On this day marking the life, leadership and martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we should pause to give thanks that indeed black lives matter! I am grateful that the life of Dr. King, a man of color, mattered so profoundly, though cut so tragically short. It would do us all good to read again his now famous speech about the dream that he had. (If you are reading this you can find it!)
The basic cause for which he stood and was killed is indisputably consistent with the tenets of Jesus’ teaching and way of life. That all persons belong by rights—creation rights—to the One God who Self-reveals in the person of Jesus; and that God claims them all in love, deeply cherishing, extravagantly seeking, powerfully drawing, and persistently awaiting them at God’s table. All persons, and particularly in the beauty of their variety of culture, language, and heritage (recall one vision where the dream has come true in Rev. 7:9-10).
Dr. King’s public and painful career demonstrated that some people did not benefit from the regard and care God desires for them. Indeed, people of color did not, and often still do not. Worse, however, it became clear why. It was because some did not want what God wants for those different from them, and then added insult to injury (at times literally) by trying to justify their evil intent by parsing or twisting God’s very own word. And worse still, some who do this actually threaten them and, if “necessary,” seek to harm them. It is painful to look back upon his life and realize that underneath it all such dynamics were at work. But not as painful or costly as it was for Dr. King and that generation, and not as costly as it remains for persons still waiting and hoping that dreams can come true.
The cause for which Dr. King lived and died could not be more center-line gospel, more consistent with the eternal Kingdom of God, and more compelling for any who embrace Jesus as Lord and Leader of their lives. But not only the cause itself. Also the way of pursuing the justice and the peace and the righteousness of that cause. He took a stand for what was right by word and deed. He refused to back down even if suffering came. And he rejected vengeance and violence, even when others who shared his pain and his cause disagreed. It cost him his life. But clearly his life was not lost and the cause and means of pursuing it did not fail. Indeed, ever since his death the impact of his life continues to offer a moral compass, a righteous witness, a powerful way forward, and a spiritual calling to successive generations.
I think that is because it was not really his cause, but that of Another, a Greater One, who marked out the path he walked, whose own suffering and dying—and rising—keeps hope alive and promises the triumph of good over evil and love over hate. Clearly, one quick glance around us shows that this triumph has not come fully anywhere and where there are signs of progress much evil and hate remain. This is a challenge worthy of Jesus and those who will follow him. In fact, I am convinced that real and lasting progress where it is most needed—the human heart—is the special domain and specialty of the One who knows the hearts of human beings, who is able to flood the heart with love, and who thus changes hearts and the living and relating that flow from them. Ultimately, political and especially partisan machinations and socio-cultural stratagems, and educational opportunities, as helpful as they all can be, are no match for the deeper and darker powers that thwart the dream. Ultimately, the world will wake to live the dream only when the power of God revealed in Jesus and his way, flows through his people (and others who have hearts to join in) and empowers them to see and devise new political, social, cultural alignment and arrangement.
Which means that followers of the God revealed in Jesus, who inspired the dream and its champion in Dr. King, will have to step up in new ways for these times. Because these times afford unprecedented opportunity just now.
The week that begins with remembering Martin Luther King Jr. will end with inaugurating Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. For many people of color this feels threatening and disastrous, a weekend shouting “No!” to the “Yes!” of the dream. Sadly, it will seem that way not only for them. Fears of misogyny, racial profiling and prejudice, religious intolerance, and aggressive, if not preemptive, use lethal force are casting long and deep shadows over the human landscape. The fear is that we now live one tweet’s distance to holocaust or Armageddon.
To what extent this is accurate, the sense of fear and anxiety is real. Thus the opportunity to revisit, renew and recommit to the dream stands before us. All of us can make or deepen friendships with some who are different. All of us can seek their well-being and good. All of us can refuse to use words or stand silent in the face of offense. All of us can ask the Father whose Self-giving goes on in the followers of Jesus, how to be stewards of the dream until the dream is reality. Yes, all of us can pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” And all of us can stand with those who are afraid and anxious. At the least we can make sure they know they are not alone. The dream lives on, and practitioners of the dream stand near.