Today marks the annual federal recognition of the life, work, and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. For many Americans, this will be our only explicit nod to not just the man, but what many of us consider a positive face of race relations. It is hard not to be caught up in the vision and passion as King preaches his “I Have A Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial. He stirs the heart, mind, and soul as he speaks as a prophet, a prophet that will be shot dead five years later. We like this dream, we Americans. It makes us feel good. It is good to dream. It takes little effort.
Less remembered is King’s more uncomfortable words, his prophetic convictions of both Church and State. And the simple reason is that we don’t want to deal with embracing the unfamiliar. And to compensate for that we toss the truths down the Memory Hole.
On Meet the Press, he indicts our Sunday mornings at eleven o’clock as the most segregated hour in America.
Not much has changed in fifty years and what has changed has come slowly.
From a Birmingham prison cell, he takes clergy to task for saying that his actions are inappropriate and extreme:
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
Ferguson. Baltimore. New York City. Chicago. City after city. These are but the most visible places where racial injustice appear. The systems of injustice continue to function: gentrification, economic disparity, health care, voting rights, education and vocational opportunities, an unjust legal system with an incarceration industry, et cetera, et cetera.
And where is the Church? Not just the Church on the front lines and barricades among the flash points. Where is the church, the mainline and evangelical; rural, suburban, and urban congregations who read about atrocities and protests and tensions online and on the news? We have chosen to forget the more unsettling and challenging work and words of MLK that sought to dismantle these uncomfortable truths. We continue to rewrite our narratives for ourselves and for others about race in America.
1984‘s Memory Hole disposes of historical documents and inconvenient truths that do not fit within Big Brother’s current message for the people. It is a rewriting of history. And by only focusing on the “I Have A Dream” speech, we throw the majority of MLK’s legacy down the Memory Hole. And what we don’t, we tend to only take it off the shelf once a year.
An October 2015 WaPo article comparing Black Lives Matter to the Civil Rights Movement that states how much white people distrusted and disliked MLK in his day:
Most people, including Northerners, opposed King’s March on Washington, fearing that it was a call to uprising. A Gallup poll conducted in May 1963, the same month as the Children’s Crusade, found that 46 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of King. The only public figure more disliked in the poll was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. By 1966, more than two-thirds of Americans had an unfavorable view of the civil rights leader.
We have engaged in our own memory hole. MLK’s economic activism and anti-war criticism are still as valid today as sixty years ago. We don’t want to remember MLK for who he was and is. And I mean the Church doesn’t want to remember. Because we must remember our own legacy, our legacies of White Flight, of housing and voting and education and job discrimination all for the sake of the “safety” and “integrity” of our communities and our kind of America.
This is a hard sermon to preach. This is hard sermon to digest. But our churches remain segregated and our hearts remain segregated. The Jesus, a marginalized Jew in a hostile Empire, a radical who embraces the Syro-Phoenician woman and teaches about the Good Samaritan teaches us who our neighbor is. He speaks truth to power. And we parse our neighbor. Not the immigrant, not the refugee, not the poor, not the queer. Just neighbors like us. We drop Jesus into our ecclesiological memory hole, too. To remember and believe in a sanitized, white, gentrified Jesus cheapens our faith and cheapens the Church.
To acknowledge and embrace only the MLK that makes us feel better about ourselves is to ignore him and his God. If white people are to be the Church as so many claim to be, then we must receive the words of Jesus and King as they are to be received: unsettling, unsafe, and radical. We cannot be allies unless we first listen and not only act in solidarity, but be bold and open in our activism and faith. If Martin Luther King, Jr. Day matters and matters only for one day, then it means little. If this single day is the only day a single black life matters – and only matters as far as we choose it to be, then we continue to our ignorance, our injustice, and our sin against our neighbor. Our memory hole continues, then, to be our grave and our tomb from which there can be no resurrection.