It’s MLK Day and the news is filled with remembrances and articles on events honoring him. For some reason it got me thinking about other holidays honoring the heroes of our nation, notably Washington and Lincoln. We honored them on separate days when I was a boy.
Anyway, we honored them for what they did, or were said to have done, that opened the door to the good things we enjoy today as citizens of a democratic republic. We didn’t honor them with the idea that their words and deeds might have meaning for us as we addressed the issues of our own day, except, perhaps, through some vague encouragement to be courageous or honest or something. That wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t very useful either. In fact, it enticed us to be a bit complacent about ourselves and our country. The same thing seems to be happening with the Rev. Dr. King’s day. We increasingly honor him through the veiled lens of the passage of time that separates his day from ours. We thrill to the inspired rhetoric of his speeches without being inspired. That also is not entirely bad. At least we pretend to honor him. I was working for the State of Minnesota when he was at the height of his work, and I recall the depth of dread, and sometimes outrage, with which he was held by otherwise good, decent, white Minnesotans. I remember one memorable gathering in the office of the then commissioner of public safety, whose name I have long forgotten, who went into a red faced tirade about that black, communist agitator King who should never have been let out of jail. Now we honor King as a hero of our democracy. It’s an improvement, but I think it misses an important point that all three, King, Washington, and Lincoln, would have said something about.
What are the conditions that surround us today that a Washington, Lincoln, or King would have taken up as a cause worth their lives? What the three have in common, it seems to me, is a commitment to issues of systemic justice that, in their day, were essential to the continued existence, growth, and prosperity of a democratic republic. They didn’t, and couldn’t, address every issue of systemic justice that faced the country, but they could address the most important ones with the tools at hand, and within the limitations of their own human nature.
Most of us don’t operate on the epic scale of their lives and work, nor do I think we are called to do so. But we are called by their example to examine the issues of systemic justice that are right in front of us, and to act to do something about them. For instance, around here it often appears that historical political conservatism of the region has been corrupted by a not so subtle racism compounded by an irrational fear and distrust of government at any level. That is a real threat to the continued health and future of our democratic republic. It needs to be confronted by each one of us as we are able, and we are able more often than we think. Our local middle class is shrinking. Our local impoverished class is growing. We, who are somewhat wealthier, are mostly blind and ignorant to that. That is a real threat to the continued health and future of our democratic republic. What should we do about that? I wonder what King would say? What did he say that might give direction? Whatever it might be, and as reminded by my bishop this morning, it must include the commitment and discipline to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
March in a parade if you want to, but tomorrow honor him more fully by confronting systemic injustice where you see it, and you will see it.