This Martin Luther King, Jr., Day should unsettle us more than usual. It’s not because President Obama is celebrating his inauguration today. It’s because, almost fifty years since the composition of King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, his greatest epistle to the Church, we risk more than ever before being the people he accuses of being complacent. And we are complacent. King opens his letter as such:
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas.
He offers poignant, pointed words. And it’s not enough to remember him and say the awkward, “Happy MLK Day!” because it’s not happy. This is a sober, sobering day. If we rest on our laurels about racial equality and justice, then we are complicit. So, I am complicit.
And it makes it all the more difficult to write a post about racial injustice when, at least in my mind, I’ve done very little on a daily basis to combat injustice. The opportunities are mundane, but that’s the problem of evil: its triumph is its mundanity. And there is the anxiety that maybe I am being unjust when I don’t know that I am being unjust. That I find myself thinking about what needs to be done and a perceived order in which it should be done and that anything else is “unwise and untimely,” and that there are Systems™ already in place, established by the community, city, state, nation, whatever that will take care of the problem. I am part of the problem.
So, I find myself shamed by King’s epistle. But will I do about it, while he sits in that cell in Birmingham? I know what can be done. Will I do it? Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not a single day to remember. It’s a day to start us forward, push us forward for the rest of the year until the next time we encounter this holiday. What good is his dream, if we are not willing to act upon his jailhouse letter?
Addendum: It looks like I’m not the only one reflecting on this. Adam Kotsko cites King’s letter and finds others reflecting on the matter of liberal complacency.