Every once in a while, a leader emerges who speaks truth to an era. This leader isn’t so much elected as perhaps manifested when a culture or a nation had become complacent. The leader, therefore, appears disruptive to the status quo.
This leader doesn’t say, “Look at me,” but rather, “Let’s look at this together.” This leader seeks to build bridges, not walls.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of these leaders.
When I was living in Alabama, my church group was assigned to research a “spiritual hero.” Mine was Dr. King.
I learned that one of the influences in his campaign was Gandhi, and King employed this philosophy of nonviolence to his cause. He treated his critics with respect, using civil discourse rather than petty insults.
He recognized that he would need to sacrifice himself on behalf of a greater mission. Ultimately his own life was sacrificed by someone who wanted to assert his own power and control.
Although many people know the passionate “I Have a Dream” speech, his letter from a jail in Birmingham speaks to me much more profoundly. It is a 20-page rationale for his campaign, paraphrasing people such as Socrates, Martin Buber, Thomas Aquinas, and Jesus Christ.
What is most interesting about this letter is how much of the message echoes today.
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
He points out not only injustices of race in the United States, but also accounts of injustices throughout history. In other words, segregation and racism isn’t a U.S. problem, it’s a human problem.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
This interconnectedness is what made his mission resonate with others. His was a message of love, not division.
He admits that action is necessary when negotiation is no longer possible.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
King also points out that justice isn’t always convenient. He addresses the white moderates who wanted to wait for a more appropriate “season” for appropriate action.
When one group is already comfortable, it is less likely to give up comfort for the sake of the uncomfortable group. Seeking to hide or ignore tensions in a community or culture does not bring healing.
“Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of rational opinion before it can be cured.”
Extremists for love
As he points out the “extremists” such as Jesus, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, and Thomas Jefferson, he never forgets the importance of love. “Will we be extremists for hate or extremists for love?”
He is critical of the white Christian churches because, in his view, they had chosen to remain faithful to the unjust laws of the nation rather than to the mission of Christ.
He warns that if the Christian churches don’t affirm the “sacrificial spirit” that is at the heart of the church, they will become “an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
He ends with a message of hope, bringing up some of the heroes of the South who had stood up against injustice. He anticipates that eventually leaders who had the courage to shift the country in the direction of equality and unity would be revered.
He recognizes that ultimately, the light will emerge from the dark days.
This is why we honor him.