At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Faith, Work, and Economics

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Photo courtesy of Adam Fagen

This past Martin Luther King Jr. day I was made aware of one of Dr. King’s sermons called “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” He delivered this sermon at New Covenant Baptist Church, in Chicago, Illinois, on 9 April 1967. In this sermon, Dr. King preaches some powerful truths about the connection between faith, work, and economics.

He begins by explaining the “three dimensions”:

There are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height. Now the length of life…is the inward concern for one’s own welfare…The breadth of life as we shall use it here is the outward concern for the welfare of others. And the height of life is the upward reach for God.

Dr. King then expounds on the “length” of life, mentioning “rational and healthy self-interest.” He defines this self-interest, exhorting,

Now let’s turn for the moment to the length of life. I said that this is the dimension of life where we are concerned with developing our inner powers…God gave all of us something significant. And we must pray every day, asking God to help us to accept ourselves.

Dr. King also mentions our jobs. He said many of us will not be the recipient of attention or in the public eye for what we do. Therefore:

What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.

He then discusses “the breadth” of life, our care for others, and this involves our jobs. Part of that is realizing how we depend on the work of others in a global economy. The free market is fundamentally the interaction between people, each caring for their neighbor through economic transactions. We have the ability to serve and provide for each other through free exchange. Dr. King gives a vivid illustration of this in his sermon:

And don’t forget in doing something for others that you have what you have because of others. Don’t forget that. We are tied together in life and in the world. And you may think you got all you got by yourself. But you know, before you got out here to church this morning, you were dependent on more than half of the world. You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom, and you reach over for a bar of soap, and that’s handed to you by a Frenchman. You reach over for a sponge, and that’s given to you by a Turk. You reach over for a towel, and that comes to your hand from the hands of a Pacific Islander. And then you go on to the kitchen to get your breakfast. You reach on over to get a little coffee, and that’s poured in your cup by a South American…Before you get through eating breakfast in the morning, you’re dependent on more than half the world. That’s the way God structured it; that’s the way God structured this world. So let us be concerned about others because we are dependent on others.

Dr. King ends his sermon by summarizing the dimensions of a fulfilling life:

Go out this morning. Love yourself, and that means rational and healthy self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That’s the length of life. Then follow that: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That’s the breadth of life. And I’m going to take my seat now by letting you know that there’s a first and even greater commandment: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength.” I think the psychologist would just say with all thy personality. And when you do that, you’ve got the breadth [height] of life.

There is much more to his sermon but highlighted here were the portions that jumped out as most relatable in our lives as professionals, whether it is CEO, movie star, or street sweeper. Work is a primary means by which we develop our own skills and serve others by putting those skills to use within the economy. In doing both, we express our love and gratitude towards God for such gifts.

You can read or listen to the whole sermon here. It is well worth your time.

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