School and work are closed today as we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. The free time offers us an opportunity to catch up on sleep, watch a movie, or complete projects at home that have been waiting. But we would miss the real purpose of the day off if we did not also take a moment to remember the message of Dr. King.
As a white American, I have never been racially profiled. My ancestors were never sold into slavery. No one has ever used a racial epithet to describe me or my children. The lenses through which African Americans see the world are not lenses through which I can see. In many ways, our stories are different and today is a chance to remember that.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is by far his most quoted work. Until last year, it was the work with which I was most familiar. When I started teaching as an adjunct at a local university, I assigned Dr. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to the students. It was in the book and appeared on the syllabus I inherited.
You should read it. Everyone should read it.
It was written after Dr. King was arrested for his leadership of boycotts in Birmingham and in response to white church leaders who were criticizing King’s methods and presence in their community. The other church leaders had published an editorial, calling him an outsider and listing several criticism of his work and his movement.
You can hear Dr. King’s frustration and despair as he writes on napkins, newspapers, and anything he can get his hands on, trying to scrape together a response to a world that does not understand nonviolence or the plight of his brothers and sisters.
Perhaps today we can take a few moments and read the letter in its entirety. The words he wrote then are still appropriate today.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
You have, no doubt, heard the first part of that quote before. But what about the rest of the paragraph? Do we behave as though the lives of others affect my life? Do we believe in King’s “single garment of destiny”? Am I really affected by what affects another? Or do I watch a 30-second clip of a video on the news or online, instantly form an opinion, and let that opinion shape my reality?
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
We are still repenting for the sins of our past – as a society and as a community of faith. Surely part of the healing must include a commitment to be silent no longer when we hear hateful words and actions of bad people.
“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
How in the world are we silent in the face of hunger, poverty, racism, sexism, and outright ignorance? Why are we quiet when someone from another political party or faith or race is treated with such disdain? When did our winning have to include the humiliating defeat of the opponent? Where are the real leaders today?
“Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice ― or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
It is time for people who say they believe in Jesus and all He teaches – love of neighbor, forgiveness of others, charity, hope, and peace – to show the world that hatred has no home hear, authority is never abused, everyone is welcome, and salvation is open to all.
Spend some time studying Dr. King today. Discover his message of peace. Welcome the stranger. Forgive someone. Most of all, live a life of peace and justice so that others might look at us and see straight through to God.
May your week be blessed.