The Common Good

What Keeps Us From Living MLK's Dream?

Last year Naomi Tutu and I met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to keep vigil on the 40th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Friends joined us from around the country. We asked the visitors gathered there: "What keeps us from living the Dream?" Most folks spoke of fear. Some spoke of ignorance. Interestingly, no one presumed that we had achieved the Dream. In this past year some of my white friends have imagined us so much closer with the election of President Obama. And my black friends-especially black male pastors-have said, "Nothing has happened in the past 40 years."

Perhaps I have felt the chasm between these opinions more than most because I am a white female pastor in a tradition that is unclear what to do with female pastors. In the midst of the ostracism I experienced 20 years ago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright became my father-in-ministry. As Father Michael Pfleger said of last year, "This year has been the most painful in my life." And 41 years after Rev. King's murder racism is still what defines our nation in terms of employment, education, health care, and financial access.

A recent example of the difference between the perspective of white evangelicals and black prophets is seen in the two separate pieces that the New York Times published by Franklin Graham and Desmond Tutu. Mr. Graham urges readers to "put peace before justice." Archbishop Emeritus Tutu is clear that "there can be no real peace and security until justice is enjoyed by the inhabitants of the land. There is no peace precisely because there has been no justice. As painful and inconvenient as justice may be, we have seen that the alternative - allowing accountability to fall by the wayside - is worse."

Why bring this up on the anniversary of Rev. King's murder? Because he, from a southern black male perspective, knew what it was to be not seen and not heard. He spoke loudly for those in other nations that were subject to colonialism and militarism. Remember-he not only fought racism but also poverty and militarism. Because of this he was ostracized by the Johnson White House that had previously welcomed him.

So on the 41st anniversary of his martyrdom how do we in America-particularly we white Christians-respond? Perhaps we begin by admitting that we in America are very good at celebrating the innocence of Christmas and the triumph of Easter but we neglect the horror of the Massacre of the Innocents and the vacuum of hope in Good Friday. Our Orthodox friends and African-American friends don't forget. Perhaps it is telling that most of us white Christians might have a moderately well attended service on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday evening-and most of my black Christian friends in this nation will have a three hour "Last Seven Words" service on Good Friday.

In A Time to Break the Silence (which was delivered at New York's Riverside Church a year to the day before his murder) Dr. King preached:

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." ... The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. ... A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. ... America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

We as a nation can still "lead the way in this revolution of values." Even though Dr. King's body is gone his wisdom and words prevail. Last year when I grieved over our national indifference to the plight of the Kenyan people, I wrote to Rev. Wright regarding my anger with the silence of the white American church. Dr. Wright wrote back:

Dear Ruth, white privilege and 500 years of white supremacy make whites think (from a position of power) they are the main force and others are either with them or against them (like George Bush's war against terrorism). It is the same thinking that makes us think God is on our side as a nation (as we massacre Indians, enclave Africans, and take other people's countries away from them) and never stop to ask whether or not we are on God's side!

Readers of Sojourners deeply care about who is on God's side-that is why we read this publication. But too often we easily fragment over issues of gender and sexuality. We imagine that we work for peace-and forget the price of justice. My deepest prayer is that in the midst of our challenges we not focus of our side but, indeed, in honor of Dr. King that we ask if we are on God's side. Too often our response to those who are different (whether culturally, geographically, or theologically) is that we are right and they are wrong. In the prophet Jeremiah's words, "They offer superficial treatments for my people's mortal wound. They give assurances of peace when there is no peace" (8:11, The Message).

Perhaps this year, as we honor the man who was a "drum major for peace" and a "drum major for justice" (as he preach the night before he died), we will realize that without justice there can never be peace.

Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry is a pastor in Michigan and serves as a hospice chaplain.

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