Every year in January, government offices, the USPS, and many schools close in observance of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday. In my area, several schools with a majority white population are remaining open today. The rationale? “It’s not OUR holiday, so why should we celebrate it?” In my conversations with white friends, and my experience in majority white communities, I see a reluctance by many to observe the day on the grounds that MLK day is a “black” holiday. As a white Christian, I could not disagree more.
Martin Luther King day is MY day, it’s OUR day. Dr. King’s vision of a society where all men and women were free and treated equally is not a black ideal, it’s a human one and a distinctly Christian one. True, King arose at a particular time in history and for the particular cause of African-Americans in an unjust and segregated society. The Civil Rights movement had and has particular significance for African-Americans in their four-century struggle. But King’s ideals – his dream – extends far beyond the historical moment in which he arose. America does not observe MLK Day merely to celebrate a man, but to celebrate and champion the vision for which he lived and died.
In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King reminds us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In that letter, King chides the white church for its tepid response to the injustice of blacks. He lamented the “lukewarm acceptance” of white Christians toward their Black brothers and the “shallow understanding” of their plight. Now, fifty years later, much of the social landscape has changed. The victories of the Civil Rights movement have meant greater freedom and equality for all. Yet, while Jim Crow has come to an end, there remains inequality, injustice, and racism in the world. While overt prejudice has declined, the Sunday worship hour remains “the most segregated hour in America.” We still have a ways to go, and as long as there is human sin, there will be the need to stand for liberty and justice for all.
MLK Day is not merely a celebration of a man nor his particular cause to end segregation in this country. It is a celebration of a godly vision. For Christians, it provides an opportunity to affirm our belief that “God created man in His own image” and that “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.” As Baptists, it gives us an occasion to recommit ourselves to our “obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society,” to “oppose racism,” to “contend for the sanctity of all human life” and “seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love.” Let us take advantage of this Federal holiday to affirm the thoroughly Christian values that it is intended to celebrate.
The fact that many see MLK Day as a “black” holiday, I believe, is a symptom of the same attitudes that King observed from his jail cell. While we white Christians are “people of good will,” we look at the world with the false notion that, for the most part, there is justice and equality for African-Americans and other minorities. We don’t see that we have a “shallow understanding” of the issues that African-Americans, Latinos, and other minorities face. When it comes to racism, we look at the people we know and at our own hearts and believe racism is uncommon and rare. We remain willfully blind to the social structures that continue to favor the majority and erect barriers for success to people of color. We examine our own attitudes toward race and give the self-evaluation “I am not a racist” while at the same time making assumptions about people of other races and acting with partiality. We declare ourselves open to fellowship with our brothers of other races and ethnicities but do not pursue such fellowship with any kind of urgency or priority. We agree with the Bible’s assertion that in Christ we are one people of God, yet we have not moved much past the “lukewarm acceptance” that so bewildered King.
I will be celebrating Martin Luther King Day today, not merely in celebration of a man, but in solidarity with the dream he laid forth. I do so as a reminder that wherever injustice exists, I must be on the side of justice. I do so as a reminder that I must honor and value all people as made in the image of God and having inherent dignity and worth. I do so as an outworking of the gospel imperative to live as one people of God with all people who have trusted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do so longing for that day when people of every tribe, people, tongue and nation will worship together at His throne.