It is accurate to say that the holiday dedicated to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one that especially lifts up the lives, stories and realities of Black people and communities in our nation. I have absolutely no doubt that Dr. King would have joined with others in the Black Lives Matter movement and other efforts to confront the militarization of our policing system and ongoing racial divide in our country. He would have joined President Obama’s call for common sense reforms of gun legislation so that fewer of our sisters and brothers, daughters and sons would end up as victims of fire arm misuse. He would have championed the Department of Justice investigation of the Chicago Police Department and other explorations across the nation into a police force that has become tragically more inclined to pull the trigger, especially in their dealings with People of Color. He would have supported efforts in states like Illinois which are attempting to reform the prison system, or “prison industrial complex”, an institution that incarcerates a hugely disproportionate number of Black people, women and men, and subsequently inflicts further damage in Black communities and families across the U.S. What Rev. King understood, however, was that ultimately, these issues, while unequally oppressing some people, damage all people. The stories of African Americans may be celebrated in particular ways on this holiday and during the month of February, but the courage and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. is one that must motivate all people to act, non-violently, so as to usher in times, sentiments and movements faithful to his foundational themes of compassion and justice.
STEP 1: Choose compassion. Compassion is a cousin of “solidarity” in that they require of the practitioner the ability to “feel with” and “stand with” those who are suffering or frustrated or angry. Andrew Sung Park, a Korean American Methodist theologian, says that “han” is a form of skin-deep suffering that inclines itself toward more pain and anguish. The abused child is sadly inclined to grow up and abuse others, but they do so out of the pain programmed within them when they received in their bodies wounds inflicted by the hands of adults charged to love and care for them. This is han. The pain of the African American people did not end when our White ancestors enslaved, lynched, and oppressed them. We go on demonizing, segregating, killing and incarcerating Black people in the endless cycle of han. Compassion calls us to feel with, to put ourselves in the shoes of others who experience realities we haven’t and to hear the voices of a people crying “Enough!” So our first step is to quiet ourselves, open our hearts and LISTEN to the stories being shared through movements, celebrations and memorials.
STEP 2: Reframe justice. When King said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wasn’t talking about justice as it is bantered about in the media or court rooms. His was not about “getting even” or vengeance. His was a biblical justice based in the work of dialogue and reconciliation which aims to restore “right relationships.” Crime, hatred and violence put us out of balance, alienate us from one another, and harm relationships. Justice puts things right. This is a daunting task, but it is possible with compassion and solidarity as partners. If I can see the “other” as my family and my concern, it will move me to ensure that each one has the safe environment, education and access to fulfillment and joy, love and hope, that I do. Collaboration, creativity and commitment will be essential.
Are these scary values and ideas? Apparently! If one suggested to Donald Trump or his most stalwart supporters that they might want to sit down with Muslim community members to listen to their experiences in the wake of the attacks in Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino, not to mention the furor kicked up by the Trump campaign itself, they’d have no interest. They’ve made up their minds that Muslims are scary. But I believe that their fear of this encounter is based on the great likelihood that they will be transformed by it. The beliefs they hold to so tenaciously may be shaken. We all know how frightening change can be.
STEP 3: Take courage. “Courage is simply the willingness to be afraid and act anyway” (Dr. Robert Anthony). Dr. King, and his mentors Jesus and Gandhi, experienced fear, but they chose to act anyway. Each one of these men lost their lives, but think how the world would be now if they had given into fear. We must act, regardless of fear, regardless of what others might think, to bring more compassion and justice into our world. How am I called to walk with others who are standing up for justice, or “right relationship?” What fear in myself am I called to confront in order to “act anyway?” Doing nothing is not an option since inaction takes the side of leaving things the way they are: broken, divided and violent. I cannot believe anyone wants it to stay that way. Let’s work together, as Dr. King and other Civil Rights leaders demonstrated, knowing that love is possible and justice is the only way forward.