Monday was a national holiday and many of us got a day off in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King is often remembered as a political figure — a champion of civil rights, a leader of coalitions, an inspiring orator. But King, above all else, was a Christian minister, a preacher of the Gospel, and a man of deep and abiding faith. He was an ordained pastor, with a doctoral degree in Systematic Theology. His tireless efforts to bring justice and dignity to those suffering from the evils of segregation and racial hatred grew directly out of his unshakable faith in the Christian conviction that all people are sisters and brothers, and that “love is humankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation.”
A few months ago, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art and Portraiture accepted a new photograph for display in their gallery honoring those who searched for justice in the 20th century. The photograph, taken in 1964, captures a poignant moment during a rally in Chicago when the Rev. Martin Luther King linked hands with University of Notre Dame’s president, Father Theodore Hesburgh. Together, the two brothers in discipleship joined in singing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.
Seeing that photograph reminded me that we can be proud, as Catholics, that not only Hesburgh, but hundreds of other priests, nuns, and lay women and men from parishes around the country had the courage to march alongside Dr. King and his followers and to speak out boldly for an end to racial discrimination in our nation. Their legacy is ours to uphold, to continue, and to better. One of King’s most cherished dreams was that we would one day manage to construct a “Beloved Community” where human differences would be a source of celebration, not suspicion. As a committed Christian, his most ardent hope was that we would find a way to build a peace-filled, just, and loving society where our connections to each other — our responsibilities toward each other — as sisters and brothers in Christ would be taken seriously. Father Bryan Massingale, a professor of Ethics/Systematic Theology at Marquette University, reminds Catholic Christians everywhere that, if we have bothered to become familiar with our Church’s impressive body of social teaching, then King’s “Beloved Community” should sound pretty familiar to us. It should also nudge us into action.
Perhaps the best thing I can do this week to honor that passionate preacher whose life was cut short 40 years ago, is to reread the many documents my own Church has produced which resonate with his courageous preaching. Brothers and Sisters to Us (the U.S. Bishop’s 1979 Pastoral Letter on Racism) is but one; there are numerous others which speak impressively of the threat that not only racism, but also poverty, war, consumerism and privatization can pose to creation of the kind of community for which we are called to work by God.
Excellent books on justice from a Catholic perspective are available from ActiveParishioner.com.