Strangers Can’t Build Dr. King’s “World House”

How well do we know the challenges others face? How much do I know about what worries people of color? How deeply do I understand the fears of people who are different from me? The answer is often: not very well, not very much, not very deeply.

In Rev. Martin Luther King’s final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? he urges us to consider this reality:

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… 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.

His brilliant image of the “world house” fascinates me, in part, because it is so simple. It also fascinates me because it is so complicated. As our world shrinks due to globalization, technology, and new modes of communication, the reality that we “have inherited a large house” is painfully and beautifully obvious. We have to  live with people who differ from us, but we can only live in peace if we know one another, appreciate how others have come to the present moment, and then maybe, we can even love one another. The first challenge however, is that we barely know one another.

It seems clear to me that we have two crises here: a crisis of diversity and a crisis of conversation. For most of us, our families, co-workers, and friends are too similar– and we rarely talk deeply with those whose lives are different, even if they are in our families or among our friends.

For many of us, if we analyzed our families, friends, and co-workers, those we worship with and those we recreate with, we would see people with similar backgrounds: racial, ethnic, social, and economic. Many people live in silos, echo chambers where they hear the same voices and concerns they hold themselves. This can serve to deepen those concerns but it doesn’t broaden them. It doesn’t give those concerns a chance to mix with the concerns of people who are different. That mixing could transform one’s concerns. But if we rarely engage deeply with people whose lives are different from our own, that transformation is unlikely to happen.

That deep engagement is another crisis. I think we are also living through a crisis of conversation. We rarely make or take the opportunity to have deep conversations with those whose lives differ from our own. For some of us it’s insecurity– we don’t like not knowing how a conversation will go. For some of us, it’s a matter of indifference. If we don’t dialogue with, especially listen deeply, to people whose experience of the world is not our own, we have little chance of building a “world house” in which every feels at home.

It’s easy to blame social media, the “eyes-glued-to-the-phone” culture, but I think it’s more true than I want to admit– that I don’t find or create moments to listen deeply to people whose lives are unlike mine. These missed moments make me small. They keep me where I am.

Sometimes we avoid these opportunities for fear we will say something that offends others. Sometimes we simply don’t have the energy these conversations require. I sympathize with those reasons. But they are not good enough reasons to always avoid these moments.

I often tell my students, especially white students, that they stand to learn a great deal if they listen to the concerns of students of color. I tell them they will learn a perspective they could not have learned, had they simply done the easier thing– stayed among students whose lives are more like their own.

Here in the United States, we have just elected a president whose language and gestures mock minorities and women. We have elected someone who plays on one group’s fear of another group. He has used many not-so-subtle “dog whistles” — racially charged phrases delivered indirectly. This behavior is cynical and dangerous. His election has given rise to an increase in hate speech and hate crimes. When a president cynically and cruelly urges one group to fear others, permission is given to our more angry and hurt citizens to act on their worst impulses. Sadly, we see this very much alive in America today.

One way to resist this is to consider Dr. King’s “world house.” Strangers can’t do much together. But friends can. We have to know one another. We have to listen to one another. If we are content with not knowing the worries and fears of those who differ from us, then we will be left with ignorance and fear. No one built a house like that.

What if we started by doing a kind of inventory of our lives? How diverse is my family today? How diverse was my family as I grew up? How diverse are my friends? How diverse is my workplace? How diverse is my place of worship? How diverse is my social circle?

Once one has a sense of those questions, the second crisis, the crisis of conversation is more challenging. To whom do we listen? With whom do we discuss our fears and concerns? Whose worries do we know?

These questions won’t change the world. By themselves they won’t build the “world house.” But they might give us the insight and the information to begin.


Photo: Dr. King speaking outside the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, 1965. Public domain.

Published by josephrossnet

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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