The institution of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in 1983 speaks to the enormous impact this Black preacher had on life in the United States. At the same time, areas in this country use the day to minimize King’s greatness. In Mississippi and Alabama, for example, the day is officially recognized as honoring Robert E. Lee as well as Dr. King! In Florida and Tennessee the King Day is observed on Lee’s actual birthday!
These aberrations, together with ploys to mitigate the impact of this prophet on U.S. American life — such as naming the holiday “Civil Rights Day” or “Human Rights Day” — reemphasize the ongoing opposition to King’s accurate critiques of this country. More on that later.
Dr. King was a visionary, a person who had a dream, a desire, a conviction that the United States could become its better self despite our terrible failings.
This weekend we will rightfully enjoy and celebrate once again Dr. King’s soaring rhetoric in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. To listen again to its delivery, unscripted and with the inimitable cadence of this Black preacher, is to thrill to its vision for the U.S.:
“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (sic) are created equal.”
At the same time many are calling for reflections that go beyond those inspiring words. They point to Reverend King’s observations about U.S. life which continue to infuriate people, like those in the so-called Freedom Caucus of Congress or those who describe themselves as MAGA adherents.
For this year’s celebration of our nation’s prophet it will be useful – even necessary — to reflect on those observations in the light of our country’s current history. They are as relevant today as they were 60 years ago.
- “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” [The recently confirmed federal budget allocates an astounding $847 billion for “defense.”]
- “We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but the positive affirmation of peace.” [In addition to the $28 billion spent on arming Ukraine, how much investment has our country made in achieving peace there?]
- Capitalism: “…with this system a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level.” [720 billionaires in the U.S./total population of 333 million; 2,700 billionaires worldwide/total population of 7.8 billion.]
As a religious leader Dr. King was scathing in his assessment of the churches in the U.S. This strikes one as equally relevant to the churches today – and for us in particular as members of the U.S. Catholic institutional church.
- “So often the contemporary Church is a weak ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound…so often it is an arch defender of the status quo.” [Where is the voice of the Catholic hierarchy in the face of the current scandalous divisions in U.S. society?]
- “…called to be the moral guardian of the community, the Church has at times preserved that which is immoral and unethical; called to combat social evils, it has remained silent behind stain glass windows.” [A commentary on our “feel-good” pastoral approach to ministry.]
Two final thoughts. First, the recent custom of calling the third Monday in January “a National Day of Service” with squads of volunteers doing public cleanup work across the country is both fitting and practical. However, let it not distract us from recalling King’s still-relevant analyses of the U.S. Second, in the face of a largely domesticated Church, Pax Christi USA continues to have the obligation to sound a King-like prophetic word today..
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.