Monday, January 16, 2006

Martin Luther King's Legacy: Brownback Doesn't Quite Get It

Senator Sam Brownback wrote a guest column in the Kansas City Star today giving homage to Martin Luther King, Jr. (This, by the way, is the new definition of irony.)

Brownback writes, "King dedicated his life to the advancement of individuals in need," (italics mine)

But I say, the advancement of individuals in need is hardly what King was dedicated to. Oh, he was in favor of it, to be sure. But he was dedicated to nothing less that the transformation of society and the establishment of justice for all people in America and throughout the world. Brownback makes King sound like he ran a local food bank. Running a food bank is an awesome ministry, and worthy of much gratitude, but King was about something more fundamental and communal than that. There is a difference between doing the works of justice that King did and doing the works of mercy that happen in food banks every day.

Brownback writes, "King’s commitment to the advancement of those in need not only transformed our once oppressive society into a symbol of freedom and democracy, but he also ushered in a new consciousness of the importance of charity toward each another." (italics mine)

But I say, oppression in our society is not a thing of the past. The way Brownback writes, you would think that King's dream is realized and there is no more work to do. There has never been a more noticeable difference between rich and poor in the United States. Prejudice against women and minorities is alive and well. The very young and the very old in our society are systemically devalued. No, there is still plenty of work to do before our country attains the high ideals King attempted to hold us to.

More Brownback: "We most truly live up to the legacy of King when we help others."

But I say, we most truly live up to the legacy of King when we unflinchingly stare injustice and oppression in the face and insist that things must be different than they are, in spite of the threat or even the act of violence perpetrated against us. King would not have received death threats and eventually been assasinated if all he had wanted was for us to "help others," like Senator Brownback seems to think. The legacy King left the world was much more profound than offering a helping hand to a neighbor in need.

I applaud the good Senator's effort to highlight the importance of acts of mercy, or helping people in need. We do those acts every day here in Northtown. But to blunt the force of Martin Luther King's impact on our society by trying to make him just another social worker doing good things is an offense to the truth. King was an extremist, and demanded that we all be, as well. In his letter from Birmingham City Jail he wrote, "So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice - or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?"

And read this closely, from the same letter: "The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church's silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are." *Sigh* There is still so very much work to be done. And honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King is more that closing the Post Office and writing a check to mail to the food pantry. As King put it, "If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands."


Kansas Bob said...

Agree with what you wrote about Dr. King's main focus. In his Nobel Lecture he said:

"The first problem that I would like to mention is racial injustice."

However he also said in that speech:

"A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty."

"A third great evil confronting our world is that of war."

I think that Dr. King was much more than a social justice activist. As a minister of the gospel he was deeply concerned about the poor. He was also against war.

Personally, I grew up in the 60s ... we have come a long ways ... we still have a long way to go. I share in Dr. King's dream and, as a minister of the gospel, will continue to work towards that dream.

I guess what I am trying to say is that Senator Brownback's article just focused on one part of Dr. King's legacy ... he would probably agree with most of your points. I read his article and didn't have the same reaction you had ... but then again I'm from Kansas.

Adam Caldwell said...

Please don't take this the wrong way. I am all for justice. Christ came to change lives. He did not come to abolish poverty. (i.e., "the poor will always be with you") (Although I think that is a very worthy cause that we should all be striving for.) I think that we have to focus on the persons heart. From there the change will happen. From there the Spirit will begin to mold and shape.

We must usher individuals into the dream of the kingdom...not simply the dream of social justice. Ultimately, the social justice jar is empty if it is not first filled with Christ. Salvation is a life and death issue, and I'm not talking about whether you will go to heaven when you die or not. It is a life and death issue for the "here and now." We all know that everybody living is not "alive". Christ wakes us up! He shows us the fullness of life! That is what people need to hear. Yes, I agree, we should be extremists. Not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of Christ. The rest will fall into place.

John said...

There is still much work to do, but now most of that work can only be done by the collective decision of Black America to reform its culture. The power of law and legislation is limited.

Stephen said...


The only problem here is the same that Dr. King felt in the 60s. That letter Andy qoutes in his article from the Birmingham Jail was a response because the "christian" leaders of the day told King to worry more about salvation and saving souls than integration and civil rights.

