At this time in January, there’s a focus on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Much is said and written about honoring the man for the ideas for which he stood and put his life at risk. Much is made of the “legacy” he left us. However, little is said about his legacy not being self-activating. If there’s a reason for the continuation of the issues to which MLK Jr. devoted his life it lies in his legacy not being self-activating. If there’s a reason for the tenacity of these issues it lies in the fact that MLK Jr. focused not exclusively upon symptoms but also upon root causes. If we are to enjoy the benefits of expanding success in the field of social justice, we must join him in his focus upon root cause.
If we are to be beneficiaries of MLK Jr.’s generosity, we cannot look upon his legacy with passivity nor ignore root causes while legislating against symptoms we seek to address by merely banishing them from view. We cannot honor him merely with words, especially not words voiced only once a year, but not even words voiced throughout the year in the form of legislation and regulations, policies and principles. More than words are needed to receive the legacy MLK Jr. left us. More than legislation is required to carry it forward to give birth to its promise and nurture it to maturity.
To reap the generosity MLK Jr. had in mind when he devoted his life to leading us together into doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God, we too must walk in whatever way God shows us to walk today to address at their root causes the issues that continue to need addressing. Opportunities to do so abound. That we might not be gifted as an orator does not excuse us from finding our own gifts and devoting them to service to address the issues MLK Jr. addressed. If we truly want to fully honor him, we must ensure that he did not die in vain. To do so, we must look deep into the heart of the messages he left us and find concrete ways to address at their root cause the issues he identified. MLK Jr. espoused grand ideas that inspired his followers to act upon them. We can likewise give life to those ideas through our own actions as we invest our gifts in the same field of social justice in which MLK Jr. invested his.
When MLK Jr. was assassinated, his field of ministry was expanding. He saw the need to include the needs of all people in the implementation of justice and mercy throughout the nation and beyond it. Our vision of the possibilities of service must likewise be expansive and yet can be as localized as MLK Jr.’s actions often were. Although his thinking was expanding globally, his actions usually focused locally. Where and when he was is where and when he took his stand. Where and when we are is where and when we can likewise take our stands for justice, mercy and equality under God’s dominion. He endeavored to see issues from God’s heavenly and eternal perspective and yet take action from within humankind’s experiences in the here and now. He sought to elevate service by people towards other people as sacred acts of justice, mercy and love. He saw within the specific and concrete actions taken by people the redeeming brilliance of abstract ideals that God has espoused for millennia.
One example of this interplay between the concrete and the abstract, between the specific and the general, between the fully human and the fully divine, will illustrate my point about how we may yet more comprehensively honor MLK Jr.’s legacy by investing our lives fully and meaningfully in the here and now. Of the many visionary ideas MLK Jr. left us to consider was one captured in his declaration, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (I Have a Dream Speech, August 28, 1963.) If we examine this abstract idea with clear minds and hearts, we will see how to implement it in concrete, specific ways.
As a side note, it’s interesting that discussions about the meaning of this ideal tend to focus upon the nature, origin and dynamics of racial discrimination. Yet, today in the US we face continued if not increased racial discrimination, often more covertly practiced than before but not diminished. All of the discussions about it have produced discouragingly little lasting fruit. This failure to bear abundant fruit has even soured some people on the idea of civil rights, as if it’s not ever going to be possible to adequately dispel racial discrimination and disharmony in our nation. I offer up here the idea that the goal of reducing racial discrimination and disharmony to the point of dispelling both entirely (or at least to socially negligible proportion) remains viable if and only if we address the root cause of discrimination and disharmony, not only such as are based on color of skin but also such as are based on any other superficial factor inherent in the human race.
