The Lessons of 1934: Why 2018 Activists Must Face Faith

Photo: Flickr user, SeRGioSVoX

Michael King was born in poverty but also much faith. In 1931, he became pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and three years later took a trip with other ministers and theologians to the Holy Land and Europe. The excursion included the Baptist World Alliance conference in Berlin and visits to sites famous for a certain 16th century German religious revolutionary. Directly following the trip, this pastor from Georgia changed the names of both himself and his five-year-old son from Michael King to Martin Luther King.

That same year, also in Germany, Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor and therefore the nation’s army commander, Reichskanzler and Führer. He and the Nazis were also directly inspired by Martin Luther and faith, yet in a very different, very ugly way.

PBS is currently commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by broadcasting Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World. The film explains that while some of Luther’s most extreme writing was foundational to anti-Semitism and thus contributed to evil on an inhuman scale, the Protestant Reformation was, at the same time, a catalyst for anti-corruption democracy and basic rights. In addition to translating and distributing information to the people, Luther advocated for — and worked toward — the basic education of all classes, especially youth, including girls. America’s founding fathers themselves were direct descendants of Luther’s ideology. As the narrator of the film further explains:

As an impoverished outsider who stood up against kings and popes, Luther continues to inspire a belief that individuals can nonviolently effect change. Martin Luther is the first use the power of media to amplify the marketplace of ideas and to serve as a check on government.

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Seeing the film, I was struck by the fact that both King and Hitler took bold action in 1934; both were inspired by their faith and by the religion revolution of Luther. The more I dove into my investigation of 1934, the more the relevance of the year to our own time seemed relevant. For example, fake news hit a high point when English gynecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson “photographed” the Loch Ness Monster. Natural disasters, such as earthquakes in Nepal and Bihar, killed 6,000 to 10,000 people, and a great fire and tornadoes in Japan killed nearly 4,000. Political extremism was growing in South and Central America; the Communist Party in China began its Long March. The USSR and Afghanistan joined the League of Nations. Charles Manson, Ralph Nader and Sophia Loren were born.

From 1934 into 1935, Persia became Iran, which temporarily banned the hijab. The first Pahlavi Queen of Iran, Tadj ol-Molouk (from Baku, Azerbaijan) and her daughters were secular Muslims and appeared in public without veils. The Empress’ son, who had grown up around bold women, would become Shah in 1941; for his second wife, he married a half-German woman half his age whom his older sister had discovered in London. American involvement into Iranian politics in 1953 would lead to a considerable, longstanding rift between the two countries; yet despite this, and until the Islamic Revolution and fall of the Shah in 1979, Iran became increasingly modern and culturally Western under the Pahlavi family’s rule. Freedom of public religious observance was shunned; faith went private while miniskirts went public. The tension between Islamic feminism (both conservative and liberal constructs) and secular Islam was exemplified.

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Peace walls throughout Belfast still stand.

The US, in 1934, was crawling out of the Great Depression, and the San Francisco police responded questionably to a dock strike to which the National Guard was called in. Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were killed by police; Shirley Temple sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop”; Disney debuted Donald Duck. Bruno Hauptman, the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby, was arrested; and President Roosevelt signed the Indian Reorganization Act, giving Native Americans more autonomy, some justice and access to the New Deal.

The US, in 1934, also saw faith in play, as Elijah Muhammad became the leader of a four-year-old movement called the Nation of Islam (NOI) in Detroit, later moving the organization and his family to Chicago. The NOI later had a direct impact on — and was impacted by — other legendary Black Muslim men who changed their names and changed this nation, including Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) which monitors hate groups, such as white supremacists, describes the NOI — now affiliated with the Church of Scientology — like this:

…one of the wealthiest and best-known organizations in black America, offering numerous programs and events designed to uplift African Americans. Nonetheless, its bizarre theology of innate black superiority over whites — a belief system vehemently and consistently rejected by mainstream Muslims — and the deeply racist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders, including top minister Louis Farrakhan, have earned the NOI a prominent position in the ranks of organized hate.

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People of faith worldwide in 1934 and 1935 were — just as people of faith in 2017 and 2018 are — capable both of righteous action driven by profound love and terrifying hate driven by self-righteousness. The Golden Rule is universal, but so is ambition (offense), so is fear (defense). The violence of the Buddhist nationalist government in Myanmar against the Rohinga Muslims, and the vile terrorist acts of Boka Haram and ISIS are two of the many traumatic examples of today.

Ambition and fear can in turn produce a nonviolent desire to hunker down and protect one’s own family and way of life. Oftentimes this is used as justification for segregation, bias and discrimination. This year, the concrete peace walls throughout Belfast still stand, separating generations of Protestants and Catholics. Schools in Northwest Bosnia remain segregated, with Muslim and Christian children being kept separate for more than two decades and counting. In the US, 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act), which outlawed housing discrimination based on race and ethnicity, religion, national origin and gender; the segregated cities of today’s America offer a hot reading of a thermometer regarding the law’s success.

2018 is going to be an important year for artist activists working in desegregation, peace-building, diplomacy, social justice and community development. While race and ethnicity, national origin and gender dominate our discourse, we must also recognize the role that faith plays in people’s daily decisions, art-making, relationships, politics and work. God matters; peace and prosperity created by separation and discrimination cannot stand. The year 1934, and its aftermath, certainly teaches us that.