I had my concerns, when the holiday was first added to the civic calendar, that there would be unfortunate side effects. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I have to offer that I have seen it happen – people misunderstanding, and misquoting the Reverend Doctor King in a truly weird effort to make it seem as if his life’s struggle were about justifying the status quo.
At a CCUSD School Board meeting last year, towards the beginning of the pandemic, I heard one parent so utterly misunderstanding MLK, my jaw dropped. Proclaiming that MLK was talking about equality, that we should strive to live in an equal society – as an excuse for throwing equity out the window, and pretending that everyone starts off on a level playing field. To watch our Black administrators and board members listen politely to this was a moment to realize these faces had a lot of practice, putting up with this kind pretentious white-splaining. (Sure, go ahead, explain to ME what MLK was really talking about. I’m just a Black American with an advanced degree in Education.)
That’s just one local example. I hear it often, and it never fails to make me cringe. Equality does not mean color blind.
I don’t know how much of this can be credited to the gibbering contradictions being spewed constantly on the airwaves, but the bizarre and dissonant ‘day is night/work is freedom’ anthems coming from the every corner of the Murdoch machine can’t be helping.
The fact that King was a Christian pastor also puts me in mind of how utterly discordant most modern ‘Christian’ teachings are with the actual sermons and parables of Jesus.
It was the recent death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu that gave me a moment to pull focus on what the global struggle for justice means for America.
As clergy in the Episcopal Church, Tutu was also a man dedicated to the teachings of Jesus. In his work to end the apartheid laws in South Africa, he often quoted the New Testament. He was also utterly savvy about shining international light on South Africa, knowing that most South Africans did not even think there was a way out of the status quo.
It took decades, but the laws were changed. That South Africa has other problems is to be expected. A nation is not a framed painting, but a work continually in progress.
The “I have a dream” speech is the one that everyone gets in school. In American English, calling someone a dreamer is almost inevitably a term of contempt. It’s considered the opposite of being pragmatic. But King was pragmatic; so was Tutu. They both understood that their roles as religious leaders required them to campaign for justice in politics. They didn’t sell any “wait until you die and go to heaven” ideas. They urged people to make the world more like paradise.
Just as Jesus the subversive revolutionary has been painted over as Jesus the autocratic authority figure, it’s time to peel the paint off of the pastor, and remember who he was; and that he is not the only one.