Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022
It's our turn now.
Today is Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday celebrating one of our greatest American heroes. On Saturday, had he lived, he would have been 93 years old.
Usually, the more time goes by after the death of a loved one the more our grief diminishes. But I have always felt that with President Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr. as well, the more years go by since their deaths the more painful it becomes. Why? Because everything we feared would happen when they left us, has happened.
All three men carried aloft in American society the idea that our highest aspirations could be effectuated. They articulated visions for our country that seemed possible because they told us so. They explained, they motivated, they inspired us to reach for what was not yet happening, but which they made us believe could still yet be. And that is why their deaths were so painful. The bullets that killed them did not just strike down their bodies. Those bullets struck down our dreams.
Yet dreams can be resurrected, and one of the reasons a national holiday celebrating Dr. King’s birth is so important is because it calls us to revisit the dream that Dr. King espoused. A dream of racial, political and economic justice; a dream of the beloved community; a dream of a world at peace. Dr. King died at the hands of an assassin, but the dreams die only if we refuse to give them life.
Even if Dr. King had been blessed with a long life, at 93 he should have been able to rest from his labors, enjoy his final years, and hopefully watch with satisfaction as generations after him carried forward the dream of a more equitable world. In other words, even if he were still with us, it would be our turn now.
Our turn now. Those words should ring like clarion calls to all of us today. Our task is not merely to celebrate the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr., but to commit ourselves to their realization. And that means much more than just tweeting a quote, or making an instagram post. It means developing what Dr. King referred to as “tough minds and tender hearts.” It means committing to routing out not only systems of injustice in the world, but also the hatred in our own hearts. Dr. King said that a basic tenet of non-violent philosophy is that “self-purification must precede political action.” In his words, we need both “a quantitative change in our circumstances and a qualitative shift in our souls.”
Dr. King was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., remember, a Baptist preacher whose political vision was rooted in his understanding of the gospel of Christ. “It is time,” he said, “to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of human civilization.” That love - that new love - was a social love, a love that would heal not only personal but also political and social relationships as well. He found inspiration for that possibility in the work of Mahatma Gandhi, traveling to India to study the principles of non-violence and bringing them back for application to the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States in the 1960’s.
Dr. King called Gandhi “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” He said of his philosophical hero that he was the first person in human history to lift love beyond the purview of personal relationships, and turn it into a broad scale social force for good. This was a revolutionary notion when Gandhi proclaimed it, it was a revolutionary notion when King proclaimed it, and it is a revolutionary notion today.
In the words of President Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” The Indian Independence movement, led by Mahatma Gandhi, was a non-violent revolution. The Civil Rights movement in the American South, led by Martin Luther King Jr., was a non-violent revolution. And we need a peaceful, non-violent revolution today.
In the words of Dr. King, “The desegregation of the American South is the political externalization of the goal of the Civil Rights movement, but the ultimate goal is the establishment of the beloved community.” Such a notion is not a religious platitude; it was a political strategy. We cannot create in the world what we are not creating within ourselves. “Power without love,” he said, “is reckless and abusive, while love without power is sentimental and anemic.” The power of non-violence lies in the marriage of the two.
So many of the struggles to which Dr. King dedicated his life, and for which he ultimately died, are struggles that are with us still. Surely he could be talking about America today with comments such as this: “If they give it to poor people, they call it a handout; if they give it to rich people, they call it a subsidy.” Or, “If it happens to rich people, they call it a Depression; if it happens to poor people, they call it a social problem.” Or how about this? In describing America in 1967, Dr. King described the “three evils” of racism, consumerism/poverty, and militarism/war. Are those not the main challenges that are with us still? He called for a “radical revolution of values” then, just as we need to call for one today.
Dr. King was not only a preacher, or a political philosopher; he was a movement leader who led a revolution, not only of moral values but of racial and political and economic justice. He knew what he was doing was risky, yet he had astonishing courage. He knew what he was doing drew the hatred of men, yet he faced their hatred with the power of love. The night before he died - at age 39 - he told the world that he might not live to see it, but that he had been to the mountaintop and he had seen the Promised Land.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.
The struggle is in our hands now. The dream is in our hands. The hope is in our hands.
It’s MLK Day 2022.
It’s our turn now.
All of Dr. King’s books are remarkable, and there are wonderful articles on the Internet about his relationship to Gandhi’s ideas and the principles of non-violence. For a full look at Dr. King’s writings and speeches, I highly recommend A Testament of Hope.