By: Eric Doolitte, College Chaplain
Does MLK still matter?
Yes. But maybe not in the approach often applied to our nation’s agents of transformation.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, has joined the pantheon of national deity with his own spot of reverence on the National Mall alongside Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson. But if he is to truly matter today and in the future, we cannot afford to merely treat him as a static figurehead of our country’s success.
We have an amazing capacity to whitewash our heroes. We want them to be clean and uncomplicated and perfect. In the decades since Dr. King lived, more and more people in America know of him, but we know less and less about him. He has become a symbolic figure of the success of America to “solve” racism, just like Thomas Jefferson insured “that all men are created equal” or Abraham Lincoln assured “a just and lasting peace” between the people of the United States. We ignore Jefferson’s class and racial divisions, and Lincoln’s willingness to suspend the due process of law. We want our national heroes to be a pantheon of life, liberty, and justice. Because if they are perfect heroes we can assure ourselves that the problems that they addressed are fixed.
That’s why when we hear the popular version of King, we all nodded in agreement. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Good job, we think. Glad we got that done. We don’t need the MLK of national holiday, school textbook, and monuments. We don’t need another static figurehead with a granite statue, lest we become like the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus addresses in Matthew – “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”
Dr. King still matters because he is a prophet whose voice still cries for justice. A martyr whose witness shames our timidity. A preacher whose speeches and sermons still make us uncomfortable.
Dr. King, the imprisoned preacher, writes from his cell to challenge religious leaders:
The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are [. . .]
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose it authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. —Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963
Dr. King, on the eve of his assassination, tries to shake the stupor of comfort from our souls:
We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle to the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point… We’ve got to see it through… either we go up together, or we go down together [. . .]
Let us rise up tonight with greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have the opportunity to make America a better nation. —I See the Promised Land, 1968.
Across all time, the words of Dr. King, the Godly prophet still cries out for action now:
The oceans of hate are made turbulent by the ever-rising tide of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate… We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to stop in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’ — A Time to Break Silence, 1967.
If Dr. King’s true legacy still matters we must rescue him from the calcification of granite statues and bring him to life again beyond the world’s attempts to petrify him. We can pull him into our lives to join the radical Jesus rescued from the stained glass prison of the complacent church. He joins the pantheon of prophets whose incitements needed the spirit of life breathed into the dusty recitations of lackadaisical liturgists.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior, still matters today. As a vital voice of conscious for a nation and world still trapped in hatred, bigotry, and violence. Instead of commemorating him as history, may we elevate him as prophetic leader, faithful preacher, a blessed martyr by continuing his struggle. Because it is not just Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights, it is our struggle for justice. And it is not just our struggle, but God’s inexorable movement towards righteousness and peace for all humanity.
Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World. Edited by James M. Washington. HarperCollins: SanFrancisco, 1992.