Monday, January 17th marks the commemoration and celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the life he lived and the ideals he espoused. This annual federal holiday is held on the 3rd Monday of each January.
Being that Dr. King is a household name in the United States, we will not rehearse his life story in today’s post. However, we’d like to reflect on the push to fully realize his “Dream,” and the unwavering faith in Jesus that drove his commitment to the redemption of this nation’s soul. On each successive day since Dr. King’s death, we are obliged to consider the battles won and those yet to be fought on the battlefield of justice. Finally, at Damascus Way, we are inspired to bring the vision of Dr. King’s dream to the men we serve. Just as Dr. King dreamed that a day would come when Americans of every race, color and creed could pursue their own dreams with freedom from prejudice and the evils of racism, we at Damascus Way also hope to ensure that all of our residents also have the opportunities to thrive, to pursue their own dreams and to be free from bondage to sin and a justice system that often singles out individuals of color.
Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is much beloved in our country by Americans of all persuasions. It is considered a national and cultural treasure. A liturgy that is rehearsed each year as a reminder of the progress made and of the struggles that birthed the landmark changes of the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King exhorted all of America to be just that; a nation for all its people. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. waded through the evils and terrors of the Jim Crow era in order to challenge and unmask the stains of racism and segregation. As a figurehead in the charge for Civil Rights, Dr. King was brave and resolved enough to “confront the nation with its failure to honor its promise of equal liberty for all,” and the deprivation of God-given rights and liberties for African-Americans (1).
Today, partisan appropriation of the entirety of MLK’s entire moral, political and theological vision has led to the neglect of some of his more prophetic and exhortative words, such as those found in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which challenged American clergy to confront the ugly realities of racism in the church and in the country. Selective readings of Dr. King minimize his thoroughgoing critiques of economic disparities and various forms of racial injustice embedded deeply in many American institutions. Towards the end of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke increasingly about the entrenched roots of racism in our history and in our systems and the urgent need to mend such tremendous inequalities in order to fully remove the chains of oppression in order to provide for the actualization of equality. In short, Dr. King’s vision for Civil Rights evolved to entail not just the acquisition of basic liberties and human dignity, but also to provide the tools and means for African-Americans to succeed. This meant that liberty and “equality of opportunity,” were necessary but preliminary starting points on the road to total and continued freedom.
Some extol Dr. King’s American idealism, his moral agency, and his emphasis on individual responsibility. Others prioritize his radical critiques of American materialism and imperialism and his socio-economic vision. Unfortunately, the nature of his nuanced and integrative philosophies, his humanism, and his prophetic exhortations have led partisans to conclude that the corpus of his ideology is incompatible with either their own conservatism or their progressivism. This results in selective readings of Dr. King which attempt to appropriate him for certain expressions of the American dream or certain interpretations of American exceptionalism. The reality is that Dr. King should be read dialectically as a “both/and.”
Furthermore, and most importantly, is the foundational structure that filled Dr. King with optimism, love, and conviction, and that was the model of Jesus Christ. Dr. King’s dream was one that confronted the ugly reality of the past with a profound hope for a future that looked different. It was a dream that saw the proper potential of the American ideals and yet remained entirely cognizant of its terrible failure to live up to its own creeds. It was a dream that persisted in love and hope and charity. A dream built upon the commitment to the dignity and equality of all human beings before God due to our nature as bearers of the divine image.
Thus, the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. was for the nation and the world to recall and to live as though we are all children of the same God. Dr. King’s hope was that as each individual and community recognizes the God-given dignity and worth of all others and treats them as such, everyone can then live up to their God-given potential and purpose in God. This mutuality alone promotes the authentic equality of status, opportunity and prosperity that God desires for all of his beloved children. This is our hope as well for the men of Damascus Way, that they would experience their full value, worth and potential, becoming more and more free from both brokenness within and injustice without, and being thus freed, are then able to bring this same gift of freedom to others.
– Josiah M. Callaghan