I propose that to honor MLK Jr.’s legacy fully will result in reducing discrimination and disharmony across the board for all excuses any person gives for discriminating unjustly or promoting disharmony unproductively. Root cause! MLK Jr. identified the root cause of racial discrimination (and, I propose, all forms of invidious discrimination) in his declaration about his hoped-for future for his children. But we have studiously avoided focusing on what he said in this regard because we are uncomfortable with the idea of addressing the root cause. To remain comfortable within our familiar territory, we have learned to tolerate the continuation of discrimination in an array of forms and turn a blind eye to it rather than address it.
Admittedly it is challenging to address the root cause of discrimination because doing so requires that every one of us take stock of an aspect of ourselves we have little skill at (or stomach) for evaluating and addressing. However, if we are to fully honor the legacy MLK Jr. died to leave to us, we will take stock of “the content of [our] character” and engage in upgrading our character’s content and nature until we’ve purged ourselves of all character weaknesses and cease to perceive, think, feel, decide and act under the influence of our former weaknesses. Building strong, resourceful and responsible characters requires effort, self-discipline and determination to succeed at any cost. It’s much easier to intellectually debate the nature, origins and dynamics of racial discrimination for centuries than to devote the next decades to gut-wrenching, heart-rending character-building, with its requirements for humility, honesty and vulnerability and its ongoing need for self-monitoring and self-discipline.
We have the capacity for humility, honesty and vulnerability as well as self-monitoring and self-discipline. But these are not traits of humanity that insist upon their existence in the modern era within which survival and advancement according to modern criteria are based on an opposite set of values, priorities, attitudes and skill set. To build characters worthy of honoring, we must resolve not to conform to the ways of modern culture and instead sink the roots of our lives resolutely in the soil of deeper concerns, values and priorities than those to which our modern culture subscribes — and develop attitudes and skills not promoted by our culture as survival skills. We must cease to be dedicated to the preservation of the status quo – because the status quo is betraying our character and revealing us to be weak in our resolves about doing better.
The opposite of sound character is hypocrisy. Models of social success based on hypocrisy abound around us. Models of sound character valued at any cost are not necessarily non-existent but they are largely buried in fiction and considered fanciful and impractical or are buried beneath the hype by which hypocrisy is sensationalized and promoted as the more reliable route to fame and fortune. Messages about the value of sound character are lost amid the media’s glamorizing of hypocrites who sell their souls to gain the world’s acclaim, show off their wealth and regale in their social status. The media amplifies self-promoting blowhards and windbags while largely overlooking their alternatives of sounder character. There is no silence of the hams nor inclination of the media to refuse to serve them up to the public as a constant diet. And the eagerness of the public to feed their minds according to the media’s dietary plan reflects a lack of sound character among the fragile public whose hearts fix upon false idols that glitter and may even be gold but are never God.
When we have created public as well as private programs to promote sound character among ourselves and our children and immersed ourselves within them with utmost determination until we emerge transformed by a renewal of our hearts and minds, we will continue to suffer from racial discrimination and disharmony and all other forms of injustice. Should we insist that others engage in character-transforming programs for as long as it takes to emerge transformed? No, because going against a person’s free will is not likely to bring about deep and lasting change within that person. Yet, we can develop such programs, ourselves voluntarily participate in them and simultaneously offer them to all who are willing to explore them. If we do so, the fruits of such participation will be self-evident and the role models who emerge from these programs will cause skeptics to pay attention and bid them drift ever closer to participating themselves.
One day all hypocrisy (and its close cousins dishonesty and violence) will disappear from our national character because we have resolutely weeded it out from our individual characters one opportunity, one issue and one person at a time until the pattern of generalized character sustainability takes hold. Just as a field of weeds springs from individual weed seeds so, too, does a field of honor, integrity, health, peace and goodwill among all peoples spring from individual seeds who decide to become one with and to express that crop throughout all relationships in their lives. The miracle of such a social justice transformation beckons us to heed the vision Martin Luther King Jr. once held out to us. He holds it out to us even now as we re-read his words and take them into our hearts at the depth from which they emerged from his.
© Art Nicol 2017