We celebrate this week the work and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. There are ceremonies, speeches, and tweets. And while all of this is right and commendable, we conveniently disregard the radicalness of Dr. King’s message. By co-opting his message as if it is embraced by all Americans is to do disservice to his legacy. We must allow ourselves to be convicted and wounded by his message, not just engage in self-congratulation.
This self-congratulation was on vivid display in the weekly address by our president. He said “Dr. King’s dream is our dream. It is the American Dream. It’s the promise stitched into the fabric of our Nation, etched into the hearts of our people, and written into the soul of humankind.” This is a wonderful sentiment, but unfortunately there are large segments of our society who very clearly do not have Dr. King’s dreams etched in their hearts.
The president then said, “It is the dream of a world where people are judged by who they are, not how they look or where they come from.” This coming from a leader who only days before showed his clear bias against people coming from certain nations and areas of the world, using an epithet not to be repeated here. One day he is saying we don’t want people from particular countries like Haiti, two days later he is saying that we are all working toward a world where we don’t judge people by where they are from? And just so we know he isn’t against all immigrants, he did say he hoped we would encourage immigration from places like Norway.
This is not just a problem coming from our president, but from many of us who make great speeches while still harboring the very discriminatory values that MLK fought and died for. I have black students in our very community who find themselves the targets of the most hateful language and social rejection you could imagine. All by people who self-congratulate themselves on being part of the legacy of Dr. King.
One of the other ways that we ignore the actual Martin Luther King, Jr. is to ignore that the title that belongs at the beginning of his name: Reverend. MLK was a Christian preacher and evangelist, who believed in redemption and forgiveness through Christ. By ignoring his religion, we get to embrace a secularized version of freedom and justice, making his message primarily political rather than moral. But to separate his message from his religion is to miss the man and the message both.
One of the powerful things that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. did was to remind us of the radicalness of the message of Jesus Christ. While many claim to follow the teachings of Jesus but live lives dominated by political-ism and nationalism, King challenges us to take the teachings of Jesus seriously.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King says: “In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
Jesus taught a radical message of inclusiveness and rejected both political-ism and nationalism. He famously taught that we ought to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” rejecting any political role for himself. He also rejected Jewish nationalism, almost exclusively using outsiders as the exemplars in his parables like the story of the good Samaritan. Martin Luther King took these ideas seriously, provoking us rather than assuring us of our collective goodness.
With Christianity, we have done much the same things as we have done with the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. We take the most easy-to-hear teachings and claim to follow them. We leave out the radical ones like “love your enemies” and congratulate ourselves on being a Christian people. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day should be a day that provokes and wounds us as a nation, not a day where we self-congratulate ourselves while ignoring the power of his moral and religious message.
At the end of his letter from jail, King says, “I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” This is an unfinished work, a dream unfulfilled. Let’s get to work.