“Your poet Thoreau used to talk about 'improved means to an unimproved end.' How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So, America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.”
– Martin L. King, Jr.
Had Dr. King lived, he would have turned 92 this year, and honesty forces us to concede that he would have had any number of things to cheer.
But when one peruses the entire body of what he believed to be his life's mission, it is safe to assume he would not be pleased that we remain a nation in racial and social transition.
The quote above is from a sermon he delivered on Nov. 4, 1956 – five days before I was born – and yet the issues he raises are areas where our nation continues to be torn.
In April, we will mark 54 years since his assassination, yet in some ways we are experiencing an even greater sense of aggravation. We still wrestle with race because we still fear one another's face; we still struggle with the poor because we believe most lack the desire to walk through opportunity's door; we still find it difficult to treat everyone with dignity because it requires more than lip service to diversity; and, it's certainly hard to treat someone as your peer when you're firmly convinced that their lifestyle is morally queer.
We are far from becoming his “beloved community.”
As an active adherent of Dr. King's philosophy for nearly 50 years now, I've learned that his words are far easier to quote than they are to promote. Everyone will testify to being moved by his dream, but few have had the courage to see that his principles are adopted in the mainstream.
Americans live lives that are compartmentalized, and as a consequence find it difficult to recognize when their actions leave others traumatized. We enjoy our Sunday singing of “Amazing Grace” but fail to see the contradiction when we shun people in our Monday workplace. Our hearts are filled with pride when we see the flag of red, white and blue; but we find it difficult to accept those of a different sexual orientation as equal members in the American crew. We love referring to ourselves as the land of opportunity, while ignoring that many of our urban schools are languishing in obscurity.
No, when our community becomes genuinely beloved, none of our citizens will feel shoved.
Dr. King was naïve enough to believe that equal preparation should lead to equal-presentation, and ultimately provide a measure of equal preservation. That once our nation became authentically one, there would be no battle that could not be won.
So, to reach victory row we must reject the status quo and embrace the reality that none of us are free until all of us are free. We must view every vestige of inequality as a liability that has the potential to threaten our social and economic viability. And yes, states like Indiana have to work harder to reverse the curse of being historically hostile to communities becoming more diverse. If we dare to still market ourselves as the nation's “crossroads,” then we must make certain we have dropped our racial and social loads.
Dr. King once cautioned us that “a measure of progress must never be equated with success.” Any experienced traveler will tell you that the journey is never measured by the distance one has gone but by the distance one has yet to go. There are still many miles between our wilderness and Dr. King's “promised land,” but that's only because the silent majority has refused to take a principled and persistent stand.
We can win, but we must all be in. We can win, but we've got to get over skin. We can win, but we've got to learn to greet one another with a loving rather than a sarcastic grin. We can win, but we've got to start looking in the mirror instead of judging whether someone else's lifestyle qualifies as sin.
We can win, but we've got to let the spirit of love and compassion completely in!
The Rev. Bill McGill is senior pastor at Imani Baptist Temple.