“The world is all messed up, the nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around.”
As the scourges of a never-ending war continue to dominate our national debate, division trumps common ground in the public square, and our leaders play political games while the marginalized continue to suffer in society’s shadows, it would be hard to find a truer sentiment than the one above to describe the American situation today.
In reality, though, these were the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., spoken in Memphis the night before he died nearly 40 years ago. But sickness, confusion and trouble, weren’t all he saw.
“But I know somehow,” Dr. King went on, “that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period… in a way that men in some strange way are responding. Something is happening in our world.”
All of 39 when he was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, MLK’s ability to see with the eyes of faith, to look beyond the pessimism of the moment, to find hope down here born from above, and to serve as the sower who planted its seeds made him the closest thing we’ve got, in a civic sense, to an American saint. He knew instinctively what so many allegedly Christian—not to mention Catholic—voices of our day have seemed to lose sight of: that the light of Christ entrusted to each of us isn’t something to be arrogantly kept away or used for our own ends, but must be borne aloft and in the midst of the masses, that it might spread and bathe others in its embrace.
By design, this isn’t supposed to be easy. Our faith charges us to be the ones who ensure that “something is happening in our world:” not just any something, but something good, something uplifting, something that gives life to others, even if it might cost us, whatever it might cost us—even if the price is our own life.
King stood up to the water cannons and endured jail to carry the Christ-Light forward. He preached, taught and lived to enhance action and protection for the rights and dignity of all God’s children—a nonviolent crusade impelled by his Christian faith—only to be martyred by a bullet. In our pluralistic age, he is arguably the most compelling example of equally faithful citizenship in the two domains coined by St. Augustine: the “city of man” and the “city of God.”
Shoulders of Giants
But almost four decades after his “homegoing”—the Black Church’s term for one’s passage from this life to the next—his words may still ring true, but what does his legacy mean for us?
For starters, it’s not something simply to be admired from afar. As in everything else, we stand on the shoulders of giants as we attempt to build on their work and carry it forward even further. Whether we’re talking the legends of state or those canonized in the church, the purpose of the treasure of the saints is to serve as an example for each of us. And from MLK to Martin de Porres, Thomas Aquinas to Teresa of Calcutta, Joan of Arc, John Neumann, Lincoln, or RFK, the truly great ones of history, secular and religious, all share the same distinctive trait: they were able to step outside themselves, to give their lives over to a higher purpose and, by doing so, won immortality for themselves and life for us. By spending their lives in service, whether as heirs of the American dream or heirs of the Lord’s mandatum, the goodness and richness we often take for granted has been enhanced by their “yes” to a difficult call.
It’s not hard to trace King’s inspiration back to its source, Christ himself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
We can only ever hope to accomplish something truly worthwhile to the extent that, like the grain of wheat, we give of ourselves and so nourish and strengthen those around us who need it. Spreading the light and falling to the ground in that way doesn’t necessarily involve going on a Habitat trip, making headlines with street-marches and demonstrations, or selling everything you’ve got and moving into a thatched hut. But it begins with things that might be even more challenging: a kind word to someone who’s been difficult, sacrificing a moment that might not be easily spared to help a person in need, an open ear, an open hand, open eyes and an open heart.
This coming Monday, January 15, marks yet another year that, here in the United States, schools, shops and offices will close, prayer vigils and days of service will be held to commemorate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., on what would’ve been his 78th birthday. And just as our churches are filled on Christmas and Easter and not so full the rest of the year, we need to be mindful that our call to service doesn’t begin and end on Monday.
The story of King and the Christ he followed to the end is one of love: of faith that its power is stronger than violence; of the confident hope that its purity can make all things new. As heirs to this triple witness to the truth, so may it be for us.
Oscar Wilde once said that “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” It’s still pretty dark out there. But luckily for us and those who need us, as sinners in a suffering church and citizens of a hurting society, it’s not too late to see the stars—and strive to join them in spreading a bit of light.