Next week is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Some of us will have the day off; sometime this week or next week, the kids in our lives will likely learn something about this brave and visionary Civil Rights leader. Yet over the years the message about Dr. King has softened from a message about justice to a message that seems to be more about niceness—a change that Dr. Cornel West of Princeton refers to as the “Santa Claus-ification” of Dr. King.
It is vital that we remember that Dr. King was not Santa Claus. He was concerned with real justice, not superficial pleasantness, and he was opposed in his own day, not only by extreme racists but also by people who were regarded as moderates. In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote:
“The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides—and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent.’ Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’”
It is worth reflecting on these words, both to improve the set of our own minds and hearts and to prepare to talk about Dr. King with the young people we serve. Whom do you consider “extreme”? Might they be extremists for love? Remember that Cornel West says that “justice is what love looks like in public.” Organizations and individuals that prioritize justice for the marginalized over the comfort of the powerful are often referred to as “extreme” in order to dismiss them. This is not to say that everyone labeled an “extremist” has been branded such unfairly, but it is worth considering how you have used that word and seen it used.
Similarly, have you ever wished a marginalized person would “get rid of” their discontent? Might that discontent, in fact, be “healthy and normal,” given the circumstances of their oppression? We are decades away from Dr. King’s speeches and marches, but true justice has still not rolled down like a mighty stream, and we are all responsible for working toward the day when it will. As Dr. King said in his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.” We still live in a time of injustice and of endless war. These words still apply.
And why should we, specifically, as Christians, heed these words, aside from it being the right thing to do? At the same time as he was demanding justice for his community, Dr. King was clear-headed about the future of the church. In the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King said, “If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
Here we are, nearly 60 years later, and the church has been losing members for decades. Those of us who care about the future of the church need the charge of irrelevance to be false. As we fight for future of the church, however—as we fight for the church to have a future—we must remember that our primary allegiance is not to the church as an institution but to God and to humanity, created in God’s image. If we want the church to have a future, we must, as Dr. King says, “recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church.”