Today requires nuance. A national holiday set aside in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy is just as much an invitation to confession and lament as it is for celebration.
Confession: for the persistence of inequality and injustice. Even more, for our desire to throw in the towel and call it “good enough”. We are too easily satisfied. The truth is, we can and must be better. Each generation must pick up the mantle.
Lament: intellectual acknowledgement of injustice doesn’t actually allow us to break free from the attitudes and ideas that bind us. Full-throated lament, on the other hand grounds us in the body of pain that has for so long been unequally yoked in our country. This is worlds apart from wallowing in shame. It is not self-debasement. Rather, it is right and proper anguish over our shared history that opens the door to genuine breakthrough.
Celebration: for the very real progress that has been painstakingly made towards the noble vision of the “beloved community”, for the concrete dignity that has been reclaimed from the hell of slavery and Jim Crow, and for the countless creative partnerships that exemplify the tension-filled harmony that marks progress. It would be a mistake to dishonor the bonds of kinship that have blossomed. Proper celebration demands we look for those bright spots of hope.
Perhaps part of the challenge we face today is that the specters of injustice, inequality, and hatred are less naked and easily named than they once were. From the privileged perch of our present, the sins of our ancestors seem so easy to identify and condemn. Now, the Age of Distraction blinds or seduces our attention while evil grows unseen.
Or, maybe that is a fallacy. What is more likely is that “back then,” it was just as hard as it is now to break from the status quo, and rise up to tackle the issues of our day. Shaking off our penchant for self-centeredness and awakening to our deep potential to live for others is the endless invitation, a journey without arrival or resolution.
There will always be bold factions that are simple to classify and decry. That’s the easy part. The recent storming of the capitol is one such example whose symbolic meaning has sent shudders of pain and confusion through our country. Another, may be those who used the legitimate outcry of last year’s protests demanding police reform as a cover for destruction and looting. There are targets for everyone, though some offenses may be less righteous, more grievous and long lasting than others. The much harder work is to first accept the invitation to examine our own hearts and be shamelessly honest about the crookedness and deceit we will surely find there. Choosing to believe that my plank is always larger than your speck can foster a healthy humility that is desperately needed, now as always.
However, we cannot end our efforts at the threshold of self-reflection. True spirituality, and true maturity moves out towards the other, towards community and the common task of building a better world together. The fabric of our shared life is in deep need of mending.
There is real, visceral pain in our country. Trust has been betrayed. Faith has been lost. Communities have been ravaged, if not by historical and malevolent hatreds, then by the relentless rush of technological progress and the loss of honest, sustainable work to the demands of globalization and automation. We have been impoverished by spiritual communities that care more about amassing followers than cultivating virtues through lives of service. The vital functions of our institutions have been gutted by those who leverage their positions as platforms for personal celebrity. Incarceration grows. Opioids and despair cripple and kill.
We must be honest about this. To not be carries too high a cost. It damns us to lives without wisdom and nuance. It leaves us vulnerable to choosing the easier and lower paths of perpetuating violence, demonizing the other, and self-righteousness. Dr. King, in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, identified the danger this way,
“I should have known that in an atmosphere where false promises are a daily reality, where defeated dreams are nightly facts, where acts of unpunished violence are a way of life, non-violence [the ethic of suffering love] would eventually be seriously questioned. I should have been reminded that disappointment produces despair and despair produces bitterness, and the one thing certain about bitterness is its blindness. Bitterness has not the capacity to distinguish between some and all.”
Don’t you see that blindness at work everywhere right now?
So, where would King have us go from here? What is his answer to the seemingly insurmountable issues that face us? Again, in his own words, “The answer [is] to be found only in persistent trying, perpetual experimentation, persevering togetherness. Like life, racial understanding is not something we find but something that we must create.” There is glory in the nuance and complexity of our lives. The creative spirit bears witness to this in each of us.
May each of us, today, renew our commitment to lives that bear witness to what sacrificial kinship in the service of transcendental ideals looks like, using means and methods that would honor the legacy of Dr. King. To aid you toward that end here are two offerings: the first, is a powerful song written by a friend of ours, San Diego singer-songwriter Tyson Motsenbocker entitled “I Miss The Old Days Too”. This arrangement was recorded during quarantine and it’s quiet intimacy carries a wonderful invitation to pause and be surprised by where it leads you. The second is an interview from last summer with reformer Jeanelle Austin, a Minneapolis native who flew home to offer service and spiritual leadership to a community in chaos following the murder of George Floyd. Let it challenge you to lean into the hard-work of today and find joy amidst the heartbreak. Consider this, your invitation.
May you find strength, hope and love for the journey.