I have to admit that for most of my life, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was nothing more to me than a vague historical figure, and his birthday simply a reason for a day off of work.
I was only eight years old when Dr. King was assassinated, so I heard about him my whole life. His message was part of the cultural noise that became the background of my life – always there, but nothing I paid much attention to.
Such is the way of privilege.
As an adult, I learned to appreciate the importance of his work, but there was still a disconnect from MY life. Talk of injustice and the need for protest meant little to me. I have written before about the white, middle class, suburban Christian bubble that – for most of my life – insulated me from the reality of 99% of the planet. I somehow constructed a worldview and theology that rested heavily on a foundation of cause and effect, which basically means that people create their own luck. While there is certainly a grain of truth to this idea, it wrongly suggests that all misfortune can be traced to something the individual did wrong.
This thinking results in little compassion for those that struggle and little motivation to change the status quo. At one point in time, everything in my life was filtered through the lens of cause and effect: relationships, gender issues, economics, religion, and justice. I believe strongly in personal responsibility, but no longer buy the idea that doing the right thing always brings the right result. Many of us…
- Work hard and still lose homes
- Love God and get sick
- Invest in relationships and then watch them dissolve
- Diligently teach and love their children, only to have them do stupid things
- Are careful and conscientious and still become the victims of crime
Coming to grips with this has helped me to appreciate what King was saying and fighting for. Through his numerous speeches, sermons and essay, I have become captivated by his vision, his eloquence and his courage.
During my head-in-the-sand days, I honestly didn’t get that King’s work was about ALL of us and that we ignore injustice at our own peril. Today, I am not quite so unaware. Regardless of the political waves you ride, injustice is not a black issue, a woman’s issue or a victim’s issue. Injustice is a human issue…and concerns us all:
- The fact that little girls are being sold as sex slaves…ALL of our problem
- Children living without food, clean water or vaccinations…all of our problem
- Women being brutalized by the men in their lives…all of our problem
- The treatment of illegal immigrants…all of our problem
- Discrimination because of race, gender or age…all of our problem
I particularly appreciate Dr. King’s view that his work with civil rights was part of his ministry and a natural outcome of the Gospel. It’s this kind of reality that shakes stale religion to its core. During a 1967 sermon, he said that:
“…any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that cripple the souls—the economic conditions that stagnate the soul and the city governments that may damn the soul—is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion”. full text here
There are many things I could say about Dr. King’s influence and the way our world is different because of him. But personally, Dr. King’s life and work is a reminder to not get so wrapped up in my own pursuits that I ignore what is happening around me. He also encourages me to not shake my head in a way that merely acknowledges others’ pain at a distance, but to engage it. Reminds me of some other famous words: