Reflections on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is out of an awareness of my privilege that I say until the last few years, I didn’t know things were this bad. I didn’t know that black women make 63 cents for every dollar a man makes. I didn’t know that such egregious crimes were being committed against people of color who are pulled over for questionable traffic violations, and that the justice system could fail them this much. I didn’t know that loans are still being denied to people of color with plenty of credentials. I could go on and on through a seemingly endless list of injustices and inequalities. I have benefitted from the systems in place that offer me opportunities, freedom, and trust while robbing others of those very things. I didn’t know this is the reality for so many fellow Americans, but that isn’t an excuse. I am paying attention now. I repent. I am rethinking.
I am not the person who should be holding the microphone on this subject. I am here to listen and learn and move my feet to follow those who are leading in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr towards equality, justice, and actual peace.
I will merely offer one thought at the intersection of my rewoven faith and civil rights.
Peacekeeping and peacemaking are not the same thing.
I’ve been pretty good at peacekeeping. Peacekeeping is the practice of keeping everybody calm, orderly, and in the closest thing we can find to right relationship. Peacekeeping is trying not to rock the boat. Peacekeeping often maintains the status quo. Peacekeeping is saying, “You don’t have to be best friends with them, but you do have to be nice to them.” There is a place for peacekeeping. But it shouldn’t be confused with peacemaking.
Peacemaking, the same thing that Jesus mentions at his Sermon on the Mount when he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God”, is different.
Peacemaking is working to create actual, lasting harmony for all people, every child of God. Peacemaking is working to bring about God’s Shalom, the true unity characteristic of the Kingdom of God.
As author Osheta Moore writes, “Shalom happens when we take up our cross and follow Jesus. Shalom happens when we crucify our love for our rights and listen to the ones who are hurt by our misuse of those ‘rights’. Shalom happens when we take Paul’s words in Galatians to heart and authentically attempt to fulfill the law of Christ by, ‘carry (ing) each other's burdens.’”
Peacemaking isn’t a bandaid or quick fix. Peacemaking isn’t quiet. Peacemaking marches. Peacemaking kneels. Peacemaking gets in the way of comfort when that comfort has done years of harm to God’s children.
To quote a West African proverb, peacemaking says, “When you pray, move your feet.”
Peacemaking involves repentance, sacrifice, critical thinking about uncomfortable truths, humility, compassion, and a faithful pursuit of Christ into the work of reconciliation, equality, and unity, which are markers of God’s Kingdom.
Confronting sin doesn’t only mean looking inward at our own actions and mistakes. Sin is not only individual but is undeniably corporate as well. Confronting sin also means looking outward to our society, economy, and policies and seeing where the systems of this world have benefitted some while crippling others.
The work of unraveling layers and layers of societal, systemic sin in order to bring about God’s Shalom here on earth now is the work of Christians, as demonstrated by minister, activist, spokesman, and leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Bringing our society to one of justice is our mission because it is an essential characteristic of the Kingdom of God.
In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which was addressed to white Christian pastors, Martin Luther King, Jr. writes the following:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
Here he talks about the significant difference between negative peace (peacekeeping) and positive peace (peacemaking), and he says it about people like me, who have the privilege to have lived without being forced to confront these inequalities and injustices for years. And he says it to anyone who sees steps towards peacemaking as disruptions of their own peace. He teaches us the truth of the matter: that we do not have actual peace, God’s Shalom, when that same peace is denied to innocent people because of the color of their skin.
This week, in honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., I read A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by a black woman to be performed on Broadway. I was struck by a passage spoken by the matriarch of the family, Lena, to her daughter:
“Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most; when they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so. When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”
Our country’s history has forced people of color to traverse hills and valleys that many of us cannot even fathom having to face. In measuring these things right, we ought to be led to certain rallying cries that ache for supporting evidence in our society: black experiences matter, black history matters, black work matters, black art matters, black freedom matters, and black lives matter. Our work as American Christians is to ensure that our country reflects this truth.
To close, I’ll offer a prayer:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. May we listen to them, learn from them, follow them, and be them. And when we pray for our brothers and sisters who have suffered at the hands of oppression, may we also take up our cross and follow our Savior. May we love our neighbor more than we love our power. May we offer our arms to carry each other’s burdens. When we pray, may we do more than pray. May we move our feet. Amen.