If there ever were a year that we as a nation should not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is this year.
And yet, if there ever was a time when we needed to learn from and truly commemorate King, that time is now.
It’s not that I think Dr. King does not deserve to have this national holiday. It’s quite the opposite. It is America that does not deserve to celebrate Dr. King.
The “Three Giant Triplets” that he spent so much of his life preaching about and fighting against — militarism, materialism, and racism — still stand, perhaps taller than ever in this nation.
Nuclear threats made via social media; tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations (with no breaks for the poor); hateful, fearful policies against Mexican and Muslim neighbors; ongoing drone warfare; gutting health-care opportunities; racist marches in Charlottesville, Va., and elsewhere — our bitterly divided country is veering from the direction King dreamed of and fought for.
America should keep King’s name out of its mouth.
And yet my faith reminds us that one need not be perfect to be a follower of a tradition. My walk following Christ is far from perfect, yet I try.
Perhaps it is the same with America and King.
At our worst, we are so far from what King dreamed of. Yet, we have no doubt made profound steps toward his vision of the Beloved Community. (I — a Black man — write this while sitting with my Italian American wife and our three biracial daughters.) Just because we’re not yet what King hoped for doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.
An essential step for us, if we are to celebrate this day with integrity, will be to not only provide community service with our hands, but to also serve with our minds and hearts by reexamining King’s words and taking them seriously.
It’s easy for me to rant about who is worthy and permitted to celebrate King. I feel good when I throw King’s words at a cruel and fearful White House or my trollish interlocutors on social media. It’s clear to me what King would think of President Trump and the current Republican Party (and many within the Democratic Party, while we’re at it).
What is more difficult is pausing and allowing myself to be moved by King’s words and witness.
The sermon that weighs on me now — even more than “I Have a Dream” or “Mountaintop” — is “Loving Your Enemies,” from 1957, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in the Montgomery, Ala., of George Wallace and Bull Connor.
He explains how hating those who hate you adds to the darkness in the universe. Even while we believe we are on the right side of a debate or fight, we can be just as hateful as those on the other side.
He articulates how hating those who hate us can warp and distort our souls.
He ends by saying that, when we show love to those who hate us (or who are spewing hatred into the world), we might turn their hearts. This was crucial to the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement. Demonstrators spoke out against injustice, they marched, they fought, but they did not strike back, and they did not hate. They loved, and it changed many a heart.
King presents a beautiful challenge: Don’t stop fighting against hatred. Never stop. Yet as we fight, fight with love in our hearts. Love, he and all the great world-changing prophets knew, is the greatest of all weapons.
I sat recently with a relative with whom I was asked to “never talk politics” for fear that our beliefs would clash and result in family tension. I told him of this request and he said that I should always feel free to speak with him about anything. “Your politics suck,” I told him.
We debated and my pent-up near-hatred started to come out as I said: “How could you support him? You of all people should know better.” We went back and forth until he said something I’ll never forget.
“Regardless of what we believe and who we vote for, don’t you know that I would die for you? You are family to me, and I love you. You are far more important to me than politics.”
He pulled me back from the cliff. His politics are still terrible, but amidst our difference, he helped to build the Beloved Community. I’ll still fight many of the things he and his candidates of choice are working for, but I want to do so without hating.
Every day, I pray for the president. I pray for my enemies, whoever they may be.
It can be psychically painful to pray for those who are oppressing you. But this is just what King and thousands of civil rights demonstrators did. Their love was a love that burned with a righteous anger at injustice and burned with a tireless desire for change.
Thus my prayer posture has become the same as my protest posture: arms raised with one hand forming a fist and the other forming an open palm of blessing. This is how I believe King would stand today. I pray we may join him and celebrate his legacy this King Day properly: fighting with love.
The Rev. Charles L. Howard, Ph.D. is the university chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book, “Pond River Ocean Rain,” is a collection of essays about going deeper with God.
In observation of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., NewCORE, WHYY, and Philadelphia Media Network are presenting a public discussion, “Does Dr. King’s Life, Legacy, and Hope for America Matter?” on Jan. 15. The event is free, but registration is required.