As I sit down to write this month’s Bill’s Corner, we are in the midst of another long holiday weekend celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King’s work and writings have had a formative
effect on both me personally and our work at Metanoia. He is certainly one of the giants on whose shoulders we ride as we do our work. This month, as a way to honor his legacy and talk a bit about our work, I thought I might lift up three of the most significant ways that King has influenced us.
The first has to do with how we do our work. It has often been mentioned that Dr. King had options as he completed his PhD at Boston University. He had found new freedom in moving out of the American South to pursue his education. His intelligence and academic success was well understood, and there were options available to him to remain in the Northeast and pursue an essentially academic career. King would have been good at this. He was a brilliant man, capable of the kinds of nuanced arguments that would win praise in academic circles. Much of his thought may well have survived, but he would not have become the leader of a movement.
Instead, King took the pastorate of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In doing so, he moved into the heart of the cancer of racism that was going untreated in our society. In time, this move would present him with threats to himself and his family. I have often thought that what defines us most in life is not so much that to which we aspire, but that for which we are willing to sacrifice. King was willing to make personal sacrifice for the cause of a more just society.
The longer I do this work, the more I think that a willingness for personal sacrifice is not incidental but essential to effective social change. I see people around me making sacrifices each day to help our movement along. Despite considerable capabilities, our staff make less in our work than they would elsewhere. Many of our staff and board live in communities that others have written off. They deal with the troubles of our neighborhood first hand, not just through reading about them in a newspaper article or a data report. Though these sacrifices are not as severe as those King endured (thankfully, no one has been stabbed or had their home bombed at Metanoia), they do point to a core value that we share with the Civil Rights leader. We must put in personal sacrifice if our society is to become a better place. In a world dominated by an incessant amount of rhetoric around what changes our society needs, we see precious little willingness to sacrifice from many of those same voices. I wonder if that is why change comes so slow.
Next up – I have an internal test I ask myself from time to time that I call “the Riverside Moment” test. It is a direct reference to King’s life. Even as the Civil Rights movement began making real progress, the United States began the escalation and ramp up to the war in Vietnam. King was asked to speak at a rally for peace at the Riverside Church in New York City. Some of his advisors advised against his speaking out on the war because they thought that it would anger the war’s chief proponent, President Lyndon Johnson. President Johnson had been a friend to the cause of domestic civil rights, the logic went, so why turn him into an enemy over this issue of the war in Vietnam?
Nevertheless King went to Riverside and spoke out against the war, naming a trifecta of deadly social sins we still have too much of in the United States: racism, militarism and materialism. In doing this, King, who certainly had a pragmatic side as well, was recognizing the essential linkage and unity between unjust social structures.
As Metanoia grows and becomes more established, as we build our own political capital and relationships with power brokers to get a few things done, I think often of King’s courage in speaking out about Vietnam. It is a reminder to me that while we don’t need to engage in commentary around every issue, there are some things we need to speak out about even if it might offend even those in power who have sometimes been helpful to us.
Some of you may remember a couple of years ago when our students led a march through the neighborhood to educate people on a new rail yard that is to be built adjacent to our neighborhood. In
the months following that walk I had several meetings with leaders in power who weren’t too pleased about the students speaking up about this issue (nor my support for them in doing so). I remember one conversation with a major player who was arguing that an educational program shouldn’t be concerned with such issues. That was a ‘Riverside Moment’ for me – if we don’t take care of the neighborhood as that railyard is built, much of the educational programming we might engage in can be undone by negative effects of industrial usage on the neighborhood.
We must work to maintain our essential freedom to speak out about what we feel is right, especially when silence will hurt our community in significant ways. Having said that, I am always mindful that those who confronted me in meetings subsequent to the students’ march are humans with their own sets of concerns. They are worthy of respect themselves even as we do what we need to do to speak up for the interests of those who often have no voice in our community. That brings us to the last, and maybe most important way that King influences our life at Metanoia.
One of King’s well-known themes is that of the Beloved Community. The Beloved Community was an aspirational idea that humankind would be capable of living together in harmony and peace one day. It is not so focused on laying out some utopian set of guidelines as establishing a vision of relationality between different people that is characterized by harmony as opposed to division. Sometimes immediate conflict and confrontation might be warranted on the journey to the Beloved Community, but these were never the end goal.
“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”
Metanoia is a non-profit organization, an education program, a housing program, a jobs effort, a community development effort and more. But for me, my most fundamental aspiration is to make our little movement an outpost for the Beloved Community. I believe that an asset-based approach to viewing other people and communities is essential to an experience of the Beloved Community. As long as one group thinks it has all the answers, or resources, or capabilities, they will be fundamentally unable to build sustainable relationships with those they view as less knowledgeable, capable, or resourceful. But if we all acknowledge that we need one another’s gifts, capabilities, and knowledge, then we can indeed build relationships that can be mutually liberating.
Most days we fall short of the Beloved Community at Metanoia, but then there are moments when it happens; when people from diverse backgrounds join together in celebration, or work, or grief
and the divisions fall away and deeper reconciliation takes place. These moments are the moments that sustain me through the inevitable discouragements of our work. They point to an alternative from the shrill voices of partisanship and nihilism that are so prevalent in our society today. They point everyone toward a future that is worth working and sacrificing for because it is so much better than what we have created for ourselves now.
I am glad we have a weekend to celebrate and think about the legacy and work of Martin Luther King in our country. But I think a higher compliment to that legacy is to work together to build a society that, each day, embodies what he taught. There is no greater compliment someone could give to me personally or to us at Metanoia than to say they see something of King’s vision in our work. I pray you find it to be so not only on this important weekend but all year long.