Several years ago, I began to pick up books about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I had listened to his moving speeches, read of a few of his letters, and watched documentaries about this American hero. As I dug into his life, I was captured by his moving theology and passion to serve. As Dr. King studied at Crozer Seminary, (a turning point in his life) he was deeply transformed by the works of Paul Tillich and became thoroughly fascinated with Gandhi; he thought that Gandhi “was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful effective social force on a large scale.” During this time, King concluded that reacting to hatred with hatred resulted only in adding to the bitterness and divisions in the world. He was moved by the idea that suffering could not only redeem your adversaries,but purge you of hatred as well. King wrote, “The chain of hatred must be cut…when it is broken, brotherhood can begin.”
In studying Dr. King, I am always so moved by his conviction about the urgency of compassion and his personal calling to share that message with a broken society. Dr. King recounts a summer during seminary, “…when I felt an inescapable urge to serve society. In short, I felt a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.” One of the most remarkable aspects of Dr. King and the hardships that he faced was hisbelief that the evils of segregation and racism were every bit as destructive to his white oppressors, as they were to the oppressed. His work toward equality was also a labor for the redemption of his oppressors. That is a powerful statement about community.
There is always debate about the merits of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird related to the offensive language of the book (a conversation for another day). However, in the midst ofwords thatremind us how far we have come from the 1930’s (and how far we still have to go), Harper Lee delivers one of the most moving and accessible messages of compassion found in the canon of American literature. It is the same message about the power of compassion that burned in the heart of Dr. King. We spend an enormous amount of time these days focusing on the idea of justice; sometimes I think we forget thattrue justice simply cannot take place without compassion. In The Mockingbird Parables, I note that in the trial of Tom Robinson “Justice fails because it is in the hands of these people who cannot be counted on to deliver it, because they do not practice or understand compassion.” The legacy of Dr. King is established in the idea that compassion for each other must be the foundation for community. In other words,”… (God’s world order) begins with compassion and it is the work of people of faith to make that righteousness a reality in the lives of our neighbors.”That is one radical idea.
This Wall Street Journal blog offers some wonderful reading about the state of racial equality in our world today and the life of Dr. King as recommended by NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous: