Dr. King, would not be happy with us.
This is not to say that we haven’t made gains. Opportunity for African Americans now includes the nation’s highest office. The laws of segregation have been defeated, even if the practice of segregation remains in odd ways. Today, we observe a holiday of a man committed to non-violence. Things have changed.
But in this city, we are still “conforming to the ways of this world,” a scripture Dr. King might choose as his text if he preached to us. We still see our success coming in the defeat of others. We still meet hate with hate, and we get used to things the way they are. We still – in a world where technology makes us all neighbors – fail to see one another as brothers and sisters.
Fifty years ago, King called for us to embrace “creative maladjustment.”
And even if we are less “adjusted” to overt racism – a good thing – we still treat violence and poverty as normal. We’ve become adjusted to failing schools, deteriorating neighborhoods, gross materialism, and unsustainable sprawl. For as much as I love Buffalo, we cannot, if we are looking through the eyes of King, be satisfied with the way things are.
But King is calling for more than simple assent to change. Though he spoke powerfully to governments and institutions, he also knew that transformation began with the individual. And it had to be rooted in a disciplined spirituality.
The courage that King and the early civil rights workers showed does not come naturally to any human being. They worked for it. They trained for it. Many of them prayed for it. And they needed to grow their capacity for love, just as we do, because the tasks of love, while necessary, are not easy.
It takes a higher strength – a strength that is lacking today – to love an enemy when that enemy is attacking you. It takes a strength that few of us have to walk into an arena where defeat is almost guaranteed and death is a possibility, yet still remain non-violent. It takes a higher strength to hope and work for a reality that few other people can see.
We say we want economic justice, environmental justice, racial justice…we say we want peace, but we will not accomplish these things unless we change the way we live, and few of us are willing to sacrifice the comforts that we have for the good of other people.
This is not a message for only blacks or whites. King made it clear that our problems, though distinct, are problems for all of us. And unless we see our mutuality, we will never address the illnesses that affect us both.
A vision that was laid out over a generation ago still remains not only unaccomplished, but too often untried. I mean no disrespect to those who have embraced it, lived it, and sacrificed for it, but too many of the rest of us simply nod to King’s words and do nothing differently.
That’s the bad news. But Dr. King was a man transformed by hope, and I also believe he would have hope for us.
Transformation can and does happen. Looking at the theology of Dr. King–he seemed convinced that it WOULD happen. Even if the moral arc of the universe bends slowly, it bends towards justice.
So the question is not whether Buffalo will change, but when Buffalo will change. And the answer, I believe (hoping in Dr. King’s hope), is that even today, people are learning to love their neighbor – even when it is hard. And so the answer is: Now.
The only questions that remains are: “Are you open to having your heart transformed? Your mind renewed? Will you be a part of that change?”
Note: Much of this post is rooted in the ideas of King’s sermon: “Keep Moving From this Mountain.”