Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is more than a legend who invokes annual reverential and somber feelings. He was not only a historical figure whose choices and leadership shaped a critical phase of history, but his teachings are relevant now; always. We have responsibilities.
Many of us are angry and afraid. We harbor anger at injustice and its causes – anger which is an appropriate reaction but often misapplied. We spout self-righteous opinions which amount to little more than injured pride, but ignore far-reaching policies and attitudes of indifference which perpetuate injury to the least among us. We know the world is changing and something is wrong, but we don’t know what to do about it, so we devolve into finger-pointing and petty arguments. Or, we disengage; numb our awareness and feelings of ineffectiveness with t.v. sitcom marathons, 140-character amusements, and wine.
Rev. Dr. King offers inspiration and instruction, even in a changed country. Where sensible, caring people are concerned, but cannot define the root of our societal ills. We just want to be nice, able to work hard and live comfortable, happy lives. We think that’s freedom, so long as we don’t look too closely at oppressive global systems which support our notions of comfort.
We don’t want to rock the boat, nor be impolite. So we pick up cathartic causes here and there and show kindness to our friends and those less fortunate. We pay attention around election time and try to make informed choices, but we don’t want to preach about social change or make our friends uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, things get worse. We are decreasingly a country of opportunity for all. The noise and conflicting reports and political posturing are distasteful and confusing, and we don’t want to offend anyone.
I was reminded today that there is no freedom to be attained, only continually sought. It’s not a destination on a map where we will eventually arrive and live happily ever after. It’s a continual struggle, requiring engagement and effort against power structures that will always seek to overstep.
The sustained tension is unpleasant, but necessary. “Polite people get poisoned.”
Over the past weeks, I have envisioned Rev. Dr. King traveling through India, witnessing the effectiveness of an entire population embracing Gandhi’s quiet, powerful leadership. I’ve pondered the palpable tension and desire for vengeance in the U.S. in response to inequality, racially targeted oppression and murders, but the impact of the masses who instead trusted in Rev. King’s example patterned after Gandhi’s. I have solemnly considered the wisdom of these two great leaders from different religious traditions leading distraught, angry, wronged people to co-create a more just world.
As I catch bits of angry broadcasts inciting our population against one political party or another, vilifying and insulting fellow Americans, as I read daily how some of that spews into my social media feeds, I consider Reverend King.
He was no advocate of doormat activism (there is no such thing), or of retreat in the face of inhumane injustices.
He was powerful – so compelling that now, new interests attempt to co-opt segments of his messages to advance their agendas – many of which are contrary to his legacy and comprehensive teachings.
A note of caution and a challenge: Rev. King was a Christian. An “I love the enemy who will, assuredly, take my life” kind of Christian.
We cannot divorce the words of Rev. King from this principle. He embodied a love big enough to choose peaceful nonviolence; structured rebellion. He was committed enough to die doing it.
If you’re going to use his words, follow his example.
We need to modify our expressions and model loving intent toward one another: change-forging language and activism founded in a big enough love to forgive our neighbor, even oppressors, even as we seek justice.
Even on social media. Even with strangers and leaders and friends with whom we disagree.
It can’t be polite hatred or ‘tolerance,’ it has to be love. Love for the better world we will create, with enough left over to forgive the ones who have injured those who cannot speak for themselves. To forgive those who have hurt us. Love that imposes upon the conscience with awareness and patient insistence.
It’s not the easy path, but the easy path leads to suffering and slow societal death. Acting in anger for its own sake is temporal, but deeper commitment to the broader community – even love for the oppressors among us – produces lasting change.
Our children can’t be what they can’t see. Let them see injustice in the world; let them feel the resultant anger, then let them see your commitment to sustained, loving creative tension to change our world.
We’ll walk hand in hand some day.
“ Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. ” – Mahatma Gandhi
“As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Marianne Williamson
“If you want Peace, work for Justice.” – Pope Paul VI