Martin Luther King, Jr. and Me
Today is the day we honor one of the greatest moral heroes of the last century. MLK spoke eloquently against the obvious injustice of racism, but also for respect and freedom for everyone. His moral vision was spiritually-grounded without being parochial or offensive to other faiths, or to those of no formal faith. He fought persistently without offending his enemies, to the point that we could really believe that he truly loved them, as Jesus taught. He did all this in a climate of rancor, anger and hatred (from all sides), and obvious physical threat that ultimately cost him his life. In a deeply meaningful way, his life was a miracle and he certainly qualified for sainthood by my standards (but the Pope hasn’t asked for my advice on this).
On the day King was assassinated in 1968, I was a student in a parochial Lutheran college in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was in my dorm room when joyful whoops echoed in the hallway: “Martin Luther King has been shot!” Some of these midwestern white boys, future teachers and pastors, were just reflecting the widespread prejudice that King was a negro troublemaker. They hadn’t yet seen the connection between him and Jesus. I was a small town Canadian, who at age 19 had probably never met an African American other than the ladies who served in the college cafeteria. I had no reason to feel threatened by integration, and I vaguely identified with the “peace and love” youth culture of the late 60’s. So, King felt like one of the good guys, and I felt offended by these whooping yahoos who were rejoicing at his death. I quickly wrote a letter of protest, condemning them for their unchristian outburst, and circulated it as a petition on campus. After a few days, they apologized. So ended one of my occasional forays into the battle for good against evil.
Since 1968, I’ve had other moments when I stood up for the good guys, but long periods of negligence too. Here’s another anecdote from that same Spring. My girlfriend dragged me along on a weekend community assistance excursion into an inner city (i.e. largely African American) neighborhood in Detroit. She and her team mates worked diligently fixing and painting fences, while I stood watching, wondering why these people couldn’t fix their own properties. The answer is, of course, complicated; and I was probably more interested in running off and having a good time in the big city than in truly seeking answers to sociological dilemmas. Today I can see the incongruity between my defense of Dr. King and my unwillingness to help in the inner city. But incongruities like this have popped up throughout my life, as they do in many lives.
Many of us struggle with the paradox identified by Paul: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Whether or not we accept his generic explanation (“sin”), we are still left with the challenge of understanding and managing our own individual lives. That challenge presents itself in different ways to different people: for some it is a crisis of good vs evil; for others, a question of religious faith or life purpose; for others, a more specific question about career, or life partner. But, such questions can’t be ignored by anyone who is still truly alive. My own work as a coach, helping others work through these challenges, is one way I can do good. Drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like to learn more.
PS: We might be intimidated by the comparison with Martin Luther King, whose life was such a clear example of single-minded devotion to a noble cause. But it would be a perversion of our admiration for him to use it as an excuse to neglect the calls to more modest heroism that every one of us faces.