|"Movement to Overcome," Michael Pavlovsky, Memphis Civil Rights Museum|
NOTE: This was supposed to be published for MLK Day. Clearly, it wasn't. I hope it's still an encouragement. I believe it's still timely. I believe discussion of Dr. King's legacy will remain timely for many, many years to come.
Dear Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
I was first asked to write this piece for The Well. I had it all planned out, especially after reading Michael Eric Dyson's beautifully controversial book about you. In some ways, you were the best of brothers. You fought hard for justice. You spoke for those who had been robbed of their God-given voice. You sacrificed much--most notably your life--for the cause of equality among human beings. You fought for all Christians--black and white--to see each other as brothers and sisters. A dear brother, and much missed.
But in some ways, you were not a good brother.
In I May Not Get There With You, Dr. Dyson talks about why it is important to see your entire story and not overlook who you truly were, the good and the bad. As I read it, I thought, "Yes! What a great word. I'll talk about what a good brother MLK was, then about how he wasn't perfect, and how women in the academy and professions can partner with good, but humanly flawed brothers, as we pursue the best of brothers--Jesus!" It was a great concept, and I was excited to write it.
I researched. I outlined. I drafted. I enjoyed the process. And then two things happened.
First, Trump won the election. And as it came to my attention that MLK Day 2017 would fall just four days before the Inauguration, I began to struggle with writing. Suddenly my neat categories were blown apart. As the time went on from November until the present, the lines between yourself and President (then Elect) Trump were in some ways clearer, but in some ways blurrier. And most of those "blurred lines" (yes, I'm quoting from that horrible song, because sadly, it's applicable here) were in the treatment of women. This did not help my writer's block any.
Secondly, I overcommitted myself to a number of projects, I missed the draft deadline, and I started to not just struggle with what to write, but to actually doubt if I could write it. Procrastination, fear, shame, and exhaustion all combined to make the work of writing about you just too hard. I knew you were flawed, and I could forgive you for those flaws. Until your flaws lined up too eerily with Mr. Trump's flaws, and then I had to re-think everything.
Ironically, it was that wrestling with your flaws that brought me back to writing, and purpose, and ultimately, back to thinking about Jesus--which is where I had wanted this piece to lead all along. Because I realized that you, too, dealt with procrastination, fear, shame, and exhaustion. You, too, made promises you did not keep, and you, too, had to rely on the saving grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ to make sense of things and keep going in faith.
So what do I want to say to you? It seems a bit grandiose to say "I forgive you" when I never met you, never was affected by your infidelity or your crudeness. And yet, as a woman, aren't I? As a woman living in a culture where women are thought of as lesser, where women are debased, dehumanized, and objectified, don't I bear the burden of every one who has ever (myself included) allowed coarse talk about women? Who has allowed the sanctity of marriage to be cast aside to the idols of convenience and lust? Isn't the point of Dr. Dyson's book that if we are to properly celebrate the legacy of your life, we must do it whole-heartedly, without reserve, and without skimming over the uncomfortable parts?
Many amazing women of the 1960's Civil Rights Era put up with a lot of nonsense from men, including yourself. They persevered. They still do. And God used you to accomplish much for both men and women. God did that, and you and I can (and will, someday!) join our voices in praise of his work.
So I forgive you, Dr. King. I am incredibly grateful to your legacy. Because unlike some other leaders, you did point to Jesus. Unlike some other sinners, you wrestled with your sin, and depended desperately on the forgiveness of God. And that is what it looks like to partner with good brothers, such as yourself, who are also fallen, sinful men. We wrestle with our sin, and we depend desperately on the forgiveness of God.
With incalculable gratitude,
A sister and fellow activist.
Dear President Trump,
I really wrestled with whether to include you in this post or not. When I asked my dear husband, who is one of the most respectful men (of women, and of people in general) I know, he thought I shouldn't even mention you. Shouldn't sully the legacy of Dr. King by in any way putting you alongside him. On the one hand, I agree with this. In the same way that I will not waste my time (or my typing) mentioning the name of the Charleston shooter who took the lives of Rev. Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight other beautiful souls, I don't want to waste this special time of reflecting on the work of Dr. King by entertaining hateful, non-peaceful, anti-gospel work.
But as I studied the life (and times) of Dr. King, the similarities to how you treat and think of women became too much to ignore.
Many would argue that you are far beyond Dr. King in your empowering of women. In fact, you have women in roles of leadership, where Dr. King honestly didn't. That still does not score you a point, sir. Because despite his infidelity, despite his rough talk, and ignorant attitude toward women leaders, Dr. King still exhibited restraint. Whereas you dismissed your crude comments about women as being mere "locker room talk," and therefore tried to justify your attitude, Dr. King had at least some sense of reason, of shame. Though he was both culpable and a product of his times, he was foremost a professing Christian. He was a man who knew he wasn't perfect and who had much to repent for.
Because in the end, what set Dr. King apart from you was the fact that he knew he was a sinner. He knew he needed Jesus. He knew he wasn't Jesus. Your words--where you say that you've never asked for forgiveness, because you don't need it--show that you are not a believer. Just on the level of basic beliefs, you have disqualified yourself. And that doesn't mean there isn't common grace at work in your life. No, far from it. Because I respect God as the ultimate authority, I will respect you. I will respect you as president, because I respect the office and the system that has produced it. Even if I feel like you yourself are not respecting the office nor our country, I will fight to stay respectful in my disagreements. Even as I point out what I believe are facts about your misogyny, even as I protest what I believe are violent statements against the most vulnerable, even as I disagree vehemently with your hateful speech about immigrants, I will do so properly, with gratitude for the privilege of being in this country. Not because I at all agree with you or your tactics, but because Dr. King showed a better way. Dr. King followed the way of Jesus.
Praying for you,
A (fellow) citizen.
Dear King Jesus,
I'm tired, dear elder brother. Worn out from being mad, sad, and everything in-between. I need your rest, for I am weary. I need your sanctifying work, for I am sinful. I need your affirming presence, for I am shamed and belittled. And I need your guidance, brother. I need your perfect example, your gracious welcome, your comforting and radical proclamation as the first fruit of the redemption that is to come. I need you. We need you--your church the world over. Heal us, Emmanuel. Heal our country in a way in which it has never really been. It's been yours along--all things are--but we ask for hearts to be changed, Lord. We ask for your kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven. We ask for you to be exalted, for governments and institutions to cease, for the blessing to come of basking in your light alone. We don't ask for you to fill the presidency, Lord. We ask for you to fulfill the scriptures and magnify yourself. Come, Lord Jesus. We desperately need you.
Your little sister.