Sunday, January 24, 2010
Honoring Dr. King
I thought it would be appropriate to start this blog with a few thoughts on the great American whose birthday and memory we celebrated this past week. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 81 years old this year. Every third Monday in January we take a day off to honor his memory and the momentous advances that he spearheaded as the leader of the Civil Rights movement. Yet somehow, even as we celebrate his life and accomplishments, I cannot help but think that in the years and decades since his untimely death, we may have lost some perspective of the enormity of his dream and the courageous purpose for which he lived.
In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King addressed his fellow clergymen in hopes that he could stir them out of their “sit-and-wait” approach to dealing with the injustice of segregation. As he said in the opening paragraphs of his letter, “this ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never’,” and “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” It later becomes evident in his monumental letter—as in his speeches and other works—that his concept of justice expanded far beyond the civil rights movement (although he saw it as his particular battle in the greater war for true justice and peace). He realized that there was a larger fight, a fight that continues with earnest into our day and time, and that each of us, if we are to truly keep his memory alive, has a responsibility to pick and carry on. It is a fight to keep the natural law, justice, and a God-centered understanding of humanity in its rightful place.
Dr. King frequently referenced theologians and philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas in reflecting on the nature of the relationship between God’s law and human law: “A just law is a human law that is rooted in eternal law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” (Note: by personality here, Dr. King referred to what we today would understand as personhood or humanity) He went on to quote the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, that segregation “substitutes an ‘I it’ relationship for an ‘I thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.” With the segregation chapter of American history behind us, how much more today do we see the same reduction of our fellow human beings to the status of things, from the holocaust of abortion to the simple manner and respect with which we treat those around us?
Dr King went on to make a comment that exposed the depth of his commitment to justice everywhere, and that should strike us to our very core today:
We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to my Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.
As we see so many efforts in our culture today to marginalize—and even criminalize—the practice and profession of the traditions of our Judeo-Christian faith tradition and the system of just laws that were founded upon it, we cannot afford to lose the perspective of Dr. King. If we allow his memory and what he stood for to be hijacked or watered down by carelessly lobbing empty and dehumanizing accusations, or if we merely pay selfish lip service to the courageous commitment to justice that he was murdered for, then we ultimately fail both in honoring him and in carrying out the same task that is now entrusted to us.