Today in the United States we as a nation pause to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the iconic civil rights leader whose activism and powerful oratory inspired millions to stand up against white supremacy, racism, militarism and white privilege. As a historian and a practicing Christian, I believe that Martin Luther King Day is the most important federal holiday on the calendar. This may draw gasps from some, if not many Christians, for whom Christmas and Easter are of paramount importance, yet I cannot join them in so thinking. Unlike Christmas and Easter, Martin Luther King Day speaks to all Americans. There are millions of non-Christians in America and for them Christmas and Easter are not holidays. Christmas has been so overwhelmingly, paganized, secularized and commercialized that many people could care less that is ostensibly a season to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Nor do most people realize that it actually lasts for more than one day. Easter has become more and more commercialized as time as gone on as companies vie for consumer dollars selling baskets filled with chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs – both of which are pagan in origin. (I for one have no problem with paganism.) The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, whether one believes it is symbolic or literal, has for most Americans been lost in the consumer shuffle. Not to mention that as a nation founded upon the separation of church and state, that to create federal holidays for Christians and not for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Native Americans, Pagans and Wiccans, Agnostics and Atheists, et al is both ridiculous and genuinely unfair.
A similar response of shock may come from those Americans for whom patriotic holidays are sacrosanct. Again because of my historical education and my understanding of Christianity through the lens of liberation theology, I cannot join in those celebrations of American patriotic holidays because I have learned too much about America’s persistent war mongering against the poor and weak, its propping up of brutal regimes around the world to benefit its capitalistic enterprises, and neo-colonial economic perfidy that allows hyper consumption in the U.S. while exploiting the rest of the world for cheap labor and resources. In my view there is literally nothing Christian about American foreign policy and very little that resembles Jesus’ teachings in its domestic policies which favor the wealthy and leave the poor out in the cold to shift for themselves while they are being demonized for being poor.
Martin Luther King Day however should speak to ALL Americans regardless of their political views, religion or lack of, skin color, or ethnic background, for he spoke of liberation from the mindset and systems of oppression that pitted human beings against one another based upon skin color, nation of origin, and economic class, just like Jesus did. In 2006, I found an audio book copy of A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson as well as a copy of The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. which was also edited by Carson. These two books are two of the most important books I’ve ever read or listened to as audio books. Listening to Dr. King’s incredibly powerful, Spirit filled, speeches filled me with awe at the strength of those who were struggling for human rights and to be treated with equity. Tears fell and goosebumps covered my flesh as I listened and the Spirit moved in me to become a more loving, justice seeking person. and an advocate for “the least of these.” As a result of my historical education both at the university and seminary level and my own intellectual seeking outside the classroom I have been led to understand Christianity from a bottom up perspective and to agitate for the liberation of all of those whom Empire oppresses at home and abroad. I too long for the day when human beings are judged for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. To quote Bob Marley, another liberationist hero of mine, I want to live in a world where the “color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes.”
Sadly, America is still a place where political and civil policies are driven by systemic racism. People of color are discriminated against in matters of voting through gerrymandering and spurious Voter ID laws.White privilege is exhibited in law enforcement as people of color are targeted in the “War on Drugs” and in unequal sentencing for similar crimes. People of color get “the book thrown at them” while whites often get a slap on the wrist (see Brock Turner). The president elect is attempting to fill his cabinet with known bigots, racist, and extremists. Trump’s campaign rhetoric left no doubt that he wants to maintain systems of oppression that favor the wealthy and most of all those who are white. Millions of people are unable to see clearly through the coded language of “political correctness”, a trope used by those who want to maintain their privilege. Sadder still were all of those who denied that Trump was using blatantly racist, sexist, and bigoted hate speech while it was obvious to those tuned into those things. If Americans were taught history appropriately instead of the white-washed, Empire Christianity version peddled in American schools, then his campaign would have be laughable. To the horror of millions of people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, and those who practice faiths other than mainstream Christianity however, he has been elected and Dr. King’s dream is as yet unfulfilled. My hope is that celebrating Dr. King’s legacy will educate others and bring about an end to white privilege and systemic racism. Listening to his speeches and learning the true history of America is a great place to start.
Audio of his speeches can be found here:
More about my personal journey to undo the systemic racism and white privilege that were inculcated in my life can be found here: