With today being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I have to ask some questions. How can a man who was so unpopular, who was so demonized, and so despised in his day and age be so popular today? Taking this even farther, how can a man who was not widely accepted during his tireless work against injustices be idolized by the same people who view Black Lives Matter as a terrorist group and continue to support systems that perpetuate injustice and oppression of certain demographics of people, and as such, perpetuate our nation’s original sin?
It is my belief that Dr. King’s vision, his dream, if you will, is the vision God has for humanity. Dr. King’s hope for peace, reconciliation, and community align with God’s dream for Shalom in his creation. This takes us into a little bit of the reason, I think, of why most people today affirm Dr. King, while not fully understanding what all he stood for, and against.
Dr. King was more holistic in his fight against injustice than many realize, or want to know. In saying this, I mean that he cared for much more than racial injustice and fought for much more than racial equality. King listed the three evils of society as racism, militarism, and capitalism. These three ism’s in King’s estimation, accounted for much, if not most of the oppression and injustice that was being carried out by the American government during that time. We must ask, in 2018, have things gotten that much better?
King’s consideration of capitalism as an evil of society, in the nationalistic empire that is the United States, worshiping Mammon and the capitalistic economic system as it does, earned him the derision of being called a communist by many of his contemporaries. His speaking out against the war in Vietnam, which was little more than another attempt at American imperialism, angered many.
King’s stand against racism, however, seems palatable to most today. I propose, however, that this isn’t because American society has progressed in the way it treats persons of color, but because Dr. King’s legacy has been white-washed. In focusing so much on Dr. King’s work for racial equality, without taking into account his whole message against violence, racial superiority, and economic greed, we focus not on the real Dr. King, but a nice, sanitized version we’ve created for our own comfort. So many white people, in my estimation, can point to Dr. King as a hero, even while deriding the Black Lives Matter movement or any other group striving for justice today, because it’s easy to look into the past, and point at those people as the racists. We boil racism down to personal prejudice and point the accusatory finger at others, saying “They’re the true racists, not me.” Failing to consider our complicity in the societal ills that Dr. King stood against is failing to truly honor Dr. King. Giving him lip-service as a great leader, or an honorable man who fought for a worthy cause ultimately means nothing if we don’t see the work that is still left to be done, and with Martin Luther King, Jr.-sized boldness and courage, step up to the task.
Into this thought process, we must inject what Dr. King viewed as the work of the Church, and how we should respond to these issues today. Dr. King once said:
“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
And elsewhere he wrote:
“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
If we are to have a vision for the Church as Dr. King did, and indeed as I believe God does, we must embody not the status quo of society, with all of its violence, inequity, and prejudices, but the Kingdom life of peace, equality, and community. If we are to be effective in our God-ordained task as the Church, we must not be the lapdog for any political party or economic system. We must not forsake our prophetic voice, speaking truth to power, even if capitulating to power and doing as the powers wish would be more comfortable. Our voices in matters of racial and economic injustice, and violence, as well as in the ways women are so often mistreated in our society, matter. And indeed, our silence for far too long has been deafening.
We must recapture the vision of Dr. King from those who have white-washed his legacy. We must remember the whole Dr. King, and not only the man who delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. We must join with those who strive for justice, and work for peace. We must forsake the Empire, and confess that Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar is not. This is the work of the Church in the twenty-first century. May we not miss our chance to embody Christ to those who suffer under oppression and injustice. May we find our voice, and find it quickly.