April 9, 2019
Those who know Martin Luther King Jr.’s story well, know that January 27, 1956, was a pivotal date for the young minister.
Only one month earlier, still a newcomer in town, King, to his surprise, was elected to run the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) formed in response to Rosa Parks’s arrest.
As King’s Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David Garrow recalls, King “mistakenly presumed that the boycott [organized by the MIA] would be relatively brief,” but he was wrong. A series of tense negotiating sessions made it clear that the city was reluctant to give up any ground.
As the bus boycott dragged on, and more attention was turned toward its leader, the situation became tense. According to Garrow:
“The increased news coverage had brought with it a rising tide of anonymous, threatening phone calls to his home and office, and King had begun to wonder whether his involvement was likely to end up costing him, his wife, Coretta, and their two-month-old daughter, Yolanda, much more than he had initially imagined.”
On January 26th, King was arrested and jailed for supposedly driving 30 mph in a 25 mph zone. The next day, after his release, he received another round of anonymous threatening phone calls. He tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so he returned to his kitchen table to make a cup of coffee and confront his mounting anxiety and fear.
As King recalled in a sermon given a decade later at the Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church:
“And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage.”
“And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘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.’”
Garrow describes this scene as one of the most important moments of King’s life.
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I first encountered this story in a book by Mike Erwin and Raymond Kethledge about solitude, and then expanded on it in Chapter 4 of Digital Minimalism, where I discuss what’s lost when we deploy devices to avoid every moment of time alone with our own thoughts.
For many in our modern context, this observation that reflection is critical might be novel, especially given the steady refrain of “connectivity = good” that we’ve been fed for the last decade. But to the spiritual, like King, it’s deeply familiar.
Common to many different religions is an emphasis on contemplative practices — turning one’s focus inward in search of transcendent insight (what Karen Armstrong calls “intimations of the divine.”)
Sometimes these practices are structured, as in the Islamic Salat, Buddhist mindfulness meditation, or, as is familiar around my academic home, Jesuit imaginative prayer. And sometimes they’re unstructured, like King’s experience at the kitchen table. Regardless of form, contemplative reflection is often intertwined with spiritual life.
I’m bringing this all up because it provides background for a surprising claim that’s been growing online in recent years, and which seems self-evidently worthy of unpacking: social media might be accidentally undermining religion.
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I stumbled across this growing tension between social media and religion in an admittedly ignoble manner: checking media hits for Digital Minimalism. I was surprised to discovered the amount of attention the book has started receiving in religious circles.
But as I looked closer at the coverage, the surprise dissipated. Though there are many ways in which tools like Twitter or Instagram might work against (or in some cases with) the traditional objectives of religion, the issue that kept arising is the way in which the ubiquitous distraction they provide corrodes the contemplative life.
Courage, reassurance, revelation: these require a quiet mind capable of apophatic insight. One of the unintentional consequences of innovating an algorithmically-optimized, always-present source of attention-snagging noise is that this quiet disappears.
The religious are increasingly concerned with this consequence as they notice more of their fellow adherents stumbling around in a state of unmoored anxiety, but it’s an effect that’s clearly important beyond just formal faith, as it gets at something fundamental about human flourishing in a hard world: if you’re constantly escaping, you’ll eventually end up lost.
At some point in Digital Minimalism, I remark that “humans are not wired to be constantly wired.” But perhaps a more vivid formulation of the stakes is to wonder (with a dash of anachronistic hyperbole) what would have happened to Martin Luther King Jr. at that kitchen table sixty years ago if, instead of turning inward to find wisdom, he had been distracted by his mentions?