Walking Pastward

By Merle Harton, Jr.

The concern I have about the commemorative Martin Luther King, Jr. day is not that it honors a pivotal figure in the ongoing movement toward racial equality in the US, but that its very position as another party day stymies efforts to look beyond the man to the goals he worked hard to achieve. More than this, it takes one's man's vision, his dream, and turns it in upon itself, until we can't see anything but people looking at each other and feeling good about themselves in speeches and passing by in parades. Happy MLK Day!

Whatever we may think about Rev King—plagiarist, womanizing adulterer, Afro-Baptist preacher whose work for Christ took a back-of-the-bus seat to black civil rights—he could turn a good phrase, even if we're not exactly sure where he got it, and I think one of his best, or at least one of my favorites, has to be this:

"Segregation is wrong because it is a system of adultery perpetuated by an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality"[1]

It's naughty and explicit—but certainly less so than its subject matter. When people quote it, they often pair it with his comment about "the Vaseline of gradualism,"[2] but that only makes it prurient, especially in a way he never intended. And yet this speaks to my concern. We are so captured by the man that we end up in a worship circle around his memory.[3] The parades, celebrations, speeches, and sound-bites all make it seem like something is really happening, changes are being made, we are closer to his dream and not merely watching mourners from the corner of yet another Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Here we don't necessarily walk backward, but we don't walk forward, either: instead we walk "pastward," if I'm permitted to make up a word for it.

American Christians, too, walk pastward on the path of social equality whenever they trade the humanity of the Gospel for the racism of war. Just as we forget that Rosa Parks was an NAACP activist, not merely a resolute American,[4] and that Rev King argued vigorously against the Vietnam War, so too do we forget that the message of Jesus Christ includes the leveling of all people and the commandment to love our neighbors. Paul himself said:

"For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink." [1 Corinthians 12:13]

"Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." [Colossians 3:11]

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." [Galatians 3:28]

Jesus devoted a whole parable to explain the meaning of "neighbor," making it clear that our neighbors are also black and also Arabic. While American Christians walk pastward on the path of greater defense spending, allowing Congress and the Bush administration to take from even the poorest in the US to pay for the slaughter of Arabic people in the Middle East, the citizens of this world will nevertheless continue to yearn for a peace which transcends all understanding. And they want this more than they want a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on terrorism, and a war on this or that.

All Christians in America should look beyond tomorrow as merely the last day of a three-day weekend and instead resolve to reduce poverty in the US through a wiser use of tax dollars, to remember our neighbors in the Middle East by joining with the millions of Americans who now openly oppose our military presence there, and to stop racial discrimination in the US by ending, at least, racial disharmony among Christians. I don't pretend that these are goals that can be achieved in a day or days. I know only that this won't happen if Christians keep walking pastward.

1.  From his Speech at the Great March on Detroit, June 23, 1963.
2.   This is found in the Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "So in a sense we are all participants in that horrible act that tarnished the image of our nation. By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle, by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice with the Vaseline of gradualism, by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes."
3.  It's ironic (and of course sad) that his famous 1963 I-have-a-dream speech has him wishing that his four children would someday be able to "live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Well, now they can, and it ain't pretty. Yesterday, the New York Times updated us on the mess his four children have made of the King Center. On this see "Disarray at Center for Dr King Casts Pall on Family and Legacy," New York Times, January 14, 2006. At about this time two years ago, Ralph Luker published a good, short list of Internet resources on the Civil Rights Movement. It's still available at the History News Network.
4.  "Rosa Parks Was Not the Beginning," AlterNet, November 2, 2005, and the article on "BROWDER v GAYLE: The Women Before Rosa Parks" are good places to start for Internet resources on this. I also like the short piece on Rosa Parks at Wikipedia.

"Walking Pastward"
From New Quaker Notebook (January 15, 2006)
Copyright © 2006 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved