Public Square

What Martin Luther King Says about Persistence and Change

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Martin Luther King Day is an opportunity to celebrate the life of a man who worked tirelessly against racial segregation. It’s a time to remember how the persistence of determined individuals completely changed society.

Martin Luther King’s era marked the beginning of another great struggle: the War on Poverty headed up by President Lyndon B. Johnson. And while we’ve come a long way in achieving racial integration, we still see poverty all around us in the United States and in the world. We’ve learned a lot of hard lessons in the process – including the fact that government solutions cannot magically solve the problem of poverty.

In his struggle to achieve integration, King understood that change comes slowly and is often effected by individual effort. He noted,

Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.

So when the quick, large-scale government solutions to poverty don’t seem to be working, how can we remain persistent in our individual efforts? Or better yet, what can the church do to change communities and societies?

David Lapp at the Institute for Family Studies tells the story of Dennis, a privileged business owner who felt called to help the poor and invest in a working class town. Because of his hard work, a community came together. Lapp concludes,

For every policy proposal, there should be five conversations among neighbors and pastors and community leaders and CEOs about breaking through the class divisions that separate our own towns…For every think tank report, there should be five Dennis’s, shepherding souls and starting food co-ops and tutoring kids in forgotten places tucked away in valleys, beyond the gated community, in an old and dying downtown near you, a town of limitless possibilities waiting for neighbors to rediscover each other in solidarity.

The solidarity that Lapp speaks of doesn’t mean “sameness.” It doesn’t mean that everyone makes the same amount of money or talks the same or dresses in the same style. It means coming together while celebrating our differences, helping each other through difficult situations, and showing Christ’s love to those around us.

As King said,

Go out this morning. Love yourself, and that means rational and healthy self-interest. You are commanded to do that. That’s the length of life. Then follow that: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that. That’s the breadth of life. And I’m going to take my seat now by letting you know that there’s a first and even greater commandment: “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength.” I think the psychologist would just say with all thy personality. And when you do that, you’ve got the breadth [height] of life.

This isn’t easy. It takes constant effort on the part of individuals, churches, and communities. But it’s something that we can work toward slowly and steadily. It’s a key element to ending poverty that laws and regulations just can’t achieve.

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Photo courtesy of Adam Fagan.

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