While I welcome America’s interest in publishing an article in which a person relates his recovery from alcoholism to a renewed commitment to Catholicism (12/24/01), I am concerned that the article might give a mistaken impression of A.A. to those who know little about it (and so might discourage those in need of its help from seeking it, with fatal consequences).
There is nothing in the article to suggest that A.A.’s program of recovery is incompatible with the hatred the author felt toward the church both when he was drinking and in his early sobriety. Indeed, he gives the impression that it was only later in sobriety, when he made the Spiritual Exercises, that he was presented with an opportunity to develop a healthy attitude toward the church. The 12 steps, however, emphasize the need for recognizing early on the danger resentments pose for the alcoholic, as well as the urgent need of doing something to be rid of them. As the founders of A.A. put it: If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison. Holding a grudge against the church (even if the church or its ministers be in the wrong) is dangerous at any stage of recovery.
Also, the author seems to imply that the church would be better off if it were more like A.A. Independent of whether or not this is true (I do not believe it is), it should be pointed out that one reason for A.A.’s distinction between religion and spirituality (taken from William James) is to keep A.A. from grandiose meddling in, or evaluation of, an individual’s religious beliefs. Arguing from the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous to a program of religious reform, however well intentioned, is contrary to the spirit of A.A. An obvious danger of not making this point clearly is that a person suffering from alcoholism might feel as if she had to choose between sobriety and Catholicism (or that she might be turned off by the feeling that A.A. will tell her that she has to adopt a certain version of Catholicism to recover).
Certainly, individuals are free to make use of the resources of A.A. as they see fit. This pluralism is arguably A.A.’s greatest strength. But it is also important that when A.A. is presented to the public in magazines like America, an individual’s reflections on his or her experience in A.A. emphasize that they present one of many paths through A.A. to sobriety and need not be taken as typical or representative of A.A. (especially in matters of religion, on which A.A. has no position).
I find it unfortunate that our national leadership has so rarely invoked the name and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since the tragedy of Sept. 11. After all, King knew firsthand the pain of terrorism, redemptive suffering and healing. Unfortunately, however, King is remembered today only as a great leader of black America and is forever frozen in our collective memory delivering his famous I have a dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, pleading for civil rights. In doing so, we diminish his broader legacy and even his relevancy for the United States today. Properly understood, Dr. King was much more than a black leader; he was a religious leader whose mission was to transform not just race relations, but the fabric of American society (12/24/01).
To understand King, one must appreciate the soul of the man. Although it may be unfashionable to say it, especially among his liberal admirers, ultimately King was a religious man. He believed passionately in the love of his God and dedicated his life not to civil rights but to acting as an instrument of God’s will, which happened to include civil rights. As he wrote in 1958, Religion seeks not only to integrate man with God, but men with men.
It is in this religious context that King is best understood. King saw most churches in America were mere social clubs with their members having more in common with sun worshipers than Christians. It was precisely the agnosticism and materialism of America that allowed us to tolerate racism. He said many times that America was sick, but the minister in him knew the cause of the illness was not social injustice. Social injustice was merely a symptom of America’s illness.
King saw his work as an effort to revitalize religious institutions and the spiritual dimension in American life. In this regard, he was passionate. King said in 1968 before his congregation, The great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see it had the revolutionary edge over Communism. So in 1963, as King and his followers marched into the jaws of Bull Connor and his dogs, King saw not just an act of courageous protest but evidence of an ecumenical second Great Awakening, in which all faiths were welcomed. And this is why King’s centrist theme of nonviolence not only brought attention to his cause, but also exemplified a vision of living and seeing the world.
So as we stumble back to our churches, synagogues and mosques in an effort to make sense of our recent tragedy, we should listen to what Dr. King had to tell us. We should remove him from the box into which we have placed him and remember he was much more than a black civil rights leader; he should be seen as a leader or even a prophet for all us. We should be asking ourselves, Is America still sick? What would Dr. King have to tell us in the aftermath of Sept. 11?
Stephen S. Bowman