Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday was a day devoted to the celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In honor of the Civil Rights Movement, and King's invaluable contributions to the cause of nonviolent resistance, I would ask that you take the time to read MLK's Letter from Birmingham Jail. King was a powerful thinker, a powerful writer, and a powerful prophet -- for his time and ours.

As I think of the situation in Palestine and Israel -- or contemplate the reality of oppression and war in our world as a whole -- so many of King's words resonate within me.

Why am I in Birmingham? he asks. "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here."

"Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states . . . Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

About nonviolence, he says: "We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community . . . You may well ask: 'Why direct action? Isn't negotiations a better path?' You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to created such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored."

"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed . . . 'Justice too long delayed is justice denied.' 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."

"One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws."

"Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an I-it" relationship for an "I-though" relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things . . . Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression 'of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness'?"

"An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal."

"Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [and women] willing to be co-workers with God . . . We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity."

"Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever."

"Was not Jesus an extremist for love? Was not Amos an extremist for justice? Was not Paul . . . Luther . . . Bunyan . . . Lincoln . . . [and] Jefferson? So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? The world [is] in dire need of creative extremists."

"Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being 'disturbers of the peace' and 'outside agitators.' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were 'a colony of heaven,' called to obey God rather than man. Small in number they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be 'astronomically intimidated'."

"Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender 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 even vocal sanction of things as they are."

He ends with a eulogy to the American values of justice, equality, and freedom. He calls these values "the sacred heritage of our nation." A heritage he sees threatened by the complacency of Americans towards injustice, segregation, and bondage.

Are we the nation we claim to be? Is this our heritage? And, if so, can we regain it?

President Obama has been inaugurated. Change is in the air. Shall justice be restored?

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