Can we let Martin rest in peace? Please?
This is that time of the year where the holiday prompts our nation to acknowledge and pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. MLK Day celebrations all around the country will have keynote speakers expound on everything from what he liked to eat, to the honors he received, and thunderously highlight what we should be doing now to continue beating the drums for justice. Many wrestle with how to reference him in their Sunday sermons or on their social media pages. Some awkwardly interject quotes into chats at the water cooler when people really want to talk about the NFL playoffs. There is dissonance for many of us—whether we feel temporary inspiration and just move on or the holiday only triggers frustration over how the issues of his day have yet to go away.
Let me be clear—I am NOT a Martin Luther King Jr. fan. I seek to be a follower. Not in the way or to the extent that I follow Christ, but I’ve studied to learn from Martin’s conviction and his strategically influential methods. My faith in Jesus requires a response like King’s in my own life because Jesus’ name is intricately linked with justice. He stood and died for the oppressed and crossed cultural boundaries in ways that were shocking and rebellious for His time. I can’t prioritize Jesus’ moral teachings but only give head nods to justice leaders on their holidays.
In all the celebration of Dr. King, we often focus heavily on his courageous acts when his interest would be that we prioritize fixing the broken laws he openly disobeyed.
Or we misrepresent him using quotes we cherry-pick for “justice-cred”—implying we stand in solidarity with his commitments without actually acting. I understand the genuine intentions because it gets us thinking and talking about what work is still to be done. Most people, however, whether black, white, or brown, would not stand, march with, or actively do anything to support Dr. King were he living today.
A brief look at his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963, makes this clear. It was a response to a letter written by eight Birmingham white pastors who challenged that it wasn’t the right time for such extreme actions and that people should wait for desegregation to happen on its own schedule. King calls out that black nationalists who hated whites believed non-violent protests would fail, complacent African-Americans did not have the will to fight for their freedom, and white moderate Christians were a bigger stumbling block than the Klu Klux Klan because they preferred maintaining order over bringing about justice.
He points out that protesting was necessary because even 100 years after slaves were set free, the systemic racism evident in Birmingham’s segregation, police brutality toward African Americans, and lack of justice in the courts left them no choice but to take non-violent action. He told the pastors that Jesus was an extremist for love. Paul was an extremist for the gospel. Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson were extremists for liberty—which became fundamental American values.1 King warned that the Christian church was once powerfully functioning as an agent of change, but as defenders of the status quo, it would lose its relevance with young people. This isn’t the King we quote today.
I ask that we let him rest in peace not to have us forget or ignore or dishonor his legacy, but to fulfill it.
Let’s not just quote things he said, but let’s consider what is my committed action that gets Jews, Gentiles, Catholics, Protestants and non-believers to an experience of “free at last.” He referenced Gandhi not just to reflect on his courage, but to remind himself and others that daily, persistent action would bring about major change. What are you and I going to do to understand the true content of character for those we see as “other?”
The opposite of resting in peace would be turning over in his grave. Many of us are contributing to what I suspect is a continuous spin. Those who are supporters but complain, “we haven’t had a real leader since Martin” while only sitting and thinking about what they wish was true—spin. Those who highlight and celebrate what he did as important, but won’t acknowledge that we have issues today that demand direct action to create access to the “justice and liberty for all” in our pledge—spin. And those of us who believe we have it figured out and are righteous on prejudice and justice issues but don’t prioritize authentic relationships with people outside our economic, social, ethnic, or political tribes—spin.
I think if he were alive, he’d want us to find a new black friend—not safely quote a guy who’s been dead 50 years because it’s impolite to disagree with MLK. I think he’d be pushing to elevate the voices of new male and female leaders of all ethnicities who persevere through persecution and opposition the way he did. I’m convinced he would not shy away from controversy, and most Americans would find him too hot to endorse.
We won’t likely stop quoting King this time of year. On behalf of my friends at the water cooler, though, I do ask that instead of trying to impress with a quote they aren’t interested in (or impressed by) that you invite them over for dinner and real conversation. I encourage those who quote him to consider whether or not you would stand next to “moderate-Christian-condemning King” and say “Martin’s my guy” before you endear yourself to the audience by referencing him. Try immersing yourself in the issues of today with resources like these to find the way you can more fully engage in a solution.
I’m going to take steps to extend the male, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied privilege I have with those who are grasping to pull their bootstraps up, yet are still catching up because they started out way behind.