It astonishes me, now, that we in the United States of America ever debated whether or not we should have a national holiday to honor and celebrate the life of the Rev., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On the night of our most recent observance of MLK Day, I saw the film, “Selma,” which covers the events of Dr. King’s life from the time of the Civil Rights protests in Selma, Alabama, to the end of the historic protest march from Selma to Montgomery. Though I was born the year Dr. King received the Nobel prize for Peace, and was four the year Dr. King was assassinated, I have no recollection of ever seeing him on TV. Neither do I have any personal memories of seeing black Americans treated with the utter contempt and grotesque abuse that the film so graphically, and importantly, portrays. And yet this land is still filled with people who knew Dr. King, personally; who participated, personally, in the protests that called white Americans to face our horrific sinfulness; who suffered, personally, the grotesque abuse; and, who inflicted, personally, the grotesque abuse. Even witnessing these events through the, comparatively, thin vision of a film, though, I stand in awe that Dr. King could lead a movement that did not seek total, absolutely justifiable, revenge on the perpetrators of such evil. I can’t comprehend the strength and courage it took for the thousands and thousands of black American men, women and children, to be able to stand for their rights as human beings without absolutely justifiable, seething vindictiveness, hatred and vengeance in their hearts. For the foundation of non-violence, grace and truthfulness Dr. King’s leadership gave this movement, we will never be able to pay him enough respect, nor honor him enough. Nor will we ever be able to pay enough respect to, nor honor enough, the many other leaders and thousands upon thousands of black individuals who took part in this movement without violence, but with grace and truth instead. Additionally, we have not yet healed even the surface wounds caused by the centuries of denigration and humiliation of an entire people by an oppressive white culture and those of us who currently represent it. One day a year of acknowledgement, is quite truthfully, the least we can do.
Certainly, I write this in part from a mind troubled by my own privilege. However, I also carry an additional anguish as a member of the “moderate, white clergy.” Dr. King had some harsh words for whites in many different positions in society; yet, perhaps his most critical words were directed to people like me, the “moderate, white clergy.” I have always been troubled by race relations in our society; but, I have been increasingly so ever since reading Dr. King’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” years ago. I know that I am more a part of the problem than the solution. All that said, though, I would rather speak from where I am now, than from a heart that feels nothing or from a mind completely ignorant of the truth. At the same time, to simply dwell on guilt would be self-serving and benefit no one. And, too many people have been hurt, and too many people still suffer to simply watch a movie on MLK Day, feel bad for a while, and move on.
I will not presume for a moment that I know what to do about all of this. But I do believe that I have at least some idea of where to look for direction. For me, it begins with listening to the same Spirit that guided Dr. King and so many others who were with him and have continued his legacy. I thank God that the same Spirit that lived in Dr. King, lives in me – the Spirit of Christ. Dr. King exemplified the life of a disciple of Jesus as well as anyone who has ever walked this earth. Knowing the source of his profound wisdom, strength and vision, gives me hope that if I both pay attention to God’s voice in my life, and give myself to God’s guidance, I might at least be able to add something somewhat positive to our society’s deep need for reconciliation.
Also, though following Christ as well as I am able is the first focus, I believe another focus is absolutely essential too. And that is to listen to my brothers and sisters in Christ who live the experience of racism daily. I know almost nothing about what would be even merely helpful in seeing justice and healing occur in the lives of black Americans, let alone what is vital for this to happen. However, as much as any time in recent memory, our brothers and sisters are speaking loudly and clearly about their frustration and hurt and what needs to be done, if we will simply have ears to hear. I pray that not only I will, but that the vast majority of all Americans will listen, hear and act. Having one day in the year to formally acknowledge and give thanks for the life and legacy of the Rev., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is fine. But, as I wrote above, it is truly just about the least we can do to bring about a better future for all citizens of this country. As true as is the lyric from the song “Christmastime is Here” is for Christmas, so too is it for MLK Day, “Oh the we would always see such spirit through the year.”