Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. and The Work Still Ahead
On this 15th day of January, we celebrate this weekend of what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 93rd birthday. This day of remembrance conjures up all sorts of reflections about King, the nation, and the world. Yet, in many ways, when his short life and the impact he made are juxtaposed with our current reality, his assassination still stings. We cannot help but wonder what the world would be like if he had been allowed to live. What would King’s speeches sound like today? Would he have to speak at all?
Nevertheless, King’s legacy, in just a short 39 years, has left us with more than enough to continue to the Promise Land. And although the last 54 years we have had to carry on without him, the ball has been and is still in our (America’s) court. Many historians and theologians alike have attempted to capture King’s legacy. A task so immeasurable, one can argue, that it is forever ongoing. Yet, in many ways, that is one of the gifts that King has left us. Whether it’s his conviction of faith, or his unprecedented ability to demonstrate Agape love, however your attempt to unpack King, you never conclude without searching your own heart.
Late author James Baldwin said this of King, he “has succeeded, in a way no Negro before has managed to do, to carry the battle into the individual heart and make its resolution the province of the individual will. He has made it a matter, on both sides, of the racial fence, of self-examination.”
King’s legacy points us to our own hearts. It allows for us, if willing, the opportunity to examine ourselves in the light of a nation in need of individuals to do the collective work that beckons the Promise Land into existence.
Often, my imagination wonders, what if King was still with us? What would be his response to the world we see around us. What would he say about this pandemic of virus and homelessness? How would he respond to the liberal/moderate states? States where homelessness seems to be rampant. Would he say: how long can we drive our electric cars to pass the homeless, never making the connection that rendering aid to help the homeless is a step closer to saving the environment.
In speaking on covid -19 and its variants, maybe King would give insights from earlier speeches: “We are all interrelated, what affects one affects us all….” Or perhaps he would add… the longevity of this pandemic has exposed how our inability to come together renders us hopeless. A divided nation cannot stand against covid or any external/internal force.
Although this is hypothetical, I yearn to hear King’s response in my inward heart. Could that be due to an inconvenient truth, that our moral center as a nation has eroded? Or could it be that we lack the leadership necessary to unite us as a nation?
America is so unique; it is a nation that steadily has one foot forward and the other on a banana peel. Progress seems to never be concrete but rather loose gravel, where stones are easily displaced. This dilemma is not by coincidence. I genuinely believe that there are side effects to being required to force a nation’s hand to do the right thing. It is as if the resentment towards forced change had been covertly brewing, waiting for the opportunity to arise openly. Let’s face it, America has made a lot of progress in seeing all its citizenry as human beings. However, that progress was not voluntary but forced. And 54 years later, we are reminded of that forced progress through those who desire a regression back to when this country did not see “all people as equals.” This truth is evident when we look at the resegregation of public schools. It is evident when we see the Voting Rights Act of 1965 steadily being compromised by the same states who refused to vote for it nearly 60 years ago. It is evident in the impunity corrupt police have when they slay unarmed people of color. It is evident in the presidential election of 2017 and blatantly visible on January 6th, when the South and its supporters thought they would rise again. The list of injustices continues despite the cry from the liberal and conservatives alike saying that we have made so much progress. But, what if forced progress is faux progress?
One of the most significant contributors to the faux progress we have seen or not seen is American Christianity. It has been under scrutiny in America since the time of slavery. Runaway slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglas had this critique of American Christianity 176 years ago, saying, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I, therefore, hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.” Douglas, along with so many abolitionists of his day, was deconstructing faux Christianity long before the 21st century. American Christianity has always been suspicious. It has long been the impeding block of all progress, mainly socio-economic progress in this nation. This is by in large due to how American Christians have experienced Christ. If your God is the God of Manifest Destiny, you are inclined to only see God as (your) Victor, the God who always responds to your agenda, precisely the white nationalist agenda. This God is the God of slavery. The God of Native genocide and Jim Crow.
On the other hand, you have the God of Moses, the God of salvation. This God sees the suffering of people and sends a liberator. Martin Luther King Jr. was that liberator.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King addressed this dualism in Christianity. When asked to slow down his freedom fighting, nonviolent efforts in Alabama, King responded by saying,
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
King saw the gospel of freedom as the call to aid in the liberation struggle. He saw his faith as one that alleviated the burdens of the oppressed, not a belief that is weaponized to legitimize oppression. Such is the case in 2017 when then-attorney general Jeff Sessions also evoked the essence of Paul, only this time to create captivity of family asylum seekers at the border. Jeff Sessions quoted the Apostle Paul this way, “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans thirteen to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.” Jeff Session’s Christianity, American Christianity, does not include caring for the foreigner, the widow, and the immigrant. But their God indeed cares about a nationalistic agenda. American Christianity has failed to respond to the cries of the oppressed and marginalized. But then again, this is not new information. Frederick Douglas pointed it out in 1845. King pointed it out in 1963, and the young victims at Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, pointed it out in 2018 when they unanimously rejected the prayers of the American Church.
King spoke almost exclusively of the contradictions that could not coexist if America were to be a free nation for all.
As we continue to remember the legacy of King, let us not reduce his legacy to volunteerism. Let us not reduce his gift and legacy to reciting his I have A Dream Speech. But let his legacy evoke the will to do the hard work. The heart work. Let us examine our response to the injustices of our neighbors.