Honor King, fight for social justice
On April 4 we will acknowledge a tragic American anniversary: 50 years have passed since a bullet shot out in Memphis, Tennessee, and took the life of Martin Luther King Jr.
Fifty years later, the causes he embraced are issues all people of good will must acknowledge; they remain as wounds left unhealed.
King was just 39 years old when he was assassinated. He was in Memphis to support a protest by sanitation workers, whose union was advocating for living wages and human dignity not afforded the 1,300 black sanitation workers in that city.
Today we remember King's ministry with a national holiday on the date of his birth and a memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
During his life, however, he was deeply unpopular. Nearly two-thirds of Americans viewed him negatively the last time Gallup polled on King. (His popularity rating dropped every year of his life in the public square).
In essence, to make King popular today, we have stripped him of much of what made him an authentic Christian voice for justice and peace. Much progress was made as King led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in victory after victory, which dismantled much of the legal framework of Jim Crow laws. Their achievements included the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Many aided King in that work, including students and leaders from various faith traditions.
Still, racism never ended. King preached in his last years about what he called the "unfinished agenda." He argued that we would be judged not by a final victory of good over evil, but in our willingness to engage in the struggle:
"In the final analysis, God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives. In the final analysis, God knows that his children are weak and they are frail. In the final analysis, what God requires is that your heart is right. Salvation isn't reaching the destination of absolute morality, but it's being in the process and on the right road."
Today we are not, as a people, on the right road. The presidency of Donald Trump is built on appeals to racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Reports of hate crimes are at their highest levels in years. Politicians work with intention to suppress the voting rights of people of color and the young.
The gun violence that took King, and would soon take Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, now is an epidemic that takes schoolchildren in classrooms, worshippers in churches, temples and mosques and those shopping in our malls or seeing movies in our theaters.
King's last movement was the Poor People's Campaign. Today that campaign is reborn, reflecting the reality that we never have as a nation addressed structural economic issues that allow poverty to flourish. Organizing meetings recently have been held in Hillsboro and Portland.
King famously wrote:
"More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."
I share King's frustration with the appalling silence of good people. You encounter this silence in every facet of American life. Too often leaders who know better decide to embrace silence rather than upset our society that must, as King knew, be provoked into recognizing injustice to the point we are willing to act to address injustice.
Honor King this April 4 by finding ways to join the fight for social justice and human progress. As King said, it is not about whether you succeed but whether you authentically try to create change. We all need to get on the right road together.
The Rev. Chuck Currie is a chaplain at Pacific University and directs the Center for Peace and Spirituality.