I find it intriguing that Jesus too was killed because he was concerned with the poor, marginalized, and outcast. He frequently spoke up about it, overturned some tables, and was branded a criminal by both Political and Religious institutions of the day. I wonder what it would have been like if Jesus had received a letter from the religious authorities of the day asking him to "back off"

Anonymous said...

I don't understand John's comment about the "culture of Black America." Could you better clarify it? Is there a culture of "White America" or "Latino America" or "Italian America" or "Chumaro America" that makes all that work done already? Please explain further.


Shelly :)!

Adam Caldwell said...


I know that we are in the same boat so let me try and do a better job at articulating my position. I think to understand my point, I must better define my idea of salvation. For me salvation is not "pie in the sky." It is the idea that one can be "saved" in THIS life as well as the next. That's why I made the statement, "We all know that everybody living is not alive." With this salvation comes the caring for the poor, outcast, needy, lonely, abandoned, etc. With this salvation comes the kind of cumminity Paul speaks of in Col. 3:5-17. With this salvation one is ushered into the Kingdom of God to live and breath Christ's way of living. Christ said he was, "The Son of Man." Meaning he knows how to live the ultimate life and if we pattern our lives after his then we are on the right track.

I completley agree with you that Christ was way more concerened with individuals on the fringes and I think that we should be too. My only fear is that we help folks and we push for justice but we never tell people why. (and I'm not talking about furthering the agenda.) I gues what I am trying to say is that to be Christ Like you have to first acknowledge Christ.

I think that history is very clear. We can't do this on our own. We have failed miserably. The only way we can "make" social justice happen is if we begin change hearts through the power of the holy spirit.

I don't know if that cleared anything up. I hope so. Oh Andy, don't be so hard on your little bro. I'm going to help him out. I was up late last night and caught one of those infomercials for the spray on hair. I went ahead and ordered him several bottles. That should fix it right up.

Stephen said...

Amen Adam,

We both agree then it starts with Christ. One of my favorite things about Paul is whenever a crisis arose in the church he was writing to he would first point out in his letter the cross of Jesus.

John said...

Shelly, I am referring to a rampant celebration of thuggery in Black pop culture. It is a culture which shapes young people to make the worst possible decisions for themselves. The pro-thug voices are by no means universal, but they are extremely loud.

Seamhead said...

Bad news for you John. That's American Pop culture you're bemoaning. Pop culture hasn't been black/white in a long time.

Donna said...

This is a great piece. I truly enjoy your writing--your voice comes through so clearly, and you have such a great way of speaking the truth in a kind way.
Yes, Dr. King preached against poverty. But that doesn't invalidate your point in the least. He put himself on the line for transformation of society. I sure hope we get there someday. I'm not so sure Sen. Brownback will be leading the charge...

John said...

There is much that is bad in American pop culture in general, but the filth in popular Black culture is much worse, more pervasive, and more widely accepted.

Denying the problem does not help.

jagua piru said...

Wow, that is both politically and socially charged, John. I can't believe you're saying it. Not that I have any fondness for pop culture in general, but I also wouldn't single out anyones particular flavor for special bashing. Big cahonas, I suppose.

Seamhead said...

John, It's not black pop culture. It's American pop culture. The people running the Movie Studios, the TV networks, the record companies etc. The are mostly white. They make a ton of money pandering to white and black kids alike.

John said...

Black pop culture places a greater emphasis on violence. That is a force of social destruction far greater than Britney Spears' nipples.

I'm surprised that anyone is actually disputing my proposition. Isn't it obvious how barbaric much of Black pop culture is -- to a degree far greater than present in other American subcultures?

Seamhead said...

John, that part of the culture just has a black (and Hispanic) face on it. The people that put it out there are still the same ones who have always profited off of pop culture fads.

The Gangsta culture celebrated in American pop culture is actually foreign to most African Americans.

And a close look at the the youngsters caught up in it reveals the gangsta culture draws from all races.

Fortunately, most of the kids will outgrow this phase much as we outgrew the 'barbaric' pop culture our parents feared.