Sunday, January 15, 2012

Happy Birthday Martin Luther King Jr.: Reflection on Justice

Ninety-three years ago today the world received into its arms a child whose life would teach us what it means to live faith and justice to the core. Martin Luther King Jr. learned from a Hindu (Gandhi), worked with a gay man (Bayard Rustin), and prayed and protested with people of every color, gender and religious affiliation.
There is much to learn from King, but two things hit me especially today as I reflected on what he brought to this world.

The first is the importance of struggling with our faith in order to promote justice and peace in the world. From the time he was a teenager, King found he could not accept unquestioningly the teachings of his Church. Charity and worship simply were not enough if Jesus really was who He said He was. Charity and worship are essential, but they are also the easy, self-fulfilling parts of Christianity. Justice is much, much harder.

To King, Christian faith required wrestling with the challenging biblical call to work for the kingdom now, a place where human dignity does not depend on a handout. As he said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar…it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” (Beyond Vietnam).

Christians by and large are comfortable with charity. Justice, on the other hand, is awkward. On a communal and global level, justice calls us to root out poverty and exclusion. It requires us to criticize systems that keep the poor in poverty and the rich in wealth. On a personal level, justice requires admitting that, just as Christ taught us, we don’t get to judge others no matter how tightly we hold our own beliefs. It involves accepting others for who they are. Justice asks us to seek out the oppressed and downtrodden and act in solidarity with them.

King believed that church had to be more than just a closed place where those who follow the rules belong, and those who don’t, or who belong to other faiths, wait outside, unheard and unwelcome. That was where blacks waited for most things in the USA of the 1950s, and King knew how wrong exclusion was. The Hindu, the Jew, the Catholic, all of these and more were not subjects for conversion for King. They were partners in dialogue in learning about God and pursuing peace on earth.

The second important lesson King offers me today is the reminder that the people in power in his day did not thank him for his trouble. He was imprisoned and eventually shot for pursuing social justice and civil rights, and speaking truth to power. He got in trouble with Church leadership for his friendship with Rustin, and his phone line was wiretapped by the US government (because then as in now if you speak about social equality and justice you must be a communist).

King teaches that true faith compels us to promote justice. This may mean becoming involved in non-violent public activism, even though we know from King’s example (not to mention Jesus’) that it will cost us. We will certainly get ridiculed. We could lose our jobs. We might even be jailed. We will lose some friends. But justice laced with faith, hope and love, as lived by Martin Luther King Jr., is no less than what Jesus calls us toward.

King lived the beatitudes. He pursued Matthew 25. He called for transformation and commitment from his companions, to create a world of peace, justice and acceptance. He called on Christianity to be more than a loosy-goosy, feel good, personal salvation, rule-following, unthinking, here’s-a- handout, support-group-social-club for the in-crowd. He called it to be what Jesus meant it to be. And that is a birthday well worth celebrating.

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