One of the challenging things about celebrating MLK day is that we have had a tendency to focus on only the parts of the story that make us comfortable – like the last paragraphs of the “I Have A Dream” speech. One person referred to this as the “Santa Clausification” of King. My twitter feed today was populated by the hashtag #reclaimMLK. I want to think about what that means.
I teach the Senior Capstone course for Spring Arbor. It includes a week on MLK as a central figure and I have my students listen to a sermon King gave at the National Cathedral five days before he was shot.
Titled “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution”, it draws upon the story of Rip Van Winkle. The telling part for King is that Rip went to sleep with a picture of King George on the wall and woke up with a picture of George Washington.
MLK says we’ve had a revolution in technology, in weaponry, and in human rights. He calls on his hearers to develop a world perspective: “through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood.”
He says we must “eradicate the last vestiges of racial injustice from our nation. I must say this morning that this is the black man’s burden and the white man’s shame.”
Notice that he’s not talking about prejudice or racial insensitive comments. He’s talking about injustice.
He says there are things that stand in the way of making progress on racism. First is the myth that we just need time. He responds that change “comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.”
The second myth is an “over reliance on bootstrap philosophy.” He observes that our society was more than willing to provide an economic floor for white European immigrants, provide them with land grant colleges, to help them farm, and to provide subsidies not to farm. “It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
In addition to racism, we need to deal with poverty. He tells the story of Abraham and Dives the rich man. In one of my favorite King lines, he says that it wasn’t because Dives was rich. “Dives went to hell because he was a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.”
Finally, he addresses militarism and specifically the War in Vietnam. He calls us out for being an “arrogant nation”. War, he argued, was “playing havoc on our domestic destinies. This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Viet Cong solider…while we spend only fifty-three dollars per year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program, which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.”
But King retains hope because “both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands”.
Reclaiming King in 2015 calls for us to avoid platitudes but instead to wrestle with difficult issues – the very same ones he cited in 1968. But not to fear, because God is at work, “keeping watch over his own”.