his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, he develops the image of all people in the world living together in the same house.

Some years ago a famous novelist died.  Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.”  This is the great new problem of mankind.  We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace….

All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors….  The large house in which we live demands that we transform this world-wide neighborhood into a world-wide brotherhood.  Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.

Lagging Morality

King then develops a theme he returns to several times – the world house has benefited by great scientific and technological advances but has not seen similar advances in morality.

We must work passionately and indefatigably to bridge the gulf between our scientific progress and our moral progress.  One of the great problems of mankind is that we suffer from a poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance.  The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually.

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external.  The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals and religion.  The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms and instrumentalities by means of which we live.  Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external.  We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live…. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul.  When the external of man’s nature subjugates the internal, dark storm clouds begin to form….

This does not mean that we must turn back the clock of scientific progress. . .  But our moral and spiritual “lag” must be redeemed.  When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men.  When we foolishly minimize the internal of our lives and maximize the external, we sign the warrant for our own day of doom.

Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to re-establish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice.  Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments.

The Problem We All Live With by Norman Rockwell

Home Wrecker 1: Racism

King then expounds on three challenges society must face if we are to be able to live together in the same house.  The first of these is racism.  A family cannot live together in the same house if one part of the family gives rights and privileges to themselves that they do not provide to the others.

Among the moral imperatives of our time, we are challenged to work all over the world with unshakable determination to wipe out the last vestiges of racism…. Racism is no mere American phenomenon.  Its vicious grasp knows no geographical boundaries.  In fact, racism and its perennial ally—economic exploitation—provide the key to understanding most of the international complications of this generation….

If Western civilization does not now respond constructively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men. 

Photo Credit: Tuca Vieira, Oxfam

Home Wrecker 2: Poverty

The second challenge that King says can destroy the house is poverty.  A house cannot stay together when some of its members dine on lavish meals while others are starving.

Another grave problem that must be solved if we are to live creatively in our world house is that of poverty on an international scale.  Like a monstrous octopus, it stretches its choking, prehensile tentacles into lands and villages all over the world…. 

There is nothing new about poverty.  What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.… Today, therefore, the question on the agenda must read: Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table, when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? 

Reading King’s words 50 years later shows that we, as a global society, have made much progress in this area.  King’s book talks about “…two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night.”  Today, according to the UN, about one-tenth of the world’s people go to bed hungry.  On the other hand, in recent years the problems of income inequality have grown.  Oxfam reported last week that the richest 1% in the world have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people.

King reminds us that in the work of eliminating poverty, there is no conflict between morality and self-interest.

From time immemorial men have lived by the principle that “self-preservation is the first law of life.”  But this is a false assumption.  I would say that other-preservation is the first law of life.  It is the first law of life precisely because we cannot preserve self without being concerned about preserving other selves.  The universe is so structured that things go awry if men are not diligent in their cultivation of the other-regarding dimension.  “I” cannot reach fulfillment without “thou.”  The self cannot be self without other selves….  Nothing would be more disastrous and out of harmony with our self-interest than for the developed nations to travel a dead-end road of inordinate selfishness.  We are in the fortunate position of having our deepest sense of morality coalesce with our self-interest.

But the real reason that we must use our resources to outlaw poverty goes beyond material concerns to the quality of our mind and spirit.  Deeply woven into the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that men are made in the image of God, and that they are souls of infinite metaphysical value.  If we accept this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see men hungry, to see men victimized with ill-health, when we have the means to help them.  In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied together.…

In a real sense, all life is interrelated.  The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich.  We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

Home Wrecker 3: War

The third potential home wrecker that King highlights is war.  A house cannot survive when its members create and deploy weapons that can destroy the whole house.

A final problem that mankind must solve in order to survive in the world house that we have inherited is finding an alternative to war and human destruction…. Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war.  We are called upon to look up from the quagmire of military programs and defense commitments and read the warnings on history’s signposts.

It is not enough to say, “We must not wage war.”  It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.  We must concentrate not merely on the eradication of war but on the affirmation of peace….  In short, we must shift the arms race into a “peace race.”  If we have the will and determination to mount such a peace offensive, we will unlock hitherto tightly sealed doors of hope and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.

Photo Credit: Ryan Etter

Scientific vs. Spiritual Development

King returns to the theme he opened with – we can only survive together when the development of our spiritual values keeps pace with our scientific advances.

The stability of the large world house which is ours will involve a revolution of values to accompany the scientific and freedom revolutions engulfing the earth.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing”-oriented society to a “person”-oriented society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.  A civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy….

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional.  Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. 

The Fierce Urgency of Now

King closes by reminding us that we cannot sit on the sidelines and wait for the world to improve itself.  We need to take action now, or risk seeing the moment for change pass us by.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today.  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late….   Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.”  We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.  This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.

Reading these words a half century after they were written, I am struck by the prescience of King’s warnings.  So much of the rancor and division we see today can be attributed to what King wrote about – that our moral and spiritual development has not kept pace with our technological progress.  We elect political leaders without moral courage because we lack the spiritual discipline to ignore people who stoke our fears.

How does a society undergo spiritual development? 

One way is through individual action.  We must each develop our own spiritual disciplines, the ability to step back from the latest tweet and post to reflect on what matters most.

There is also a need for collective action.  We must follow King’s example by highlighting injustice and helping the world see those who suffer as our own brothers and sisters.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.


  1. Ken Cozette says:

    Sharing from MLK soberly reminds me of the attention I give the new article or book when so many treasures are alive from the past.
    Although his words and admonitions are light in the darkness, I tend not to be optimistic about the dark side of the human condition. Can unconditional love take root and overcome selfishness. I can approximate unconditional love in my own life, but only briefly and rarely. I wasn’t raised with it; it was more of a prove-what-you-can-do-for-me form of love, if it was love at all (to be sure, there was a redemptive dimension of the parenting I received). The parallel trajectories of global warming and our continued denial inclines me to believe that we are nigh until “too late” yet again.
    I see MLK’s warning in this text, but he also has a dream.
    Do you believe that the inspiration of the dream is more powerful than the pervasiveness of selfishness? If you are hopeful, in what do you hope and why?
    I don’t expect a response. I’m mostly asking myself. Thanks for taking the time to draw me/us into a call to both reflect and act.

    • Larry Reed says:

      Thanks, Ken. I believe that King’s dream is powerful because it calls to something deep within us. Survival as an individual calls us to be selfish, but survival as a species or a group calls for cooperation and sacrifice. Cooperation and sacrifice are how people who live in poverty survive. It is only those of us who have gained more wealth that can afford to be selfish. King calls us to realize that we are all “poor in spirit” and need to work together to survive. My fear, like yours, is that those of us who have our own jobs and homes have become so insulated that we do not see the danger that we are in.

  2. bill reichardt says:


    Thanks for choosing those powerful prophetic words from MLK. I believe we have a virtual powder keg of will , concern and desire at Lasalle so that we as a community could bring forth an abundance of salt just as God attended for us to do. Sorry that I have failed to include the answer to how were going to accomplish t

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