Just about one year ago, I read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time. Just about one year ago, my heart was stirred and troubled. Just about one year ago, I began to understand that being an extremist can be a great thing. Just about one year ago, I wept because I realized that I was not living out Dr. King's dream because I was still in bondage to fear. Just about one year ago I began to dream of what it meant to be a creative extremist for love.
I had recently started attending a multi-cultural, multi-racial church. I enjoyed how different and how alive the people there were. But I still had not opened my heart to close relationships with people of varying backgrounds. Most of the people I interacted with and counted among my best friends were well-educated middle class whites. It wasn't that I didn't like blacks, Asians, or Hispanics. It wasn't that I didn't weep over the plight of the impoverished Hispanic children, the starving Asian children, or the infected African children; it was that getting to know the heart of someone far different than me meant being creative and taking a risk. And I was terrified to step into the unknown.
But as afraid as I was of leaving my comfortable white culture, I was even more afraid to waste my life. My safe life wasn't satisfying. And so I took one terrifying step after another to follow God, and my present reality began to be transformed. Instead of reading books about impoverished Hispanic children, I traveled to the garbage dump villages of Mexico City to bring hope to Hispanic children. Instead of smiling and walking past Korean students, I became their tutor. And one Korean student became my best friend while another became my sister. I stopped simply admiring my black music pastor's British accent from afar and walked close enough to feel the warmth of his handshake and see the beauty of his faith. God would not allow me to forget the penetrating truth that I had read in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. And as I began to experience the immense joy that came from radical racial relationships, I saw how pitifully lacking mere scholarly appreciation was.
The vast majority of modern Americans would concur with the appeal of Dr. King. As we read his speeches, letters, and biographies in English class, we may nod our heads in agreement and leave invigorated believing that King's dream has become a reality. We smile as we look at the calendar and see that we have the third Monday in January off work to honor the life of Dr. King. But yet, our universities, our churches, our social networks, and our families, remain segregated.
Will it be enough if at the end of ours lives we stand before God and tell Him that we promoted equality because we never threw a brick through a black family's window? Will it be enough if at the end of our lives we can say only that lynching mobs become something of the past? Will it be enough if at the end of our lives we can declare only that we shared a pew every Sunday morning with a biracial woman whose name we can't even recall? Will it be enough to stand before God and tell Him we wrote out a check every year to feed the starving children of Mexico? Will it be enough if we have merely tolerated the Korean students who pass us in the hallways every day?
Equality has become our status quo. And we have allowed fear to keep us from being extremists for love. We are afraid because have seen that being a radical mover in a culture of comfort make the core of nations quiver. We are scared of the stares and whispers of our segregated social networks. Brotherhood is a threat to the American dream. We have become so consumed with comfort that we have failed to take a stand on anything. We have failed to be extremists. Our passionate hatred has worn off, but it has been replaced by something as equally horrible. A fearful apathy and the dread of moving against the crowd.
But Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not allow the opinions of masses or the threats of the powerful to keep him from pursuing equality for all men. Threats did not intimidate him. Death did not scare him. And people did not control him. He lived a radical life full of purpose and passion. And it shook a nation.
But we must not be fooled. King's life was not without difficulty. His success did not come free of failure. The esteemed Dr. King. spent time in a jail cell. He was rejected by most people in power, both political and religious. He was shot and assassinated at only 39 years of age.
So, we cannot say we want to honor the life of Dr. King. if we are not willing to experience rejection, failure, physical abuse, and even death for the cause of love. We cannot say we want to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. if we will not walk across our auditoriums, our streets, our nations, and our world to become brothers with those are different than us. If we refuse, we must stop teaching about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in our classrooms; we must cross off his holiday from our calendars; and we may as well return to the days of segregation.
And if we are to truly honor the life and work and passion of Dr. King then we must work just as passionately, just as boldly as he did to make the dream of brotherhood become a reality. We must not be satisfied with his work; we must undertake our own work. We must not be satisfied with his dream; we must create our own. We cannot be satisfied with intellectual assent to the message that motivated Dr. King. We must move beyond mental agreement to practical application. We must build upon the solid foundation of equality to forge a brotherhood.
Just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, I too have a dream. But my dream is for more than the present equality, my dream is a dream of brotherhood. I see brotherhood in the white woman who stops to give a ride to black woman limping along alone in the dead of winter. I see brotherhood when a class of Americans pick a Korean student as their class officer. I see brotherhood as a little brother from South America bursts into the room gleefully calling for his big sister from Germany. I see brotherhood in a white family who not only adopted a baby girl from Africa, but proceeded to start a church that looked like their family. I see brotherhood in the white husband and Asian wife who move to South America to start a medical clinic for the impoverished. I see brotherhood in the American young man who doesn't just help others learn English, but who befriends Korean students and endeavors to learn their language. I see brotherhood in the church that doesn't just invite minorities to become members, but chooses them as leaders.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said this in his Letter from Birmingham Jail more than 45 years ago, "More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood."
Now is the time for us to take the terrifying step towards brotherhood. Now is the time for us to move beyond national equality. Now is the time for blacks and whites, Asians and Hispanics to become family.
Written by: Lauren Joy Eichelberger (January 2011)