Just a few days from now, as a country we will momentarily step aside from our usual Monday routines and rituals for a holiday marked in honor of one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; perhaps the greatest orator and grassroots movement-leader that near history has offered us, as the American people. In his time and place, he gave flesh and blood and voice to the conscience of a nation tormented by its own hypocrisies, crippled by prejudice and paradox. He and those with him dared call into account powers and structures rootbound with systematic injustice, revealing our cultural cancers by the light of their own willingness to suffer, and to do so publicly.
And they did suffer. In the mould of the cross, their pursuit of justice, equity, and reconciliation took the shape of a seeming weakness; the willingness to bear up under blows, imprisonment and abuses without retaliation in kind. In the wisdom of Christ, Martin Luther King, Jr. exhorted those with him against the tempting siren's call of violence, for he was compelled by his God-given vision and pursuit of a world renewed by grace:
"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.... Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
In the near history of our nation, we are unspeakably indebted to the supernatural grace born out by Dr. King and his allies in the Civil Rights Movement. In their time and place, they gave us a glimpse of a beautifully, terrifyingly tangible faith; a belief and trust in the justice of God, in the lasting triumph that could be purchased only by way of the cross, and made manifest by our own willingness to walk in that way. He put on display a conviction the depths of which most of us will simply never know, comfortable and complacent as we are. And perhaps that was the very heart of his gift to us: by his life, his words, his suffering and, yes, his death, Dr. King offered us as a nation the gift of discomfort. In the face of evil and injustice, discomfort is a good and holy thing.
And it is in this regard that we must continue to tread carefully, because herein lies the ongoing danger. Mythologizing and eulogizing dead prophets, set free as we are from the irritation of their actual, living presence, we are then afforded the comfort of honoring them in THEORY, without experiencing the grace of being truly troubled by them in any meaningful way. We can appropriate their image, and presume to honor their name and legacy as a means of salving the consciences that they took such great pains to disturb, thereby nullifying that very legacy by utilizing it in defense of the status quo.
That is the danger. So long as the Spirit of Christ continues to dwell with his people, however, it need not be an inevitability.
My prayer is that we followers of Jesus today - the Church of Jesus in these United States - would press back against that temptation, and not succumb to the danger of simply patronizing our prophets. I pray that our hearts would be soft, our ears well-tuned to the ongoing cries of those who suffer in our midst and throughout our world. I pray that we would open ourselves to receive daily the invitation of Jesus our suffering savior - our wounded healer - into the exercise of his self-giving love in and through our own lives. Because, perhaps now even more than ever, that is what the world most desperately needs from us. And, not inconsequentially, the promise of Jesus is that this is also the way in which we will find true, full, joyous, abundant life opened before us.
May we honor Dr. King and those like him, not merely in theory, but in the costly faithfulness of practice. May we dare to know Christ, and him crucified, and to walk in his footsteps. May our hope, and the victory we claim over darkness in Jesus, be all the truer and richer for it.
Thanks be to God.