I have a confession. I have an embellishment problem, especially when my college friends and I gather with our partners and tell stories about our exploits in school.
The stories have become bigger, the situations funnier and the embellishments more grand over time. In these settings, we over-remember all the good things and we forget all the difficulty.
While my embellishments make for great college stories (at least in my mind), it can be problematic. This tendency to sentimentalize historical events results in recasting history in a favorable light without acknowledging the tensions and conflicts that provoked the outcome we all so proudly hold up. Rarely is history as one-dimensional as we attempt to make it.
As an example, I’m amused when I hear people recount the 1963 March on Washington.
If I believe the common narrative, everybody participated in the marched. It was one of those clarion, moral moments in which people coalesced for a common cause. While it was that for many people, there was also tension. Many people were concerned that it was too disruptive, many objected to the strategy, others disputed the leaders who were organizing it. In real time the March on Washington was a complex, multidimensional struggle for justice.
Notice I said struggle. For many, that word makes us uncomfortable, because it invokes images that aren’t as palatable as “movement.” As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy, let’s not embellish history. The civil rights movement was a struggle. It was fraught with pain and difficulty; it had moments of defeat and hopelessness and it required people to move from their places of comfort within the status quo to give themselves to a larger cause without any assurances of final success.
As I reflect on what it means to live in the wake of King’s legacy, I’m more convinced than ever that we need to resuscitate the struggle for greater freedom, greater equality, deeper faith, increased liberation by grounding ourselves in the moral conviction to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). To do justice involves a proper understanding of power and love.
As King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
We love the idea of love. We love the images that it invokes: that we should treat our neighbors as ourselves, that we should lift our enemies. For King, love is putting back together shattered, fragmented pieces to create wholeness again.
As he said, “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.”
Love is what binds us together, but love must be tempered with power.
Power is much more difficult for us to accept. If love is about getting to a sense of wholeness again, then power is the honesty that gets us there. Power is the ability to act, but before any of us can act in the public sphere, we must have a realization of our own worth that validates why we act. Therefore, power is about knowing who we are, which compels us to act in the world unabashedly in truthfulness. When we engage justice from this frame, it keeps us from sentimentalizing the moment.
To do justice rooted in the dynamic tension of power and love also clarifies why our pursuit of the Beloved Community is a movement that embraces and articulates the struggle. Therefore, we need to look around and see all the people who are engaging the struggle on a daily basis. These are everyday heroes who give themselves to justice with love and power.
Let’s engage in a grand experiment this year. On MLK Day this year, what if you took the opportunity to engage a marginalized person? It could be a person of color, someone who makes minimum wage or less, a refugee, an immigrant, a person who has been in prison or a person who lacks access to health insurance.
What if you took 30 minutes to an hour to listen to that person’s story so he or she could tell you some truth about the struggle for justice? This act of love would be an amazing first step toward building the Beloved Community.