Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day, the day in the United States. A day in which we are encouraged to remember the civil rights work of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I’d like to offer a few thoughts today, but before I do, a disclaimer of sorts.
I am a white American. I am not an African American and have not felt the sting of racism or segregation. I was born in the 80’s, far removed from the heated civil rights movement. I really have no personal context to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the violence and bigotry he stood up against. However, I am indebted to his work and the America he helped create that I now enjoy. One of the great things about the work and words of Dr. King is that they continue to ring an inspiring tone well after his death and beyond even the time and purpose they served.
With that out of the way, I want to highlight a section from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech. If you have not had the immense pleasure to listen to the speech, please take a moment and click the link to listen. As with any great speech, the words were meant to be heard and not just read. I will wait while you go and listen, otherwise the lines I would like to focus on are:
“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”
I think these words stuck out to me because I recently watched Lee Daniels: The Butler. There is a scene in that film in which a group of students are preparing themselves for the famous lunch counter sit-ins. To prepare they simulate sitting at the counter and have another student push, pull and scream hateful words at them. One white student, amongst the predominantly African American group, would not scream the word “nigger” in the simulation because he knows it to be a hateful, demeaning word. The organizer of the simulation encourages him to shout it because it will happen, it is a real word used to inflict real pain and they must know how to resist everything that will be thrown at them. I felt bad for the kid, but was encouraged that he was there and was allowed to be there because he believed in the fight for civil rights. He was not excluded from the fight because he was white, he was included because he shared a common vision. This illustrates quite well the idea from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech that, “we cannot walk alone.” The issues they were fighting for were not distinctly African American issues, they were issues of human rights and values. All cultures and backgrounds needed to be represented in the fight for civil rights in America because it was everyone’s fight. Leaving one group out would not help their goal, it would indeed undermine it. As Dr. Martin Luther King very keenly identified, every American’s destiny was tied up together in this fight.
As a Church we would do well to honor the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is too easy and tempting in the Church to divide things up as “Us vs. Them”. To understand things as those who are in and those who are out. To identify some as fighting the good fight and others as misguided. We can align ourselves so strongly to our beliefs, doctrines, denominations, worship styles and causes that we alienate ourselves from those who may see things differently. We may even go so far as to alienate ourselves from those who may look differently, further confirming Dr. King’s observation that, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”
I pray that we can hear the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and remember that, “We cannot walk alone.”
We are all in this together. The Church may look divided, splintered and divisive. Truthfully, this may be our biggest problem. However, we must be reminded that if Jesus is the true head of the Church we are still parts of the same body. And, as parts of the same body we cannot walk alone. We should not distrust those from a different denomination who want to join in our service or community projects. We should welcome everyone who wants to join in the work of the Kingdom. I pray we can join together with everyone who has heard the call of God on their lives and want “sit in” at the counter of brokenness, evil, depression, segregation, violence, terror, pain, suffering, hunger, and chaos and quietly proclaim a new way of living.
Martin Luther King also quotes Isaiah 40 verses 4 & 5 in his I Have a Dream Speech. That verse says:
Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.
Isaiah 40:4-5 (CEB)
The key idea here is that “all humanity will see it together.” Not some, not a chosen few, not a special group…but all humanity. We cannot walk alone because God’s desire is that we all walk together to see his glory. As Dr. King welcomed the whites who stood alongside African Americans in the fight for civil rights, may we also welcome those we might be tempted to distrust in the continuing work of God’s Kingdom.