Anyone who has been a pastor or attended church regularly knows about the so-called “Christmas and Easter” Christians. These two days, at least in the Anglican tradition, are the most attended services of the year. In the black church, it was Mother’s Day and Easter, but the point remains the same. There are certain days when the church is packed with people that we are not likely to see again.
As a pastor, I longed to be able to produce my best sermon on those days because it mattered. I knew that it might be the only exposure people had to Christianity. Members may have taken risks to invite their friends for the first time. I did not want to fail them. Sometimes it worked. People who visited on Christmas and Easter stayed. But in the majority of cases, they did not. They returned to the lives they lived before. Jesus was not their reality. Many pastors experience raised and dashed hopes every Christmas and Eastertide. At our best, we are glad they took the time to consider our church. At our more downcast moments, we are disheartened to see something important to us be trivialized.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday is not Easter or Christmas. Those events mark the turning of the ages. However, I do get a similar sense of melancholy when I watch social media explode with quotes from Dr. King on his birthday. It felt like someone was visiting something dear to me that would be abandoned at the day’s end. Growing up in Alabama, this man was my hero. He spoke about our pain with eloquence and infused us with gospel-informed belief in our “somebodiness.” Even as a child, his words spoke to me. His most powerful words about being black and southern do not make very good memes:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
This experience formed the backdrop of his statements about non-violence. With pain, I witness the non-violence and love that Dr. King preached be justly lauded and completely decontextualized. Dr. King did not speak about non-violence as a detached life philosophy. It was non-violence and love in the face of systematic injustice and oppression. This real systematic injustice and oppression made love for our enemies a necessity. King had two words to say to his opponents: You are wrong and we will love you anyway. It seemed that all some can muster today is “we will love you anyway.” That is good in the same way that visiting church on Christmas and Easter has its merits, but something vital is missing. It is a truncated vision
Many of us recall the dramatic close of the “I have a dream speech.” However, the beginning receives much less attention. Keep in mind that the I have a dream speech was given on the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Its political ramifications are inescapable:
…But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacle of segregation and the chain of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corner of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
In a sense we have come to the capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check — a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this Nation.
Dr. King’s own life and death dramatized the shameful condition of his time and changed our society. That sacrifice is not rightly honored by merely recalling his death. Instead, we must remember the entire vision that defined his vocation. When faced with injustice, he met it with the Christian conviction that divine love can conquer hate and transform the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Those who would follow this conviction, rooted in biblical texts that span the testaments, must speak about the injustice that still exists and practice the sacrificial love needed to transform it.