Thirty-five years ago Martin Luther King, Jr., died. But he lives on in the ghostly black and white newsreels of the civil rights era. We see him giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, or arm-in-arm marching down some city street. The soundtrack of those images is invariably Martin's voice-the slow but urgent cadences of the poet of racial equality.
Recall one of those street scenes-a group of marchers-blacks and whites-arm in armproudly moving forward. A line of police or hecklers surrounding themlining the street-producing their own counter-surge, shields fixed, wielding batons, fire hoses blasting people off their feet. The marchers regain their feet, continue on: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."
As time passes, one of the things we have to deal with is our increasing distance from those events and Martin's presence with us. His presence and the events are replaced by images of him and those times. The images that we increasingly rely on are not only literal black and white images, but they are also symbolic images. What about him and his teachings will we keep, and what will we relinquish?
We've been watching some newsreels of the civil rights era. Let's change the channel for a minute. Another channel is showing an old B-grade Western from the same era. It's the good guys against the bad guys.
Recall a scene with me. The bank's just been robbed, and they took ol' Betsy hostage. We've got to fight back. "Wanted: Dead or Alive." Round up a posse-put John Wayne in charge. We're gonna hunt 'em down and make 'em pay. Who's got the rifles? And off they charge on their horses.
How deeply this story has impressed itself on our memories. It's been told over and over again. We don't need a Cowboy History Month to remind us. We can't get it out of our minds, even if we want to. And it's not only history for us. We play it out every chance we get-stamping it more deeply into the minds of the next generations-of those who hope to take the dream by storm. The leader of the posse is now George W. Bush. But we are in the posse too. As Martin said in one of his sermons: "The eye-for-an-eye philosophy, the impulse to defend oneself when attacked, has always been held as the highest measure of American manhood. We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. "
What are we to make of this legacy? Is it the legacy that makes America great? Isn't our great nation called to stamp out evil in the world-to make the world safe for people of good will?
Let's change the channel once more. It's night-a mob scene. The angry crowd includes soldiers and police as well as townspeople-carrying lanterns and torches, many have weapons. The crowd closes in on a small group of men huddled together-one from the small group steps forward. The crowd shrinks back, but then surges forward again. Where's the posse when you need them? Who will protect this group? A scuffle breaks out-another from the small group has pulled out a sword and struck at the mob. He draws blood. But then we hear a powerful voice: "Peter, put away your sword!" Ah, it's Jesus.
But can we accept his words? "Put away your sword!" The words are shocking. They carry us back to other scenes in Jesus' life-on a sunny mountainside, with a peaceful crowd gathered round: "Bless those who persecute you; bless them and do not curse them. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Hard, shocking words. Familiar, but hard. "Put away your sword." We get up and turn off the TV-there's nothing on tonight we really want to watch.
Martin left us two gifts. The gift of a dream. And the gift of a way to that dream.
Most everyone has accepted the first gift-Martin's dream of a land of racial equality, the peaceable kingdom. All schools celebrate it, and politicians fall all over one another to be the first and loudest to praise it. It wasn't always that way-but it is now.
The second gift is still waiting to be received. That is the part of Martin's image that is still in question. For Martin was not only a poet of racial equality-he was a prophet of pacifism. Not of passivism, but of pacifism: non-violent resistance, the acceptance of suffering. That is a harder gift to receive. "Put away your sword."
The difficulty of accepting Martin's second gift-the way of suffering and non-violence-comes from living it, rather than just witnessing it or talking about it. Are we able and ready to live the second gift-to put away the sword, when that means suffering ourselves-unavenged? That is the only way it can really be accepted. As Martin said, in a sermon: "We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity."
I fear that Martin's legacy will be-is being-whitewashed. The part we can't accept-the second gift-will eventually be forgotten. Or worse, it will be put on a pedestal but then ignored.
This was its fate in Washington, D.C., last year, in which President Bush, in a ceremony with the King family at the White House on King Day, could honor King's memory, recalling that Martin "refused to answer hatred with hatred, or meet violence with violence," yet in other speeches within days of that one, promise to hunt down our enemies and make them pay. And this is its fate if we celebrate Martin Luther King Day in our families, and then tell our children to fight back if they are bullied.
It is so hard to stay away from that Western we were watching. As Martin said, once, in a sermon: "Violence often brings about momentary results. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problems; it merely creates new and more complicated ones." If only we could have heard that before the Gulf War. What seeds are we sowing now, only to be harvested twelve months or twelve years from now? We don't know. And we won't know until it is too late to go back.
Can we afford not to live Martin's second gift? It goes so strongly against the grain. Yet that is precisely where its mysterious and miraculous effectiveness resides. No psychologist can explain it. No psychiatrist will prescribe it. No military strategist will recommend it. But it is the way, and likely the only way, to the reconciled world that all people who celebrate King's birthday seek.
James C. Klagge
member, Asbury United Methodist Church