Honor Dr. King by fixing societal structures

My latest Springfield News-Leader column

As each year goes by, I’m experiencing more and more mixed feelings when celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

It’s not that I think Americans shouldn’t take time to honor the legacy of Dr. King. After all, I believe Dr. King is the greatest Christian theologian in our nation’s history.

And it’s not that I think we shouldn’t have a national holiday in his honor. We have a variety of national holidays, and one of the primary things Dr. King left us with is a legacy of non-violent resistance (deeply rooted in, but not confined to, the example of Jesus), and it’s vitally important for us as a nation to remember the virtues of non-violence, especially when we so frequently rush to arms and valorize warfare.

Every year my church and my family march with hundreds of others in the Springfield area out of a shared commitment to justice, dignity and equality, and I wish to continue these practices well into the future. Indeed, I want to see them grow.

So why am I experiencing such mixed feelings?

Part of it, I fear, has to do with the way our nation frequently runs the risk of trivializing the deep import of Dr. King’s memory and message — a trivialization that harbors the potential of distracting us from the true — and much more difficult — pursuit of justice and equality.

During the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, we hear a lot of quotes on television and social media related to how everyone — no matter their background, race, or class — is created equally and therefore should be treated with dignity. Which is no doubt true. And we celebrate the beautiful call in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, reminding ourselves that our treatment of another person should be based on the content of their character and not on the color of their skin. Something else that is no doubt true.

But what we don’t hear much about are Dr. King’s penetrating critiques of societal structures that systematically take advantage of people — structures that produce unfair playing fields in which a person — no matter how good the content of their interpersonal character may or may not be — doesn’t always share in the same advantages that others might have, whether related to education, business, safety, or economic security (this is why racism is always about far more than personal prejudice — it’s also about systems of power that are set up to benefit some at the expense of others).

When Dr. King retold the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, he certainly highlighted the importance of the Good Samaritan helping the man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead along the Jericho Road. But he didn’t limit his analysis to the interpersonal virtues of the Good Samaritan. He went on to say that:

“A true [transformation] of values will cause us to question the fairness of many of our policies. On the one hand, we’re called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”

Even though segregation and inequality are actually on the rise in America, we’re conditioned to believe that to talk about systemic racism is no longer necessary in our so-called “post-racial America.” After all, doesn’t our annual celebration of Dr. King prove that we’ve arrived? That justice and equality have been achieved? Hardly.

It’s far too easy for us to neglect the full import of Dr. King’s legacy — a legacy that many white Americans like myself wish to conveniently repress or ignore. But when we reduce his legacy only to how we treat one another in interpersonal exchanges, and don’t pay attention to the way systems of power can be structured in unfair ways that prevent everyone from getting a fair shake, we don’t truly honor the man or the message. In such cases, we prefer celebrating the parts of his legacy that don’t challenge or push us out of our comfort zones.

If we really wish to honor Dr. King, we must look at the way systemic injustice is structured and brokered in a society in which too many people are left hurt and abandoned along the Jericho Roads of our world. This is no easy task. But it’s precisely what Dr. King did. It’s also what got him killed.

Do we truly have the courage to pick up where Dr. King left off? Or is the weight of pursuing true justice — and liberty for all — more than we can handle?

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