Martin Luther King’s Challenge

The calendar has moved on from the annual Martin Luther King Day holiday. For many, it was a welcome three-day weekend. For others, it was a chance to remember his life, reflect on his wisdom and commit to his many prophetic challenges.
I remember the day of his death, April 4, 1968. I was sixteen, and when word came that he had been shot and killed in Memphis, I was just finishing my shift working at the local pharmacy. I felt shock certainly – and some grief, but it all seemed surreal. My all-white high school held an assembly shortly after his death to remember and honor Dr. King. It was the right thing to do, but in some ways it felt like we were going through the motions: most of us were supportive of the concept of civil rights, but felt little if any urgency to bring them about. We lived in a racially and economically protective bubble; and the drama of the civil rights movement – and its trauma, seemed very distant; and my community, like so many other communities at the time (and still) were content to maintain that distance.
Over the years, the combination of King’s speeches, writings and prayers have breached the firewall that the white dominant culture has created, and which I had been content to take refuge behind. I now continually go back to his many words. They have a scripture-like quality for me – because of their brilliance, their deep connection with religious faith, their timelessness – and their invitation to get closer to one another, in order to learn and listen. And change.
Dr. King wrote of the dangers of maintaining the status quo. In his August, 1963 letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote, “is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” His audience was local Alabama clergymen (there were no clergywomen there at the time), all of whom were white, and who were committed to keeping things safe, maintaining some distance from the civil rights struggle, not wanting to move too fast – and generally hoping the issue would go away so they could maintain the status quo.
It wouldn’t. And it hasn’t.
Dr. King proposed a way forward – that we learn to see that we are all related to one another: “we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” His vision invited the country to be able to see beyond separation and segregation, and claim one another as brothers and sisters – which Dr. King does at the end of his letter: “yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood”. His is a bold vision, grounded in the Gospel message – and reflective of his undying commitment to be agents of love, which for King was not so much a feeling, but an act of the will.
He knew love had power. He died in commitment to the power of love. As he often stated in his prayers: “power without love is reckless and abusive. Love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power that corrects everything that stands against love.”
Let us maintain his legacy. With love.

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