“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” – From the Talmud
This week, I re-read Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” written in April of 1963, while King was serving a prison sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. The letter is King’s response to some prominent, progressive Alabama clergymen who had published an open letter asking King to “tone it down” and “be more patient,” warning him that his nonviolent resistance would incite civil disturbances.
Though Dr. King’s “Letter” is seven months older than I am, it still speaks with great urgency and relevance. Here are a few quotes that captured my attention:
- “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
- “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
- “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
- “When you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness,’ then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”
- “…the time is always ripe to do right.”
- “Injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent, and determined action.”
- “It is wrong… to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.”
The theme in the “Letter” that made me the most uncomfortable was Dr. King’s direct challenge to the white moderate. He wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the… Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…” Fifty-seven years after these words were written, they speak to me with remarkable currency. As a white moderate living in suburbia, I have at times been anesthetized by the perception that since there are no racial tensions visible in my neighborhood, things must be fine. This is the negative peace, the absence of tension to which King refers. The problem is, such a “peace” is only sustainable if I choose to close my eyes and shut my ears to the cries of my black brothers and sisters living in America, crying out for justice, and saying “there is no peace for us.”
Dr. King’s words echo in my ears, reverberate in my heart, and overwhelm me! What can I, one voice among millions, do? And then I remember the quote above from the Talmud. It’s not on me to fix everything; it is on me to be God’s person where I am and to do what I can. Caring. Connecting. Listening. Engaging. Consecrating. Loving. Serving. Building bridges. Seeking Justice. Making peace. Is anyone else feeling this?