The Measure of Humanity

“The question, ‘What is man*?’ is one of the most important questions confronting any generation,” began Martin Luther King, Jr. “The whole political, social, and economic structure of a society is largely determined by its answer to this pressing question.”

King was presenting the first of two addresses to the 1958 gathering of the National Conference on Christian Education of the United Church of Christ, reflecting on the nature and purpose of humanity. Are we animals? Are we a “cosmic accident”? Are we gods or fools, angels or sinners? He quoted Psalm 8 with its ancient question, “What are human beings that [God is] mindful of them?”

In his second address to the gathering, King developed this existential question—examining not only the condition of our being but also the character of our living. How do we make choices, set goals, and mature in such a way that we can live with ourselves? How do we labor together to support each other’s well-being, to recognize and address global needs? “As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich,” King declared. “As long as diseases are rampant . . . I can never be totally healthy. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

To be human, with integrity, is a noble life.

To be humane, with mutual compassion, is a worthy life.

To be humanity together, King asserted, not only with integrity and compassion but also with hope in the mystery of God, is a complete life.

Quite often I greet the morning with existential questions: pondering my flesh and bones, critiquing my faults, evaluating my purpose and its worth, faltering to understand my little piece within the grand puzzle. King’s The Measure of a Man returns me to the essentials:

To be human is to be a miracle, a complex chemical mass that is full of ideas and faults and growth and discontent. To be humane is to return to love, in all its complexities, over and over again. To be one part of the whole of humanity is to play with our toes in holy dust even as we reach with our spirits toward holy fulfillment.

* King’s use of “man,” meaning all humanity, is kept in this quotation.

Quotations drawn from The Measure of a Man, Martin Luther King, Jr. (Christian Education Press, 1959)

published through Witness for Justice


How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your hair is like goats along the hills; your teeth are like shorn ewes that have been washed; your lips are like a crimson thread—so lovely; your cheeks are like pomegranate halves. (Song of Songs 4:1-3, abridged)

Sure, maybe it’s a poem about God. This poet wouldn’t be the first one to look at creation and imagine how it reflects characteristics of God: the wind as God’s whisper, the sunset as God’s smile, a sparkling stream as the glint in God’s eye.

It’s also possible, despite (or because of!) its location in the middle of the Bible, that it’s a poem of physical adoration, a celebration of human beauty, an unapologetic delight in the joys of sensuality. The poet gazes upon a beloved and cannot cease in adoration:

Oh my gosh, your eyes!
My goodness, your hair!
Be still my heart—your smile!

Then again, maybe it’s not either/or. To pause in delight, to celebrate a love (and to celebrate the Love of all loves), to be full of wonder, to be satisfied by the mutuality of adoration, to give thanks for the senses and sensualities that make life so acute—these too are gifts of the Creator. As the late Mary Oliver wrote about prayer: “Just pay attention … [this is] the doorway into thanks.”

Prayer: Thank you, O Love, for touch and affection. Thank you, O Life, for the flood of your beauty through all of my senses. Thank you, O Creator, for putting my spirit in flesh.

posted with the Daily Devotional

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