I had the opportunity to attend two Martin Luther King Day celebrations because the choir I sing with performed at both of them. There were many speakers, including community and state leaders, other singers, youth speakers, quotes from Dr. King and more. I was reminded both how far we’ve come on the road of racial reconciliation, and how far we still have to go. But there was one word that stood out in my mind.


I was watching an interpretive dance group and one of the songs talked about “shackles” (I believe the song was “Shackles (Praise You)” by Mary Mary. Certainly the image of shackles is a powerful one in the African-American experience, particularly harking back to the fetters or bindings that were used to restrain slaves at various points, as well as work gangs of prisoners. To talk about being freed from shackles is a powerful image of the hopes and aspirations of blacks–to be able to move about and live and work freely.

It occurs to me that there are two kinds of shackles. One kind are those imposed upon us by another, often unjustly. It may be the shackles of a trafficked person or slave. It may be economic shackles of limited opportunities. It may be the shackles of prejudice and limiting stereotypes. It may be an abusive and manipulative relationship.

There are also the shackles we knowingly or unknowingly place on ourselves. It may be the shackles that come from bad decisions. It may be shackles that come from an addiction that started out as curiosity until it overpowered our judgment. There are the shackles of our compulsions, our needs for control.

I wonder if often we are restrained (a form of shackles?) from efforts to remove the shackles of injustice because at least some of those who would be released also have shackles of the second kind.

I see some problems with this:

  • Shackles are shackles. Whatever the source, they restrain and restrict the full expression of a human’s dignity.
  • No matter the source, shackles are difficult, if not impossible to loose without help. We usually can’t break the hold of a shackle by ourselves.
  • When someone is in shackles, invisible fetters extend to those around them. The prejudiced person is not free to encounter the real person against whom they are prejudiced. The family of the addicted live lives indelibly marked by the shackles of the addicted one.
  • Even privilege is a form of shackle that binds me to a life that misses the gifts of those on the margins.

One speaker spoke of how far we’d come in electing a black President. Yet the years since that election have been fraught with new expressions of racial hatreds and tensions. The shackles of our problems with race as a nation are powerful and not easily broken. Do we need, as a nation to cry out for help from one greater than our nation, greater than the sum of us? I’m reminded of the declaration of Jesus when he began his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19a, NRSV)

Might it be that an important part of Martin Luther King Day is to remind us to cry out for release of the things that shackle our lives, whether imposed by others or by ourselves? Might that not lead us to a greater urgency, and a greater mercy with the things that shackle others. If we know in ourselves the despair of shackles, the longing for freedom, and the joy of liberation, should we not then do all we can to bring “release to the captives”? And wouldn’t that be, at least in part, a realization of Dr. King’s dream:

“Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.”


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