Last April my husband and I took our boys on a short trip to Atlanta. The primary purpose was a chance for my oldest son to visit Emory, but we added in two days of sightseeing. We toured (and tasted) the Coca-Cola factory, saw an Atlanta Hawks game, ate some amazing southern cooking, and walked everywhere. But we all agreed--- even my 12 year old—that the most incredible part of our visit was the time we spent at the Civil and Human Rights Museum. The museum offers the history of the freedom movement in the United States (told from Atlanta’s perspective) and an account of the human rights activism that these great civil rights pioneers have inspired throughout the world.
For me, the most moving exhibit within the museum was of Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968. As I stood looking at pictures of the balcony in Memphis where Dr. King was shot, I realized it was almost exactly fifty years to the day since his death. I wondered what he would make of American society’s racial and political landscape were he alive to see it. I’m certain he would feel there is still much work to do before true racial equality exists in this country.
In his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, a masterpiece of rhetorical writing addressed to church leaders, Dr. King rebukes the lukewarm response of white mainline churches to the cause of social justice and civil rights:
“You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist…But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice? -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? -- "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist? -- "Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God." Was not John Bunyan an extremist? -- "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience." Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? -- "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
As we remember and honor Dr. King’s legacy this weekend, his questions remain just as vital for us now as ever. Are we willing to be extremists for love? Are we willing to be extremists for the cause of justice? We have the good fortune to be able to consider, discuss, and pray about these questions together in a community of faith, as people who believe in a God of love and justice, and as children who live in the embrace of this God.
Yours in Faith,