This weekend, as a country, we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although this is a civic holiday and not a religious one, Dr. King was also a pastor an an excellent preacher. So, in church on Sunday morning, we'll watch an (abridged) sermon by Dr. King from 1967 called "But, If Not..."
(As your main Sunday preacher, I of course worry that showing you Dr. King's preaching will reveal how much my own preaching can still improve, but I think he's worth it!)
As we remember Dr. King this weekend, I want to highlight two important things that often get swallowed up in the celebrations.
"Peacemaking" is Not Just Being Nice
Dr. King famously said, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."
Sometimes, Dr. King's legacy gets watered down. The narrative becomes something like:
"Dr. King didn't like how mean the racists were. He wanted people to be treated the same, no matter their skin color. He valued peace above all else, so he taught his people to resist with nonviolent means: sit-ins, marches, speeches, etc. His nonviolence is a model for dealing with injustice."
To be sure, much of this is half true. But the framing misses the point in two ways:
Dr. King and the many other leaders in the Civil Rights Movement weren't only resisting individual "mean" racist people. They were trying to revolutionize an entire system based on inequality.
The purpose of their actions was true peace, which isn't just everyone "playing nice" within a harmful system. True peace requires the presence of justice, which can be very uncomfortable at first, even if it is the right thing in the long run.
That means some of their biggest opponents were people like you and me! Many of their opponents were people trying to do good in the world, even trying to follow Jesus, but who unknowingly benefited from these systems.
That means that sometimes, they and we (however unintentionally) try to protect the systems, rather than the people being harmed by them!
Dr. King's most famous work about this is his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which he wrote to moderate clergy who were calling for him to make less waves.
That brings me to the second thing I want to highlight this weekend.
The Work is Not Done
President Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law in 1983. This made the third Monday in January a national holiday honoring Dr. King and encouraging all Americans to improve their communities. Some states decided to celebrate "Robert E. Lee Day" at the same time, as an act of rebellion against having to honor Dr. King and the achievements Civil Rights Movement.
(For more on the history of MLK Day, read this wonderful article by the National Museum of African American History and Culture: "The 15 Year Battle for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.")
Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, shortly after the passing of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Since then, our country has continued to make progress toward racial equity. For example, the 118th Congress, which is beginning its term, is the most racially and ethnically diverse ever. But there's a ways to go. In that same example: even though the 118th Congress is the most diverse ever, white males are still proportionally over-represented in that group, as compared to the U.S. population.
There is still so much work to do.
Our work, as Christians, is to continue living into the fullness of Christ, who preached and pursued the peace of God. Jesus emptied himself so that he could pursue the will of God the Father, not his own will, even to the point of death. This weekend, I ask you to contemplate:
When do you value "niceness" instead of justice, tension avoidance instead of true peace? And how can you cultivate the willingness to empty yourself, divest from the systems that you unfairly benefit from, so that you can pursue God's peace on earth?