MLK Day Reflection: The Jangling Discords of our Nation

“With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”


I’ve just come from a Martin Luther King celebration that including a reading of his “I have a dream” speech, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of this speech. The sentence above caught my attention and I thought I might share some of my thoughts about this.

Certainly in the fifty years since we have come a long way from setting dogs and fire hoses upon those marching for basic human rights. We thankfully do not have the riots in our cities that I grew up with in the 1960s. From the President of the United States to top positions in many fields, persons of color have advanced and accomplished amazing things.

Yet we are a long way from the “symphony of brotherhood” Dr. King dreamed of. One need only look at the political and media discourse going on in our country that is filled much more with “jangling discord” than beauty. The gap between rich and poor in our country has widened and 46 million of our citizens live below the poverty line. We learned today that my home state of Ohio ranks 48th in the country in infant mortality, which is often a function of into which zip code a child is born.  If this is a symphony, it is one of dissonance, harsh and ugly rather than beautiful.

I do not play in a symphony orchestra, but I sing in a choral group and it strikes me that there are some things we learn that might help us create more beautiful music as a nation.

1. One very simple thing is that we all have to be singing off the same piece of music. For us as a nation, it is a realization that all are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights”. We have been at our best as a nation when we’ve recognized that these values truly apply to all and enshrined them not only in our laws but in our treatment of others.

2. A basic rule of choral singing is that if you can’t hear others over your own voice, you are singing too loud. Similarly, if the only voices we are truly hearing in our national debates are our own, we are speaking too loudly and need to listen to others.

3. Most of the time, the note you are singing should harmonize with others. Even when a written note is dissonant, it usually is so to create a tension that the audience is waiting to hear resolved. This suggests to me that most of the time, we should be asking how our own perspectives blend with others to create a harmonious society. And sometimes, when we must be dissonant, it is in the hope of a resolving harmony–never for the sake of discord.

4. Sometimes, harmony comes as efforts are made to balance different sections. Is it “fair” that one section may not be able to sing as loud as they can while another section might especially have to sing louder to be heard? Similarly, we cannot live harmoniously as a nation if all we do is compete for our own interests.

Ah, if only becoming the “beloved community” were as simple a thing as singing in a choral group! Perhaps the best evidence of our flawed human nature is the disparity between our high ideals and the realities of our society. Perhaps the most difficult part is where to find the power to return love for hate and forgiveness for injustice. At the staff conference for our organization, we heard the account of Ben Campbell, the African-American captain of the track team at UNC-Wilmington, threatened by a truck full of whites.  Instead of pressing for their prosecution, he wrote a letter defending them and saying at most, they should be made to sit down to dinner with Ben and get to know him. Asked why he protected them, he said, “it is because I love them, and you protect the ones you love… Being loved by Jesus makes you love like Jesus.”

That is the faith of Dr King who likewise returned love for violence and hatred. I think that alone can turn “jangling discords” to “beautiful symphonies.”

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