In all honesty, I am writing this on Martin Luther King Day, and like so many of us, I’ve neglected to celebrate the day as anything out of the ordinary. I suppose that if you didn’t grow up with it as a holiday it might be a little more challenging to incorporate into your mental calendar, but I feel bad about not doing more to commemorate King’s astounding contributions. He was human of course, and so had a few glaring holes in the fabric of his personal life, but Dr. King was a gifted leader, a committed Christian, and a profound advocate for deepening the foundations of Democracy in order to expand its franchise to include more people.
I have to admit that every single time I am involved in celebrating a Memorial Day – where we honor the sacrifice of soldiers whom we characterize as having given everything in behalf of our democratic freedoms – I think as well about the people like Dr. King who have given their lives to ensure that those freedoms mean more and to more people. For the truth is that Democracy, like Agapic Love, only really mean something in their expansion and inclusivity. When we seek to limit access to the gifts of love, or to democracy, we diminish the power of the ideas themselves.
We are a different nation because of Dr. King and those who worked alongside of him, a nation with a vastly different vision of ourselves. It isn’t a perfect vision by any means, and it isn’t without conflict in our own era, but he helped open the eyes of a nation and break open the hearts of its people, in ways that have resounded in the decades since. We should make more of this. I should make more of this.
One of the things that Dr. King’s life and work have thrown into sharp relief is the very nature of bigotry and racism in our midst. To my way of imagining, such bigotry and racism exist on something of a continuum, if you will, a spectrum, like so many other aspects of our common lives. There may well have been an evolutionary advantage to seeing and acknowledging differences between people. Friend or foe, member of my tribe or another tribe, belonging or interloping – it isn’t hard to see this as a helpful human trait. The concomitant to this inclination is the tendency to lump observable attributes into categories and communities. They look alike and so must be alike, they have the same religion, or political affiliation, or language, or taste in clothing, or diet, or hairstyle – so they must share other similarities, let’s group them together. It is a convenient and very human way of organizing the world around us. It is also false since people, as individuals are always complex and dynamic, but we tend to ignore that complexity in deference to an ease of movement through the world. We all do this to one extent or another.
Sometimes the narratives we have developed about other people lead us to observations that are as embarrassing as they are inaccurate. We make an observation or ask a question, based on unchallenged assumptions that are way off the mark. We caricature others when we mean only to be interested, and that can be humiliating, but the real problems arise along the spectrum when we learn to see difference as diminishing when we begin to operate as though the categories we have created for our own convenience have real worth in the real world. When we group people together based on a few shared characteristics and then treat them as being less deserving of essential respect (or access to our democratic institutions), well, that’s where the trouble really begins, for others but for ourselves as well.
It isn’t simply a modern problem of course. Jesus spent a surprising amount of time and energy trying to get his followers to break down imaginary religious, political, gender, and economic barriers, to treat people as individual reflections of the divine, rather than as members of ignoble categories of persons. The Church continues to struggle with this.
It is easy to forget that, as much as anything else, Dr. King was speaking not only to the nation but also to the Church. He harbored no illusions about communities of faith and recognized that we often used our religious perspectives and practices to justify the exclusion of people different from ourselves. We have tended to seek communities of homogeneity and comfort where we won’t be troubled by the negotiation of difference. We have often written that off against the Bible, despite the model of spirituality that Jesus left to us. Dr. King’s life and work began to change that in some lasting ways. It has been awfully slow going, and often not especially accepted, but it is a change that must be made if the Church is to survive and Democracy is to flourish. We have to find ways of modeling a different moral universe and bringing people together in a world that drives us apart.
I also hope it is something we can, as a community of faith, confront clear-eyed and head-on as we seek to become a church suited to the needs of a new day.