Today will present many, many chances to read the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. There are already oh-so-many opportunities for the curious to study his work. There are many, many scholars and activists who will spend the day discussing the progress, or lack there of, on that work. And we’ll have it all throughout the year, spiking again about the 21st of next year.
I want to talk, instead, about order. I want to talk about justice. I ask you to think about peace.
I want to talk to my audience, which is largely white, about what is happening and what we can change. We’ve seen a lot of protests over the last few years, and I am seeing more planned. I bet there is a march planned near you for next Saturday, January 20th. Let me share with you a different perspective than what you might expect from a Unitarian Universalist ministry…
Recently (in the grand scheme) a group of Black activists ignored a judge’s injunction against any “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing”. They held what Time Magazine called a “Poorly Timed Protest”; a rally for Black lives and against perceived injustice and unfair treatment by law enforcement. The leaders were arrested by local police and held in jail for 11 days before making bond.
An interfaith group of clergy leaders, responding to protests and demonstrations and the arrest of these activists, released a public statement to the local press:
“We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Black citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
Now, I must confess that I have altered the above ever so slightly, substituting the word “Black” for the original, “Negro”. With that one change, the condemnation of Martin Luther King Jr., which inspired his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“, sounds almost exactly like the condemnation we hear today against #BlackLivesMatter:
“It doesn’t matter that they are ‘technically peaceful’ when they are so disruptive.”
Those in power, those with influence and systematic leverage, make almost identical statements today after every #BLM event. At best, they tell Black folks to abandon their culture and “be respectable”. And then there are the much more honest racists who admit that you can never pretend hard enough to become accepted as White. Insisting on conformity, even just in dress or language, is merely a deflection from the issues we need to address.
You see, commitment to Law and Order is what Dr. King called “negative peace” and defined as “the absence of tension”. He contrasted that with “positive peace which is the presence of justice”. He warned us against the idea that we can delay the timetable for the freedom of the oppressed or simply wait out injustice, as if it will die on its own. He admonished those who would agree in principle but object to any action which might gain any real attention to the cause. “Lukewarm acceptance”, he wrote, “is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
What I want my fellow White-identified people to think about today, while we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King is how we would react if his campaign were alive today. Then, I ask you to react in that idealized way to the work of Rev. William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign, the work of Alicia Garza and #BlackLivesMatter, and the work of our own leaders in the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. We have the choice to be on the side of justice and compassion, even if it costs us comfort and routine, or to follow in the footsteps of those Alabama Clergy demanding order and “common sense”. For me, it is an easy choice.