Inauguration week. January 2017.
It is complicated to post this photo on Martin Luther King Jr. Day – much more complicated than it at first appears, for at least three reasons.
First, when I reposted this photo to social media a few days ago, more than one person responded with, “Again?”
My response to that is mixed.
On the one hand, I think it’s important to hear the voice of the homeless person holding the sign. “Again” meant something. It could have meant, “If you’re going to make America something, then please make it kind.” Or it could have meant, “Want to know true greatness? True greatness is kindness.” Or a person experiencing particular hardship may be remembering days when kindness was extended.
On the other hand, it’s important to note that there are whole communities who have never experienced America as kind. For some communities, unkindness is the thread, the main story, the continuity. To experience kindness has been a painfully aspirational hope, and “again” is a lie not just experienced as ad hoc deceit, but as one part of a complex mythology that prevents us from taking stock, doing justice, and showing true kindness. Dr. King spoke from a community with that very experience.
Second, Dr. King’s legacy of nonviolence and our own inclinations to avoid the discomfort of facing painful realities sometimes lead us to celebrate a saccharine kindness, one with little relationship to truth-telling, accountability, repentance, and repair. There is a sort of “kindness” that short-circuits truth and justice; it’s a fake kindness but it’s all too familiar. That kind of kindness is cheap, shallow, and short-lived, and it doesn’t honor the legacy of a man who, by building on the truth, pointed toward a lasting, deep, and costly reconciliation.
Third, it might be impossible to honor Dr. King’s legacy while rejecting his willingness to speak hard words. Making American kind “again,” may hide hard truths. But not only are most of us more comfortable listening to the false prophets who cry, “peace, peace” when there is no peace, but we are much more comfortable with being that false prophet, too. Yet if we claim to learn from Dr. King, we have to learn that the sweetness of God’s word is often paired with a bitter recognition that his people are so far from it. We must learn to eat the same bittersweet scroll that Dr. King did.
What do we need to learn in order to do that?
On most Martin Luther King Jr. Day holidays, I post a favorite quote, and I’ll do that still, below. But what strikes me this year, today, is continuity – continuity between Dr. King’s struggle and the three-hundred year history that preceded it, and continuity between Dr. King’s struggle and more recent events. We’ll always be a long way from making America kind if we can’t truthfully wrestle with continuities between the fresh wounds and old scars of injustice.
Sadly, there are almost an infinite number of ways to grapple with these continuities – with the ways they stretch before the founding of the country and the ways they continue to this day – but here are five links that come to mind for me today.
The first three bring four centuries of struggle and hope into perspective, centering our view the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.
Those four black girls blown up
in that Alabama church
remind me of five hundred
middle passage blacks,
in a net, under water
in Charleston harbor
so redcoats wouldn’t find them.
Can’t find what you can’t see
The next work sweeps through history.
(You can hear Tolson read parts of “Dark Symphony” between minutes 39 and 44 of this Library of Congress Recording.)
Then this lecture brings generational continuity into focus while calling us to urgent action.
Something about this quote – my long-time favorite –speaks to God’s complicated kindness:
There are times when we need to know that God is a God of justice. When evil forces rise to the throne and slumbering giants of injustice rise up in the earth, we need to know that there is a God of Justice who can cut them down like a green hay there and leave them withering like the grass. But there are times when as need to know that God is a God of love and mercy When we are staggered by th chill winds of adversity and the battering storms disappointment; when through our folly and sin we stray into some destructive far country and are frustrated because of a strange homesickness, we need to know that there is Someone who loves us, who understands, and who who can will give us another chance. When days grow dark and nights grow dreary we can be thankful that our God is not a one-sided incomplete God, but he combines in his nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which can lead us through life’s dark valley to sunlit pathways of hope and fulfillment.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart”