Living the MLK Challenge


Every year on MLK Day weekend, I have mixed emotions. 

I usually cry in church on Sunday (that's no surprise!) at both the injustice in the world and my longing for someone like MLK to come preach us out of it. I feel guilty for not planning a service project for my kids like we're supposed to do. I feel guilty that I haven't watched enough documentaries about civil rights, read all of MLK's writings, and been the kind of freedom fighter I should have been since the last MLK Day.

For me, it's sometimes easier to remember Dr. King, to deify him, even, than it is to face my own white privilege and to feel the deep sorrow and anger over the systemic racism that's still running rampant in this country. I cannot imagine how it would feel to be raising a young black boy now. Or to be driving while black.(Or shopping, applying for a loan, or finding a job.)

I imagine what MLK would want is not for us to eulogize him, but to carry on the work he started. Not just to think about the "giant triplets evils of racism, materialism, and militarism" (Wow) on a Monday in January, but in all the choices we make throughout the year. I'm white, and what I say to myself and to other white folks is this: Inform yourself. Take a training, read a book, watch some movies. Believe it when people of color tell you their stories. Talk to other white people about white privilege and start looking for how you benefit from it. Let yourself be sad for awhile about the trauma of racism in this country, and then turn that sadness into resolve. 

My pastor preached on #blacklivesmatter this morning. As usual, I created a giant pile of used tissue beside me. She talked about the story of Zaccheus in the Bible, how he went up in a tree to get a better view of Jesus. And how we, in our intention to understand, see the big picture, or analyze, get up in the tree. (Kind of like this blog post and lots of other well-intentioned things don't involve very much risk.) She challenged us to "come down from the tree." And she passed out copies of this article and challenged us to read it at halftime today. (Seahawks Mania here in Washington.) 

So I'm asking, "How do I come down from this tree?" How do I, as a white person who's bound to make lots of mistakes, make racism my fight? I re-read King's Letter from Birmingham last night. He was writing to white Christian leaders who were criticizing him for moving too fast, for stirring things up too much. About the role of the Church in the Civil Rights Movement, he says,

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. 

I'm proud of my church this morning for honoring Dr. King, proud of my pastor for saying things that I know are going to make some folks bristle. Or worse. She understands, as King did, our absolute connection to one another, and the vision of Oneness that King fought for:

I can't sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

Our survival, our happiness, our well-being as a species is one "single garment of destiny." Every major spiritual tradition says that the great lie is one of separation--that we are separate from one another and separate from God. We are in this together, and I hope we're closer to experiencing justice roll down like waters. Thank you, MLK, for your life, legacy, and love. We're still trying.