Detail of Dr. King's memorial in Washington, DC.
The lessons of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work are countless. This King Day, the most compelling lesson for us might be of how he and thousands of organizers and marchers sacrificed and what this means for us as people of faith in a broken world.
The recent historical drama Selma chronicles King and his community’s efforts to march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery to help win the introduction of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The film show the starkness of what King and his contemporaries sacrificed: safety, family harmony, economic security, certainty that they would win, and in some cases their lives.
What are we willing to sacrifice for justice in this historic moment?
The latter part of 2014 may very well be remembered by historians as a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle for racial equity. But that remains to be seen. What we are willing to give and give up will determine how this moment is viewed by generations to come.
Of course this moment may be remembered simply for the hundreds of protests that spread from Ferguson, Missouri, to New York City and around the world, all forcefully demanding, yet again, that Black Lives Matter. Now. Always.
This moment may even be seen by our children’s children as a public memorializing of the countless lives lost not only as a result of police and vigilante violence but also because of a systemic rollback of policies that at one time helped to build the middle class. Policies that today are being called “handouts” now that the most vulnerable members of our society tend to overwhelmingly be people of color.
Furthermore, the work of thousands of grassroots activists calling on America’s first black president to use the power of his office to push for policies to end the systemic criminalization of communities of color may be seen through the lens of history as necessary. Their labors may be seen as grounded in decades of work and their wins as inevitable. But as any student of history knows, little is inevitable without sacrifice.
What are we willing to sacrifice for justice when so much is at stake in our world today?
What is clear is that things must change. Inequity has become a normal part of so many people’s daily lives: financially debilitating student debt, mass incarceration and deportation, a climate on the brink, so many people unemployed long term that they have stopped looking for work and are no longer counted on the unemployment rolls. Change is indeed the only thing that seems inevitable in such conditions.
The sacrifices we demand of ourselves can change the course of injustice right here, right now.
Certainly, the disproportionate impacts of race, class and gender bias in our world mean that the most vulnerable in our society bear some of the heaviest burdens—sacrifices that are thrust on them by biased systems. In real ways, sacrifices are already a part of our daily lives.
One of the most gripping things about the film Selma is the depiction of King’s humanity. We know King as an icon whose image is etched in towering solid granite on the mall in Washington, D.C. We know him as an orator, a scholar and as a leader. But he, like us, as the film poignantly shows, was a flawed, doubting, mistake-making human being.
And he sacrificed and marched on, literally.
What are we as followers of Christ called to sacrifice for the salvation of our nation’s soul?
A primary place we can begin (or continue) to sacrifice is in our comforts. King eloquently talked in his 1963 speech at Western Michigan University about his “maladjustment” or his deep resistance to racial discrimination, economic injustice, militarism and physical violence.
Have we become too adjusted to injustice? Or is it that we feel unable to act for justice given what we know to be the real and risky sacrifices that might be necessary. Jesus knew that the world needed to change, and he paid dearly for daring to act for justice in a brutal and cruel world. And so it is with us—those who are called to follow Christ and his example. We must open our eyes and our hearts wider to how we are impacted and implicated in perpetuating and eliminating injustice. We must be maladjusted to injustice. We must shake ourselves out of the uneasy peace we have made with the normalization of injustice. If the movement for justice that has taken root is to truly flourish, we can help it by continuing to be maladjusted to all the inequities we face as a society.
What are you willing to sacrifice for justice?
Over the next year, United Methodist Women will be undertaking a renewed focus on racial justice to help us, as a faith community of women, reinvigorate our energy for racial equity across the organization. This effort will launch during the holy season of Lent using prayerful mediation and action.
Would you be willing to make the sacrifice for justice with us?