This coming Monday, Jan. 15, the people of this great nation will observe a federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the indefatigable civil rights leader who was slain nearly 44 years ago. He has now been dead longer than he lived. Yet his accomplishments in that brief life were extraordinary. At 33 he was pressing the case of civil rights across this great nation. At 34 he galvanized the American people with his “I have a dream” speech. At 35 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Then, at 39, he was assassinated, but the hope and inspiration which he inspired in the hearts of so many continue to fuel the fulfillment of his dream of racial equality, a dream which is still developing among us.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s commitment to social justice was not simply a consequence of his personal political convictions. It was an answer to a call that he, as a deeply religious man, heard from God and which enabled him to endure racism, persecution, rejection and ultimately death itself. When we look at the evil of racism, we wonder how it ever could have persisted so long. Jesus Christ, through the words of Sacred Scripture that are proclaimed at the celebration of the Eucharist each and every day, rekindles our compassion and revives our enthusiasm for the cause of human dignity and the civil rights of each and every man and woman, regardless of race or creed.
This holiday in honor of Dr. King is observed as Congress gets to work in Washington and our State Legislature prepares to deliberate in our state capital next month. Those whom we have elected have a lot of thinking to do and much work as well. Just like our representatives in Congress, we too have to face some hard questions: How did Dr. King find in Scripture, in the gospel, a foundation for understanding that as a citizen of this nation he had to say yes and to say no – that he had to struggle with what it means to be first of all baptized into Christ Jesus, and so to put everything, his world, his relationships, the demands upon his time, every single word he uttered under the scrutiny of Baptism and the gospel?
Dr. King spoke clearly and his deeds backed up his words. He was forthright in asserting that a Christian cannot cheer for everything the state does. Nor can a Christian be quiet in the face of everything the nation does. During the Vietnam War, with great anguish, Dr. King said: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today – my own government. For the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.” He spoke those words in 1967, the year before he himself was the victim of violence.
So often we don’t know what to say or do in the face of human tragedy. We stand numb in the face of many great evils which have persisted for so long. When some of us hear the cry of the poor we write checks to try and help them. We are generous but we hesitate to deal with the hard questions, why are the poor poor? Is the violence in today’s world tolerated because we somehow want to make sure things stay pretty much as they are? Why are so many of our sisters and brothers so hesitant to support immigration reform?
These questions need answers and no answers will be given unless people speak to one another, in sincerity and truth, about the demands of justice. Like Dr. King, we too have been called through our Baptism to make a difference in today’s world. We know that neither political slogans nor campaigns nor educational programs alone are adequate to promote the works of justice. It will be the grace of God at work in people like you and me, baptized believers who proclaim the gospel of non-violence by word and deed, day in and day out. It will be such grace that will restore sanity to our nation and the world and help us build a culture of life where violence of any kind will never again find a home.
Three weeks ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus with great joy. In retrospect, we see how his life of sacrificial love was the answer to the call of his Father to be a light to the nations so that salvation would reach the ends of the earth. Like Dr. King, we have all been called to continue that same life-giving mission of healing and forgiveness. Have we really heard the Lord’s call? As disciples of Jesus Christ, we pray that all believers will be more attuned to the call of Jesus so that God’s rule may be accomplished in this our land and at this our time. We honor Dr. King’s memory and we pray that his courageous example will move all of us, especially our young people, to be voices for justice, peace and civility, as was this great man whom we remember here this weekend. Yes, my friends, by the grace of God, “we shall overcome!”