Today I find myself wondering if Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. ever desired a simpler, more naive, Christianity. I wonder if he ever daydreamed of a life on the sidelines, one where he could safely wish for progress and attempt to pray away the evils of the world. I wonder what the Civil Rights movement would have looked like if King focused on heavenly, personal salvation instead of practically loving his enemies and risking his life to give a voice to the voiceless. What would our world look if King had preached justice, but stayed snug inside of his church, simply inviting others to come inside of those walls and be cured of all worldly evils?
How hard did King have to suppress the urge to fight fire with fire? Did he ever come close to abandoning his views of peacefulness and love in the face of such sickening hate and violence? I wonder if he ever dreamt of cold, mean retaliation.
How did he refuse the seductive pull of a Christianity that encouraged secure, clean, exclusive piety over dangerous, dirty, inclusive justice? How did he look into the very face of fear and hatred and say, “We will not be kicked down forever but we also will not kick you as we rise. We will stand, and we will love you”?
What did he really want to say to all of those Christians who claimed that people with black skin were created with the animals, and did not come from Adam and Eve as white people had? Did he want to scream at those who insisted that God is white? What about those Christians who desired to save the souls of black people as long as they stayed in separate schools, restaurants and social structures? Did King ever desire to punch those religious people square in the mouth? Or perhaps he felt the urge to just give up in the face of such ridiculous, fear-filled, destructive beliefs.
I stand in awe of this man, who, after being thrown in prison, after watching his sisters and brothers being dragged through the mud and set on fire, after being called sub-human, and after being denied the basic respect deserved by every human being, still possessed the courage, the strength, the compassion and the faith to stand up and demand respect in the most loving, respectful, grace-filled way imaginable.
I don’t think I can do that. In response to the fear-mongers that often dominate mainstream Christianity, I want to fist-fight, I want to scream obscenities, I want to make immature comments on Facebook and I most certainly DO NOT want to accept these people as children of God. I want to prove my superior theology with witty comments and I want to belittle them with statements of shame. I want to fight fire with fire. Or, when I’m feeling tired and hopeless and powerless, I want to give up. I want to forget about the millions of my sisters and brothers who are driven into the ground by systems that are perpetuated by power, greed and status. Systems that are political and very often religious. I want to take the easy road, I want to conform, I want to say “God bless this system that rewards me for being born into Protestant white America!” I want to pray for my own salvation, be as moral as possible, and spend my days resting in the lovely assurance of eternity. I want to chase my own vocational dreams of accumulation, success and stability, giving a little money and one Saturday every three months to my charity of choice. Perhaps if I put on a shiny cloak of piety and convince others to do the same, the world will become a better place.
I want to fight with malicious intent, or give in to a conformity that I know is easy, but is opposite to the truth spelled out by Jesus. Did Reverend King stand in this same place, seduced by two opposite yet well-travelled roads? Did he waver, or cry, or shout to God with the heaviest of laments?
Whatever the case, he got it right. He managed tough-mindedness with soft-heartedness. He was a transformed non-conformist. He succeeded in displaying a Christianity founded in love, while the country around him displayed one founded in fear. He held on to the hope that creation would be mended, and he set his life in action, following that vision.
It is my prayer, my hope, my dream, that I, too, can possess the strength to love.