Toledo Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity Celebration
I just got back from the Toledo Martin Luther King Jr. Day unity celebration. I was delighted to see thousands of people celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Toledo once again. I’m not sure there were quite as many people as there has been in recent years’ MLK unity celebrations in Toledo. Nonetheless, it is nearly impossible to have an event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without being inspired in some way. I particularly enjoyed the keynote address by Hari Jones, Curator of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum. He spoke quite eloquently about the tension between empirical skepticism and metaphysical optimism in the creation of this nation and the American dream, which includes and is perhaps typified by Martin Luther King’s dream. I like the quote from Art Tatum, a native Toledoan and celebrated jazz artist, who said that in jazz often all that there is a “there is no such thing as a wrong note.” This elicits a great concept about unity. Dr. Jones spoke at some length about how everyone must play notes and in this apparent discordance harmony paradoxically can arise. I wonder at times though, given our cultural value of conflict avoidance, that we focus on and perhaps vainly hope for an authentic unity that is forged somehow without conflict. If there is anything that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, it surely would be something to do with dealing with conflict and authentic manner that is loving, respectful, and challenging — very challenging! While there is certainly merit in promoting community service, if we are truly to understand, appreciate, and embody the life and work of Martin Luther King, then we need to recognize and honor that his unique contribution to American society and the world was about successfully organizing masses of regular people to challenge and overthrow an unjust status quo. This is hard work. This is work that divides people as far apart as justice and injustice. Like Jesus was misunderstood in saying that he came to bring not peace but a sword, MLK is often misunderstood or idealized as some peacemaker who doesn’t understand the true nature of conflict and what it takes to bring justice in the world that can be cruel and apathetic to those suffering injustices. This misunderstanding often leads to acceptance, even if reluctant acceptance, of violence, as a necessary evil. The division that Jesus was referring to was not the division of flesh by a sword, but the division of people by those who would stand for justice and those who would let injustice stand. Pacifists like Dr. King and Jesus understand that there is no real way to get around conflict in life and its injustices, that we need to go through conflict. The trick is to go through that conflict with a humane measure of dignity and respect, a big dose of discipline, and an undying commitment to the fact that humanity and creation is one. This task is so large that it escapes mere human grasp and relies on grace from God, a power greater than ourselves, our family, our community, and even creation. Pacifism has historically been rooted in people with a deep relationship with the creator not simply the created, whether that be other people or the material world and all its bounty. In our modern or postmodern secular world many people may feel uncomfortable with the obvious, undeniable fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the reverend, was a deeply religious man. Because MLK was so successful at providing a model for dealing with practical and large-scale injustices in our society, he is accessible to many who would like to claim him as their own. Unfortunately, to not delve to understand the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a religious pacifist is perhaps the miss the main point of his life, and death. At this point, I will stop babbling on and asks simply read or listen to some of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s writings or speeches. Equipping ourselves with a greater depth of understanding of MLK is a good start to honoring and celebrating his legacy.