I am spending half of my day today remembering the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I suspect that there will be some who read this who will wonder why I would do this, particularly if it is a holiday and I can do anything I want.
To be honest, part of the reason is that I sing in a community choir has been invited to sing in both citywide and local celebrations–I’m spending a good part of the morning singing. Our director is an African-American man, a gifted musician steeped in the tradition of the music of the Black church, much of which became the music sung during the Civil Rights movement. The music is different from that of my church upbringing. It teaches me to exuberantly praise, to cry out in lament, to endure for the long haul, to hope and aspire.
As a white man, I will never fully understand what it is to be black. Days like this are part of a process of understanding more. The songs, as they sink into my being, put me in touch with the long struggle of a people and invite me to join in that struggle. The speakers invite me into a different set of stories from those I ordinarily hear. I admit that there is much more to understanding what it is to be black than joining in a one day celebration. It is one of many steps. I always learn something.
The day honors the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was this rare combination of Christian who was a prophet, a peacemaker, and a martyr.
- Prophets not only foretell, they “forth tell.” They call people forth to God’s highest ideals and expose when we are less than that. King said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Injustice at the lunch counter, on the bus, or at the voting booth threatened our whole fabric of justice, our aspirations as a nation for “liberty and justice for all.”
- He was a peacemaker. He said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” He taught church people to put these principles into practice with non-violent resistance. For the same reason, he opposed the Vietnam war.
- He was a martyr, not merely for the sake of his own people. He understood the tremendous soul-burden racism placed upon whites as well as blacks. He said, “If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.”
His life and death are worth remembering for these and many other things. It always does me well to remember the noblest words and deeds of others, rather than the tawdry words and deeds that are so much a part of our news.
I can imagine someone at this point interjecting with the imperfections of King’s life. I’ve read the biographies and know them well. I won’t offer any justifications. But it seems that we only call up these things against those we don’t like, and overlook them in those we favor. Worse, we overlook them in ourselves. King admitted “the evil in the best of us.” Do we? Perhaps it is not a bad thing to engage in some self-examination on a day like this. What is the log in my own eye that needs removing?
I use this day to remind myself of the reason Dr. King is known to us, the log in our national eye, as it were. Our sins around how we displaced one people and forcibly enslaved another, and after Emancipation, have persisted for another 150 years in finding ways to oppress our Black fellow citizens have been called “America’s original sin.” Even a bloody Civil War failed to bring us to lasting repentance. Abraham Lincoln seemed to understand better than most how this war was a judgment of God upon the nation:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address).
I tremble as I think of God’s judgment that we failed to heed the scourge of the Civil War and have perpetuated for another 150 years in different ways the oppression of slavery, and often nurtured racial hatred in our hearts. The lament songs that ask “how long” speak powerfully to me, calling me to persist in prayer for repentance from our national sin, and the healing of our racial divisions.
But I cannot stop there. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man of hope. On the night before he died he said,
I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.
If a man like King, who had faced so much opposition and evil and hate could continue to hope, why shouldn’t I? To gather with others across racial boundaries on this day is to remind ourselves of that hope, the “Dream,” and to strengthen our resolve to persist in that hope. It cannot be just another “kumbayah” moment, quickly forgotten. It means continuing to stand together to seek justice in our communities, in our prison systems, and in loving resistance against structures that try to perpetuate white supremacy in a country formed around the “unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of all of our people.
All this is why I remember Dr. King today.