In January 1956, Martin Luther King was in despair. His decisions as a civil rights leader in Montgomery, Alabama were being questioned, even by former supporters. He had tried to resign his role as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, feeling he was not the best man for the task. He had been receiving anonymous death threats by phone and by letter – 30 or 40 per day by late January. He feared for himself and for his young family. He was 26 years old.
On January 27th, in his darkest moment, after a threatening phone-call, he sat at this kitchen table and looked to God.
“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord, I’m faltering, I’m losing my courage…I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” King describes hearing “An inner voice… the voice of Jesus” saying in response “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”
I am powerfully moved by this portrait. I have never faced the magnitude of trials Dr. King faced in Montgomery, and may never do so. Nothing in my experience measures up to his trials or his triumphs. But to some degree I hope I can empathize with Dr. King’s position, and I think I can begin to understand the impetus that might drive someone to seek celestial aid. As an idealistic high school teacher, fresh out of university and buzzing from the short training provided by the Teach First program (the British equivalent of Teach for America), I leapt into teaching with great zeal. For years I had studied and written about education, and dreamed about the magical classroom I would create. Sharp intellectual rigor would be coupled with abundant joy. I envisioned happy, hardworking children beaming while reciting Chaucer and arguing over the various merits of Dickens and Austen.
My friends and family all told me I would be a wonderful teacher, and I fully believed them. I filled my classroom with marvelous objects – a gong for classroom rituals, Tibetan singing bowls for sound-effects, and juggling-balls for games. I lined my shelves with ranks of books on critical pedagogy and cutting-edge teaching techniques, fresh and warm from the Cambridge University Press, and covered the walls with panoramic posters of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. I arrived for my first class ready with a university-level lecture on 18th Century Literature, complete with disquisitions on Stubbs’ Whistlejacket and the political caricature of James Gillray.
Only a few weeks in, my dream had shattered. My walls and my books were covered with spitballs fired by outraged and enervated students. Chair legs were strewn across the floor, severed from my classroom chairs with a hacksaw, then used to drill holes in the wall. Some of the kids were so appalled at my teaching that they charged away down the fire escape in the corner, or hid in the small office that adjoined my room. Others simply flung a torrent of abuse – some extremely witty, some simply vulgar. In my two years working with a non-profit in prisons across England I had never encountered anything similar.
I shall never forget the moment when an 11 year old decided to take over the class, striding to the front with a cry.
“Who qualified you to be a teacher? It’s disgraceful!”, he yelled, proceeding to elaborate the thesis that “Shakespeare was a fat git!”, gesticulating wildly in an eerily accurate caricature of me. I cannot expunge the memory of Billy, who would fling open the door of my classroom, demonic grin on his face, and cry out “Mr. Croft’s lesson! Duct tape on your bumholes, lads!”
And no one was learning anything.
But not only was I a terrible teacher: I was convinced I was hated in my department. In my first month the Head of the English Department, a strict disciplinarian with a piercing, shrill voice (and my in-school “mentor”, the person responsible for my development and success in the classroom), suggested that in order to remove some unruly students from class, it might be necessary to “exaggerate” on official misbehavior reports.
In some extreme cases, she suggested, you might even provoke students into violence.
She related how she once had once done this, pulling a boy’s chair from under him so that he fell over, knowing that he would respond angrily. When he did so, she then used that as ground for his permanent exclusion from the school – and she was “proud” of this.
I sat in the staffroom, surrounded by my new colleagues, and noticed that an expectant hush had fallen: they were waiting to hear my response. I recognized this as a crucial moment in my career: I could refuse, and stand up for my principles, but I would then face the wrath of my superior and the animosity (so I imagined) of the staff. I was barely weeks into the job, and had no authority or respect, no power, and, increasingly, little hope.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “But I can’t do that.”
This led to weeks of victimization and ostracization. It was made quite clear that I would not be missed were I to quit. I had no allies among the staff, none among the students, and my friends were busy with their own lives. I could see everything that I had worked for – three years at Cambridge University! – collapsing before me, and in public, in front of the eyes of hundreds of jeering students and unsympathetic teachers.
Once, in abject misery, I locked myself in the classroom and called a friend, begging them to help me find another job. Travelling to school each morning I wished that the train would come late, sparing me a few moments of humiliation. I hoped I would fall asleep in the cold plastic chair on the railway platform, so that I would miss the train.
And I recall a momentary thought, a fleeting fancy: why not step in front of the train?
One evening, in my darkest moment, after a harrowing and embarrassing day failing in front of children, I sat at my bedroom table and looked within.
I remembered the Sartre I had studied as an undergraduate, and recognized that even now, when all seemed hopeless, I was faced with a choice. I remember thinking to myself
“James, you have personal agency, and you are responsible for exercising it. You can choose to give up, and find something else to do with your life – simply quit and never go back. Or you can fashion a way, any way, to make your chosen career – your vocation – a success. I want to make this work, and I’m trying to do my best, but I’m not sure I have the strength or skill to succeed this time.”
I thought of the person I wanted to be. I thought of my most profound values. I thought of the effect my actions would have on those around me, including the colleagues and students who seemed to detest me.
And I made a choice.
What is the difference between Martin Luther King’s response to despair and mine? Is there a difference? Does that difference matter? It is clear that many people “turn to God” at moments of great personal challenge, and equally clear that they seem to find a source of strength there. At the same time, as an atheist, I am committed to the uncomfortable position that, however deeply felt Dr. King’s belief that Jesus responded to him, and however much his faith imbued him with the courage to do great deeds, he was, at root, mistaken. Whoever spoke the words King heard, whatever was reinforcing his mettle, it was not Jesus, and it was not God.
I think there is a difference between what I did and what Dr. King did, and I think that difference matters. In brief, I think that when we turn to God for guidance, to the exact extent to which we believe we receive guidance and assistance from God, we diminish our own sense of personal agency and individual responsibility. I also think that the very discussion of this question raises profound challenges for interfaith work. Because even articulating my view on this issue – that there might be something worrying about Dr. King’s response – however respectfully I seek to couch it, is likely to offend and disturb some people of faith.
Is there really a problem with relying on faith in times of trouble, and is some level of discomfort when discussing this inevitable? Are there some pills that cannot be sugarcoated? Or is there a way to discuss these questions that does not only respect the faithful but respect their faith? Exploring these questions will be the purpose of Part Two of this post, but please add your thoughts below!