This past week would have been the 90th Birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The civil rights icon has left an indelible mark long after his assassination at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. Each year, people rush to social media to post quotes, reflections, and portions of his legendary speeches to represent a small part of his legacy. While there are dozens of quotes that would be an appropriate reflection for the current work we are involved in, our organization has chosen to focus on this particular quote from Dr. King’s memorable “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
“Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
This quote leaps off the pages of this letter not just because of it’s beautiful contrast, but primarily because of the audience he was addressing. When presented with opposition from clergymen who represented “A Call for Unity”, King gave a comprehensive case for nonviolence and justice in his present moment from Scripture, philosophy, sociology, and theology. He challenged the men who opposed him to live up to the ideals they claimed to represent, subsequently challenging all of us who read this text many years later. It is fearful to think that the church was found to have “shallow understanding” in a time that demanded moral clarity. This is the haunting reality of Dr. King’s absence on a day like today: he was killed.
While it is often used as an opportunity to enjoy a day away from work or a time to relax with family and friends, Dr. King’s posture for justice were so incendiary, so threatening to the establishment, that he was murdered before his 40th birthday. His example was so inconvenient that he was opposed by the very Christian leaders who should have enthusiastically supported his cause. We should be careful to remember that justice will require us to be unpopular. It will often lead us to upset those around us, not because we desire separation; but rather, because we must consider those who will be further attacked and marginalized as a result of our inaction. What should our posture be today in light of the viral presence of injustice locally and globally? How should we respond to those around us who are attacked and maligned in plain view?
We must not hesitate and unwittingly fulfill King’s admonishing of “shallow understanding”. We must not remain lukewarm in our acceptance of the truth, justice, and all it demands. We must embrace justice fully, with arms open, in spite of its complexity and refuse to let it go. This is the posture of a true person of goodwill. This is a posture that honors and respects the life and example of Dr. King.