01/20/2015 10:10 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Quoting King


A host of activities filled the calendar on Martin Luther King Day. Community service projects, downtown parades, clergy breakfasts, and ecumenical worship services were all on the slate to honor Dr. King's legacy and celebrate the 86th anniversary of his birth.

Along with these established traditions, many of us participated in a relatively recent King Day practice: the posting of a commemorative quote on social media.

Dr. King left us a legacy of stirring prose, quotable long before the platforms of Facebook or Twitter. As a Christian preacher, I return to the canon of King's words again and again to spark my imagination or reinforce my point. The quotable lines are countless.

But as I searched for a quote suitable for this place and time -- King Day 2015 -- somewhere amidst the "arc of the moral universe" the "network of mutuality" and the "red hills of Georgia," I realized that in the echo of Dr. King's words I have stopped listening to him. Really listening.

In quoting Dr. King, sometimes I am proof-texting King, selectively highlighting the portions of his preaching and writings that reinforce my points and assure my own thinking. Sometimes when I highlight his words I am merely commemorating him, celebrating his historic work but neutralizing its power to provoke and disturb me here and now. At other times when I quote Dr. King I'm even co-opting his words, claiming for myself a prophetic tradition I have not embodied in all of its fullness.

I too easily forget the parts of his legacy that left him labeled a communist, a nuisance, an enemy or a threat. Some of his now quotable words provoked the sytematic hounding of the FBI. Others welled up with righteous anger that disturbed the status quo. Along with a dream of racial equality, he opposed war in Vietnam, denounced class inequality in America, and cried out against poverty among our nation's children. His life ended not merely in a vision of harmony and hand-holding, but after speaking at a strike for garbage workers and railing against poverty and economic injustice, all with unfinished plans for a wide scale Poor People's Campaign.

Am I ready to link my life to the full canon of King and not merely the most quotable parts?

Before I quote Dr. King again, I'm reminded that his greatest challenge appeared to come not from the extremists who threatened him, but from the patient people who did nothing. More specifically, it was "the white moderate," whom he addressed in his 1963 "Letter from the Birmingham Jail":

    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." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. (16 April 1963)

I want to claim Dr. King's prophetic tradition -- place my hands on his Bible, set a wreath at his grave, or stand at his monument in awe. But as it turns out, I am not merely -- or mostly -- an heir to King's words and work, but also to a tradition that at its best viewed him with "shallow understanding" and "lukewarm acceptance" and at its worst sought to oppose and silence him. If the Birmingham letter is any indication, King's greatest frustration was with the clergy among this population:

    In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern."

This King Day, as I read quotes and wrestled with our present reality -- replete with its own disparity, conflict and injustice -- I visited Dr. King's words once again and tried to remember that all these years later I am still the audience and not the author.