What Would He Say?


I sometimes imagine conversations with famous (often dead) people.

When I visit a museum or memorial I often visualize conversing with Lincoln, Jefferson, or Kennedy. As I learn about them I wonder what they’d say about a given topic or how their ideas might have evolved. It’s one silly way of exploring my own notions.

The danger, of course, is that I simply project my thoughts onto some famous person in order to justify my own biases. If George Washington agrees with me, I must be doing something right!

Martin Luther King is one of my favorite conversation partners. I’ve looked through the Memphis window from which an assassin’s bullet ended his life and stared with his memorial statue across the D.C. tidal pool at Jefferson’s memorial.

This past week I’ve “conversed” a bit with Dr. King. As I learn more about him I can’t help wondering…in our current angry, polarized culture, what would he say? I have some ideas, but his life demonstrates a powerful principle.

Actions speak louder than words.

The Internet’s filled with MLK quotes, but the words carry the weight of his willingness to walk his talk. What do Dr. King’s actions say to me…to us…in these challenging times?

“Call out unjust behavior without demonizing people.” Dr. King spoke truth to power and stood up to bullies, but he always kept doors open to relationship. He spoke of a future in which enemies would be reconciled and pain would be redeemed.

“Keep a long-term perspective, but don’t settle.” I think Dr. King knew his dream wouldn’t be fully realized within a few short years. “The moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Still, he resisted calls to go slowly, to not demand too much too quickly. He approached his work with a patient urgency, convinced that justice delayed is justice denied while understanding that changing hearts is long-term work.

“Stick to your principles.” King and his followers were unjustly arrested and beaten. The government stalked and tried to discredit him. Political enemies and even fellow clergy said horrible things. In the face of these attacks, Dr. King maintained a strict code of non-violence and non-retaliation.

“Remember who you’re following.” History’s tried to secularize Dr. King and his ideas. We’ve turned him into a sort of folk hero. It’s worth remembering that he was first a Christian pastor. His thoughts, his principles, his hope derived from faith in Jesus. Justice and non-violence weren’t political constructs but the root of the gospel he preached with words and deeds.

I’m a product of the 60’s. Violence took three great men – John, Martin, and Bobby – before I graduated from high school. Frustrating to imagine how different, how much more just, the world might be if they’d been allowed to complete their work.

Dr. King wasn’t the mascot for a January holiday. He described a soaring dream and wrote from the cold confines of a Birmingham jail that “…injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I enjoy my conversations with him. I hope I continue to listen to his actions.