This morning our nation awakens to the second official holiday of the year: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Our other federal holidays include New Year’s Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day (in most states), Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Our kids have no school, my son will attend a midday birthday party, and my own workplace will be closed for business.
Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have thought much about today. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have cared much about today. Because ten years ago, I didn’t have four African-American children.
My kids are 10, 9, 8, and 8. My 10-year-old boy with his toothy smile is from Jinja, Uganda, where the springs that source the mighty Nile River begin to flow north. My two daughters, 9 and 8 — one whose strong maternal instincts are matched only by the strength of her sister’s will — are from Home of Hope Orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda. And my carefree 8-year-old boy, with energy levels to light the sun, is from a small village outside Kigali.
They’re two black boys and two black girls growing up in the United States of America, a nation with a racial history as checkered as our demographics. Oh, my kids are privileged, to be sure — it’s no small thing to be a citizen in this great land. But they still walk in the long shadows of black identity in a nation still suffering the aftereffects of multigenerational racism and systemic oppression.
So I have at least four reasons why I needed to start understanding this day. I have four reasons why I needed to start seeing this day through someone else’s eyes. And now that I understand it better and see it more clearly, I have a whole lot more reasons to celebrate it.
You see, I’m not writing today to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., though the legacy of his leadership is certainly worthy of remembrance. I’m writing because I fear that many white Americans, many white Christians, and most of the Bible college students I work among — students who are predominantly white — will fail to celebrate this day. I fear that millions in our country will awaken not to meaningful memories of the victories of the civil rights movement or noble thoughts about human dignity or redoubled energies for justice in our world, but to a simple day off (or grumbling wishes for a day off) at the beginning of a cold week. I fear that the best thing about some people’s day will be the fact that they didn’t have to go to class or show up at work. And in all of this, I fear that we’ll fail to recognize the preciousness of justice and the battle that every generation must wage against her many enemies.
Our federal holidays help us honor soldiers, remember statesmen, and celebrate independence. We commemorate labor, give thanks, and recall the Christ-child. White Americans, and white Christians, understand and participate in each of these days, to one degree or another. But how do white Americans view the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday? What do we do with it? Do we view this day as our day — or as their day?
Last year, shortly before the MLK holiday, I gathered with our 40-member student leadership team and our Student Life staff for our winter training. We met at the Stonybrook 20 in Louisville and sat together in long silent rows as Ava DuVernay’s Selma rolled across the screen. Afterwards, our sober group drove over to a church where we asked two hours worth of questions to a panel of three African-American believers, three friends of mine who had kindly agreed to field our questions and share their experiences. As the night went on, some students confessed to having racist parents or grandparents, others said they had never had a conversation like this, and many left saying they had been deeply impacted by a perspective they had never stopped to consider carefully, especially in the midst of the withering debates about the explosive incidents that have held the headlines throughout the past couple years.
Yes, I know — I’ve heard the objections and the critiques and the debates — about Selma, about Dr. King, about Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Laquan McDonald and Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice, about incidents from Ferguson to Chicago to Baltimore and beyond. There’s always a debate, it seems, when it comes to the African-American experience in American culture, a debate that’s all the more painful because it’s often held over coffins and gravesites. I know there are details about some situations that only God knows, there are some complexities that only the gospel can cut through, there’s a certain depth of reconciliation that can only happen through Christ, and there are some verdicts of justice that await the great day of judgment.
Nevertheless, we must all recognize that for so long — for agonizingly too long — the black plight in our nation went unrecognized, and unreckoned. And we must recognize that there are still serious problems that would have kept Dr. King and all those of good faith and good will busy working toward a vision of ever-broadening justice. That’s why this holiday matters. That’s why recognizing this day, this day that’s a federal holiday for good reason, is one small step on what’s been a very long path.
After all, if justice is the right ordering of creation, and if we see in the nonviolent civil rights movement a massive step toward a desperately needed reordering, then all Americans, and especially all Christians, should celebrate this day with the joy and hopefulness of freed slaves. If a holiday is for some of us, then that holiday is for all of us, and until it’s for all of us, it’s for none of us.
Why is this holiday for all of us? It’s for all of us because only when we awaken to another man’s need are we truly free. Only when we recognize the tyranny with which past generations treated those they felt differed from them can we recognize our own inborn tendency to place ourselves above others. Only through purposeful and humble reflection can we be freed from the coldness that will not consider another man’s suffering, the numbness that cannot feel another man’s scars, and the blindness that will not see another man’s chains.
For Christians, there’s even more to this day, because the Christian story is not the story of free men but freed men. Throughout the Old Testament, the children of Abraham are urged to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, and God brought them out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. They were to remember the ten plagues, the Passover lamb, the Red Sea, and the great Exodus. They were to remember what slavery and oppression were like, and what their freedom and redemption cost. We too were slaves, say the New Testament authors, but God rescued us through a better Lamb, a deadlier sea, a greater Exodus, and all for a freer freedom. That should make us a people who love to celebrate redemption, wherever it’s found and whatever form it takes.
Finally, we need this holiday to remind us that the work isn’t done. I’m under no illusion that body cameras and incarceration studies and civil rights cinematography and respect for the police are going to bring the New Jerusalem down from heaven. But I believe with every fiber of my being that the Lord Jesus Christ is the firstborn from the dead, and his born again church is nothing less than the dawn of the new creation breaking into the old world even now.
This new creation church must labor to see Pentecost continue, to see the segregation of Babel reversed, to see the divided peoples that splintered out from Shinar’s plain (Genesis 10-11) regathered into the unified mosaic of the tribes and tongues and peoples and nations displayed in John’s apocalypse (Revelation 5:9).
After all, John had a dream. His dream was that one day, when the sin-fractured kingdoms of the world come crumbling down, Revelation 5:9 will finally come true. His dream was that an omniethnic people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation would gather as one before the throne of God and of the Lamb. He dreamed of a day when the colorful tribes of the untold redeemed would gather together and worship their Redeemer, precisely because they know the value and cost of redemption. Every other day of emancipation and reconciliation and redemption points toward this great day, and as the church awaits it, all those who love true justice not only wait, but work.
If you cannot celebrate someone else’s freedom from oppression, you have not begun to understand your own. If you cannot pause and listen to a man’s freedom songs, it’s because your own songs have grown old. If you cannot wonder at the waves of justice which have shaped the shoreline of your nation, then your nation and your church and your very own conscience are left susceptible to the shaping forces of injustice that threaten every generation from within the sinful human heart. But if justice remembered is justice preserved, then let that justice, and its memory, roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.¹
¹ Amos 5:24, quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in “I Have a Dream,” his speech at the 1963 March on Washington.