Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the two or three most amazing persons of my first 68 years. I am glad we have a holiday to honor him.
I just wish we followed him more closely. He gave us useful and powerful guides to how we, as a nation, should structure our society and live our corporate life.
So often, however, people demonstrate that they never really heard him, or perhaps it is better say that they never really listened.
People focus on “the speech,” understandably. The closing compares, very favorably, in its powerful evocation of our national ideals with the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and the entirety of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and the closing of his Second Inaugural. If you add Franklin Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and John Kennedy’s “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” you probably have the list of the most iconic political writing and speaking in our national history.
But King was so much more than a speech. And he had more than a dream.
He saw way beyond his moment to a vision of a United States that was truly free–free from all the petty delusions and ugly divisions that continue to drag us down.
In his cadences, and in his denunciation of discrimination and war and the causes of poverty, I always think of the prophet Isaiah. He could cut right to the quick of what was wrong, and point out how it got that way.
But more than a critic, he was a builder. He really wanted peace. And he knew the path to peace goes through justice.
The lack of civil rights, the wrong of the war in Vietnam, the poor treatment of sanitation workers and other workers, public and private, were actually all of of a piece for him. Injustice–i.e., dealing with people not as people but as objects, not as siblings in the family of God but as items to be judged and, in too many cases, tossed aside as unworthy and irrelevant–anywhere means injustice everywhere, and that leads to discontent and unrest and a lack of peace.
Shalom. The Hebrew word usually translated as “peace,” was actually what King saw, and he knew that it means so much more than the absence of war. It means completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, safety, soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord–for all.
As I write this, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia is considering bills to deny in-state tuition for college students who were brought to this country illegally, while children, by their parents. These students have graduated from Virginia high schools and been admitted to Virginia colleges, and are paying tuition and keeping up their grades. But some, including Sen. Dick Black, want to turn them away, tell them they are not welcome in Virginia.
Can you imagine how Dr. King would respond?
I can’t write the way he did, or speak the way he did, but I suspect his oratory would soar as he talked about killing the dream–how when we kill the dream for some we deny the dream for all of us.
He knew that we are all in this together, and that raising folks up who are struggling against unjust barriers raises us all. We are all better when more of us are doing better. When we live on the basis of love, on the ground of generosity, on the health of hope, we help all to thrive.
And he knew, as so many of us but not all, know, that if it feels like discrimination, if it smells like injustice, if it holds some back while others get to forward smoothly, then it needs to be stopped or changed.
Some folks are still trying to kill the dream, to stop the vision. But even the assassin’s bullet can’t stop the movement of justice and peace. Dr. King, like Isaiah and so many others, knew that God calls us to stand up for justice, without end.
And that means we have to live in love.
It means the rest of us have to pick up the sign and march, get on our knees and pray, get out our pens and write letters, and gather our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens and congregants everywhere and keep on organizing, and agitating–with joy and hope in our hearts and love on our lips.
Count me an agitator for justice and peace, an “angelic troublemaker,” in the words of Bayard Rustin. I know who my drum major is; I am marching with Dr. King. How about you?