James Melvin Washington once wrote that Martin Luther King, Jr., was "America's most effective prophet." He was absolutely right. Among the most enduring legacies in all of American history is the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is no small accomplishment that a Baptist preacher stands among the pantheon of leaders who changed the trajectory of this great nation. His contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and to the cause of peace and justice around the world reverberate to this day. The lessons we can learn from him and countless under-recognized leaders, many of them women, like Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, and Fannie Lou Hamer, should be repeated to every generation. King emblematically stands in a broader prophetic tradition of love and justice that begs a fresh hearing. Indubitably, King was a part of a larger movement.
King and the movement must be heard again in the midst of a cacophony of voices who think that change can come through mean-spirited and harsh rhetoric that alienates and offends those we seek to convert to the causes of justice. To be clear, any attempts to domesticate King to a milquetoast preacher easily acquiescing to the status quo have not understood either his passion for justice or his prophetic impulse. His jeremiads against segregation, materialism, militarism, and systems that perpetuate poverty were a clarion call against the apathy of so many. Dr. King's relentless commitment to conscience and justice over and against personal and political expediency is not a religion of escapism but one of sustained engagement. Moreover, a fundamental part of his legacy are King's particular forms of engagement of peace and non-violence. Both the message and the method were transformational.
Ours is an age that needs to learn the lessons of tone anew. In an age of 24-hour news media and the irruption of social media, blogs, and anonymous posts, we suffer from the temptation of vitriolic speech. Too often, we have forgotten that a key part of social transformation and conversion is our methodology. The method and the message are inextricably linked. Dr. King, Gandhi, and countless others taught us that the way of non-violent passive resistance is essential to conversion. Regrettably, too many of us have reduced our public engagement to snarky comments suffused in demonizing rhetoric. We have lost the capacity to shape the moral conscience of the nation and transform the national mood and tenor. Too often we have succumbed to the grotesque art of political pandering rather than to conversion for justice. And yes, not everyone converts.
Righteous indignation is appropriate, and it's absolutely necessary when confronting the cancers of bigotry, hate, and violence. Still, an essential part of King's legacy was to teach all those who struggle for justice that love must be at the core of our engagement. Love does not ignore evil or sit on the side-lines. Love calls out injustice while trying to convert the conscience. Dr. King called us to continually resist, his is an ethic of resistance. Yet this resistance had a tone, a tone that would overcome evil with good, violence with peace, and forgive enemies while denouncing evil. Admittedly, this is no easy tension. I too need to be reminded of this.
The prophetic paradox of King's committed life is that it challenged us to move beyond "an eye for an eye." America's most effective prophet taught us that neither complicit silence nor hateful demagoguery could uproot the nation's most intractable maladies. King's intellectual rigor and systemic analysis were matched by his prodigious capacity for empathy. Our engagement must eschew superficial analysis that ignores the root causes of injustice. Superficial engagement is putting band-aids on serious infections. Simultaneously, careful analysis must be coupled with deep grace. King's was not a "cheap grace." King understood that if America and the world would live into the dream of a "beloved community" it must confess its ignominious legacy of bigotry. Grace always calls for repentance and a redress of injustices. However, grace also stays clears of the dehumanizing rhetoric that destroys the national psyche. Our nation's most effective prophet calls a new generation of justice-lovers to be so maladjusted with injustice that even our means denounce its very presence. Conscience and faith demand that we listen to this message and tone anew.