By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
The weekend ahead is extended for many with the national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. who laid down his life for civil rights, racial equality and human dignity for all people. In less than three months the nation marks the 50th anniversary of his assassination on April 4, 1968, and in our nation’s evolution his prophetic voice and witness to liberty and justice for all still confronts our collective and individual consciences.
On December 9, 2017 we in Mississippi captured the nation’s attention with the opening of the Civil Rights Museum whose mission is to document, exhibit the history of, and educate the public about the American Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi between 1945 and 1970. At the national level the newest Smithsonian museum opened September 24, 2016, near the Washington Monument, and has welcomed more than 1 million visitors to date. It is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history, and culture. It seeks to understand American history through the lens of the African American experience.
Martin Luther King Jr. uniquely embodies the Civil Rights movement as a disciple of Jesus Christ, a prophetic voice, a martyr and a witness to the insatiable hunger in the human spirit for truth, liberty and justice. The words spoken by God to the prophet Isaiah were seared in the soul of Martin Luther King. “I, the Lord, have called you for the victory of justice. I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you and set you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” (Isaiah 42, 1ff)
We can see this prophetic wisdom and the strength that can only come from God in MLK’s capacity to be long suffering and in his philosophy of non-violent resistance in the face of injustice. In 1960 he reflected upon his experience of suffering for the Christian Century publication. “I have known very few quiet days in the past few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. So in a real sense I have been battered by the storms of persecution.”
He seldom spoke to his own struggles because he did not have a martyr’s complex, and the world knew of them anyway, but he understood the reality of the Suffering Servant in the face of injustice. “There are some who still find the Cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. So like the Apostle Paul, I can humbly and proudly say that ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ More than ever I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.”
Martin Luther King Jr was committed to nonviolence and racial justice as he discovered in the experience of Mahatma Gandhi in the modern era, and through his personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He knew that the walls of segregation, racial inequality and racism had to be smashed by the battering ram of justice, but it had to be accomplished nonviolently.
Not everyone agreed with him then, and not everyone agrees with him now, but time reveals where wisdom and truth dwell. As we reflect upon our nation’s unrelenting struggles over our racial divide MLK’s philosophy of nonviolence can renew are vision and commitment for the common good. “First, nonviolence is not a method for cowards; it does resist. It is non-aggressive physically, but it is dynamically aggressive spiritually. Nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The goal is redemption and reconciliation.
“The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness. It is directed against the forces of evil rather than at those persons who are caught in the web of evil. We are out to defeat injustice and not those who are unjust. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut the chain of hate. We love, not because we like everyone, but because God loves them.
“Finally, the method of nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. There is something at the very center of our Christian faith that reminds us that Good Friday may reign for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the Easter drums.” In this profound philosophy, raised up by his life, Martin Luther King ends with this prayer and dream. “God grant that we wage the struggle with discipline and dignity. Through using this method wisely and courageously we will emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright daybreak of freedom and justice.” (Christian Century 1957) The struggle to overcome the systemic intractable racial divide that continues to afflict our nation’s well being must continue. We have a long way to go on the road to economic and educational opportunity, toward universal health care and prison reform.
As the walls of racism and discrimination are smashed, the bridges toward opportunity and hope must be built and traversed. As we commemorate the national holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may we recommit ourselves to the principles nonviolence and an insatiable hunger for greater justice and peace in our nation. In his vision and dream societal transformation and personal responsibility will embrace so that the blessings of liberty and justice will be a dream realized for all.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz