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."