At Work & Public Square

What the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Means for Flourishing in America

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The holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr leads me to reflect on many things, not all of which are the usual topics.

First, we see in Dr. King a person whose memory is often presented in a kind of secularized version. 

It would be no exaggeration to say this narrative presents Dr. King as one of the heroic crusaders for “truth, justice, and the American way,” with the civil rights movement in view as the specific focus.

This version of events neglects or omits that King never would have been involved in this struggle that cost him his life if he wasn’t “Reverend” Dr. Martin Luther King.

If he did not believe that God was with him, he would not have continued to pursue the cause of justice. His Christian commitment was central to his practice of a public faith.

Second, the complicated aspects of King’s life provide yet another opportunity to consider how to evaluate great causes led by flawed people.

Though some debate whether King had moral failures, it presents a conundrum many of us face: what do we do when our heroes are imperfect? How do we evaluate their public deeds?

One of the best things we can do when faced with such questions is to seize the opportunity to examine our own motives when evaluating public figures.

It is easy to condemn those who are not ‘on our team’ and use their failings as a reason to discredit their public actions, while simultaneously finding it easier to make a separation between the failures and grand projects of ‘our kind of people.’

A better path is to recognize that ever since Genesis 3 humans have come with a label that says ‘prone to breakage,’ and to recognize that even the best leaders (i.e. all those not named Jesus) have weaknesses, blind spots, and, in some cases, tremendous flaws in character.

While recognizing this truth, we can also look at what they have done in spite of their brokenness and do our best to evaluate their public actions on their merits.

Finally, this evaluation of the merits of the public actions of great/heroic figures can prompt us to take a look at our own hopes for society. 

In 1964, Dr. King gave a speech at Drew University entitled “The American Dream,” and it includes these words regarding the Declaration of Independence:

Now one of the first things we notice about this dream is an amazing universalism. It does not say some men, it says all men. It does not say all white men, but it says all men which includes black men. It doesn’t say all Protestants, but it says all men which includes Catholics. It doesn’t say all Gentiles, it says all men which includes Jews. And that is something else at the center of the American Dream which is one of the distinguishing points, one of the things that distinguishes it from other forms of government, particularly totalitarian systems.

King continues, saying:

It [The Declaration] says that each individual has certain basic rights that are neither derived from nor conferred by the state. They are gifts from the hands of the Almighty God. Very seldom if ever in the history of the world has a socio-political document expressed in such profound eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.

One way to think about the work of Dr. King is that he took language foundational to the essence of our country and held it up as a mirror, urging the country to live up to its ideals.

Even those critical of the ways King and others wished to bring about changes in society can ask themselves, “What are my hopes for all of the citizens of our country?”

If Christians believe the American Dream has at its core a view of human flourishing emerging from rights bestowed by God and fundamental dignity rooted in the fact that humans are divine image bearers, how do we consider the myriad ways for this dream to become reality?

For readers of this blog, perhaps a more specific question is, “How do Christians lead the way in helping all humans flourish in the world of work?”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man compelled by Christian belief, imperfect, and one model of hope in action. Our national holiday in his honor can be the occasion for us to become people who model hope by pursuing  strategies for flourishing with great vision and creativity.

If we do so, what will our legacy be decades from now?

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