On Aug. 28, our country marks 53 years since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous remarks at the March on Washington. It is also the feast of St. Augustine, one of Rev. King's favorite Christian heroes.
Augustine’s proclamation, that “charity is no substitute for justice withheld,” helped form Catholic moral law and inspired the young Baptist preacher to pursue his ministry with a particular eye on the public sphere. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King writes, "I would agree with Saint Augustine, that an unjust law is no law at all."
Augustine is some ways a perfect patron for King. As the fourth century bishop of Hippo (modern-day Annaba Province, Algeria), many claim Augustine and his mother Monica as the church’s first black saints. And just as Augustine spoke to King, he speaks directly to today’s Christians.
Augustine's famous opening words of his spiritual biography — “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it finds rests in you” — in a way sums up the entirety of the Christian journey.
Restless. Is there any word that better describes the state of our hearts today? We’re restless for a better day for our nation and our world. We’re sick and tired of the unending cycle of violence that stains our land with no end in sight. We long for a different way of doing things. We long to be a community the last are first, the poor are blessed, and enemies are loved. We long to be a place to where black lives matter, where LGBT lives matter, and so too do the lives of the refugees, the imprisoned, the unborn, and anyone else who suffers exclusion.
Restless. We’re restless for a church that is faithful to Jesus’s mission to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, and joy to the sorrowful. We’re restless for a faith community that speaks to our skepticism and heals a people who are inundated with the false god of consumerism, empty political rhetoric, dictatorships of relativism, a historical fundamentalism, systems of ethics lacking goodness, and intellectual discourse high on privilege and short on wisdom.
Pope Francis thinks Augustine challenges us not just to “feel” restlessness, but for it to motivate us to go outside of ourselves. He puts it this way:
Do we feel the restlessness of love? Do we believe in love for God and for others? Or are we unconcerned by this? Not in an abstract manner, not only in words, but as a real brother to those we come across, the brother who is beside us! Are we moved by their needs or do we remain closed in on ourselves, in our communities which are often “handy communities” for us? At times we can live in a building without knowing our next door neighbour; or we can be in a community without really knowing our own confreres....The restlessness of love is always an incentive to go towards the other, without waiting for the other to manifest their needs.
If Pope Francis is right, then Martin Luther King wasn’t just inspired by Augustine, but was a living embodiment of his idea of restlessness — for a world where “charity is no excuse for justice withheld.”