|"Martin Luther King Jr NYWTS 4" by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Albertin, Walter, photographer. - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c22985. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.|
I'm familiar with a certain type of conversation around Martin Luther King, Jr.
When he's being noted or praised, one or more people in the conversation will decide to mention that MLK, Jr cheated on his wife or plagiarized parts of this thesis or committed this kind of crime or that.
Keep in mind the conversation was never about whether we should add him to the Trinity or the Pantheon or what-have-you. Yet, in the conversation, there seems to be the need to shine a spotlight on MLK, Jr.'s flaws.
It is also characteristic of this conversation to note "If he hadn't been martyred, he wouldn't be so beloved."
I've heard all of these comments more that once, more than twice, more times that I can count.
The truth is, though, he was killed. Martin Luther King, Jr was shot and killed because he advocated for equality of black Americans with white Americans and because he was part of a group that was no longer prepared to see the goal of justice pushed away until a "more convenient time".
My first-grader came home this week and asked me if I knew about "King Junior". Once I figured out who he was talking about, I asked what he'd learned. He told me that once there was a time when kids with different skin colors could go to the same school. "King Junior" helped fix that so kids [like black kid in his class] could all go to the same school. I asked if he learned what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, "They shot him."
They shot him.
I did explain that Martin Luther King, Jr didn't exactly work with schools all the time. That he did a lot of work so that people with different skin colors would be allowed to choose who was in charge and who makes decisions... what we do when we vote. Some people did not want to allow people with black and brown skin to vote.
As I drove and talked, I wondered when I should explain that it is still that way.
And I wonder how long it will be before someone adds to the "conversation" about MLK, Jr with my son. How long will be before someone feels compelled to mention the character flaws of the man alongside his work? Will this be the same person who is silent about Tamir Rice or Freddie Gray or believes the death of Michael Brown was justified or has no concerns about Sandra Bland?
When I read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", it is everything to me that Romans or Galatians was and is. I expect no more perfection from the author of those epistles than I do of the later letter, itself as much an epistle.
Martin Luther King, Jr didn't have to be Jesus to be right. He didn't do everything perfectly, but he was still right. He didn't have to be a non-sinner to still be a saint. He didn't have to be Jesus carry a message of justice to the world. He didn't have to be Jesus to see God's affection for all people. He didn't have to be Jesus to dream of a time of unity and community.
And he didn't have to be Jesus to be killed for being a threat to the status quo.
There are times when I haven't replied in The Conversation. When the other words start and I have indigestion, but I don't say "Stop right there." I wish I had. I hope that I will.
In the meantime, many people have a three-day weekend. Sales, vacations, rest, family time... Somewhere in there, let us remember the man who was one of the main voices of a movement that dared to dream of something different for the world, for America, for their communities, and even for the church.
Dr. King wrote in the aforementioned letter:
We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
A three-day weekend contemplating that will not be wasted.