I sit to write this reflection on Monday, the national observance that honors the life of The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Like so many, I am once again encouraged to remember his life, his prophetic role in the American Civil Rights Movement, and his call to peaceful non-violent resistance as the means to achieve social justice. All of which truly changed the course of history.
The America of King’s time was different from our time today. In the 50’s and 60’s the Jim Crow laws that sanctioned the oppression of people of color forced our African American sisters and brothers to live less than the life which they were created for. During the later years of his life, King’s prophetic witness extended beyond the racism that plagued the soul of humankind and also into the issues of poverty and war – particularly the Vietnam War – that also tore away at the moral fabric of our society.
Martin Luther King inspired real change in our country and in the world. As a result of his commitment to true justice and civil rights, laws were changed to ensure a degree of equality among all people of this nation. But maybe even more important was how he changed how our African American brothers and sisters – as well as all oppressed peoples looking on – saw themselves. He helped to restore and protect human dignity. He reminded all oppressed people that they were somebody. He reminded us that we are all created in the image of God – and that means everybody.
Like all true spiritual leaders, King’s civil rights prophetic vison was born of a faith rooted deep within him. It was the unwavering moral conviction of his beliefs as a Christian that inspired his leadership. It was the contemplation of the core values of his faith that propelled him into action. This is essential truth because protests without this contemplative core is just noise, but true prophetic action comes only from first giving oneself to deep listening to God’s desire for us. This is why The Reverend Martin Luther King was so grounded in his truth – a truth that had the power to eventually change the moral compass of our country.
As an Episcopal Christian, I look to the life and teachings of Jesus as core values. In our baptismal covenant, we vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.” All persons, all people, every human being. This means everybody. No exceptions. This is the type of moral compass that was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, the man who accepted the leadership role of that movement, and the people who were a part of it.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King wasn’t the first to conceive of a peaceful, non-violent approached to oppression. Nor was he the first to teach the power of loving your neighbor, especially your enemies. These teachings came from Jesus. King took them to heart and reminded us all of who were are to be as Christians.
We are living in times that are more divided than we have seen in quite some time. Some rightly feel that the very moral fabric of our nation is at stake. Not unlike sixty years ago that sparked the Civil Rights Movement, we are in need of prophetic voices to point us back to the truth of who we are as individuals and as a nation. As Christians, we should take seriously what we have been taught by the one whom we profess to follow. The core values are simple and yet can have a profound effect on the direction of our common life: justice, peace, respect, dignity, radical forgiveness and unconditional love – and yes, even love for those we are tempted to consider our enemies. If we can reconnect our moral and spiritual compass that points us to these values, we just might be able to stop yelling at each other and begin to listen. Once we do that, we are ready to love again.