By Stephen Reeves
MLK Day will be celebrated in communities across the country. The holiday will be marked by volunteer service projects, interfaith prayer services, parades and other public shows of unity.
These are important commemorations and ideally relationships will be built and trust strengthened, but scratch below the surface and many communities feel anything but united.
Political polarization, dramatic and increasing income inequality, re-segregated schools, vastly different health outcomes based on race and a criminal justice system that often grinds the poor into the dust make it plain that we’re far from living in the “beloved community.” While there has been progress towards Dr. King’s Dream, particularly in an individual sense, communities, institutions and social systems still bear the weight of our history – an ideal not yet realized, a dream deferred.
What is needed from people of faith is action.
Systems which reflect the ongoing impact of history need to be bent toward justice. But before public action, preparation is needed. Speaking out and confronting injustice takes courage. Courage is more likely with preparation. In his Letter from A Birmingham City Jail Dr. King outlines his four steps for a nonviolent campaign: 1) collection of facts to determine if an injustice exists, 2) negotiation, 3) self-purification and 4) direct action.
In our modern age of 24-hour news cycles and instant social media outrage, I think self-purification is the most often overlooked step in favor of immediate response or action. While you may never face Bull Connor’s dogs, a hooded mob or an unjust arrest, however you plan to engage injustice, preparation is mandatory.
In college it was Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters that opened my eyes to the amount of training, preparation and strategy that went into each action of the civil rights movement. Each march, protest and sit-in was not only strategically planned and thoroughly thought out, but every participant went through a training period. This “self-purification” as King calls it, was mental, physical and spiritual. They were taught a plan, exactly what they would need to do. They subjected themselves to the physical and verbal taunts that would come their way as they clung to lunch counters or faced fire hoses, and they also prepared their hearts with prayer. Many would also fast, modeling Jesus.
This MLK Day, with so much work yet to be done, I suggest we take a moment for self-purification. Self-purification as recognizing, confessing and tending our own wounds and blind spots before preparing for action.
If you want to help lead your city, your family or your congregation toward a more just society how would you prepare? You can start by reading the complete Letter from A Birmingham City Jail. If you are white and have never engaged issues of racial justice, education is necessary. Read, watch and learn from perspectives to which you’ve never been exposed. Consider this study a prerequisite and part of self-purification. Take time to study your own family history, that of your town or city – how has the sin of racism and white supremacy manifested itself in each?
If your church seeks to be a more active and visible force for racial justice, I contend such preparation is needed there as well. What is the history of your congregation? How have members been part of movements for change, or have they more often been defenders of the status quo? Take time for prayer, reflection, introspection and internal examination. CBF and partner organizations have great resources available to get you started.
Whatever action looks like for you, first prepare. Preparation builds the courage needed to overcome fears and doubts. Take a moment for self-purification…then ACT.
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men (and women) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Stephen K. Reeves serves as the CBF Associate Coordinator of Partnerships and Advocacy.