Today will be marked by a number of appropriate celebrations, memorials and reminders of Martin Luther King, Jr and his steps through history. He marched one step at a time from an outcast to a national hero, and this date stands as an important one for all Americans to unravel the complicated history of our nation’s slow march for equal rights. Slavery, segregation and ongoing racial division are a part of our country’s fabric, and King stands as a very bright light in the American story. His impact is more than most realized at the time, and his legacy surely has been used for good by many and perhaps ill by a few. But, it is his dear life that paid the ultimate price. A living, breathing man placed himself in harm’s way for the sake of all Americans to be better Americans. That is, a Baptist pastor became the nation’s conscience, and all Americans of all colors have been blessed by the life he lived.
His life and bravery helped not just African-Americans to live differently. King’s work helped all Americans to live a new life. I, for example, grew up in a very different South in the 70s and 80s than my parents or grandparents. They had lived in a segregated Texas, and my wife’s parents had grown up in segregated Florida. We ourselves never knew that reality, and for that I remain grateful far beyond what I can express, because King helped stir the conscience of a nation. Yes, we encountered racism in our days and still do, but the dismantling of segregation allowed me to live a different life than they ever thought possible.
My parents, in particular, who lived through such segregated times, hated racism and worked consistently night and day to teach me and my sisters of the evil of racism and segregation. It was hard for us to understand the segregated South, and it was even harder to understand our family’s own legacy of salve holding. On at least one part of my family tree, it was there. This painful reality left me with an uncomfortable question and answer, and it has helped me to see that sin and evil are a struggle for all people, everywhere at all times. Would I be a part of the problem or the solution?
My wife and I, therefore, take time each year to teach our children not only the life of this amazing and complicated man, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement but to also frame our own heritage’s woeful response to slavery and later to segregation. My ancestors may or may not have understood slavery or segregation as wrong, evil and unbiblical, but there seems to be little that moved them against the mindset of the times … until my parents. Of course, it is also quite likely that my parents were able to see then what many did not see before because Dr. King was willing to devote his life to being a part of the solution. That is, I have no doubt that Dr. King helped shape my parents’ consciences because he was willing to humble himself to the point of death. And, they in turn shaped me. And, I pray that I, in turn, will shape my children to shape their own.
If, however, all we pass on today is that bravery once occurred in the past, we miss the larger point. Bravery against evil is needed in all times and in all generations. Every generation blinds itself to blatant sin. While slavery and segregation have been repulsed and racial issues are improving in many ways, this world always replaces one idol with another. However, we do not place ourselves in a position to help anyone with their sin unless we first submit our own sin to God in Christ. We must, to echo our Lord, remove the plank from our own eyes to see clearly to help our brother with the speck in his own eyes. But, the removing of the plank, of looking at our own sin, is the painful step that most avoid. It will always be easier to spot others’ sins, but it is far more fruitful to find our own, repent and heed the Scriptures. Real bravery is to turn to Jesus and to commit to hearing and doing His voice. We must be ready to humble ourselves, turn from our own sin and then set our lives in Christ as vehicles for the rest of the world to do the same … one step at a time.