By Paul Baxley
Normally on the Martin Luther King Holiday, we find ourselves listening to Dr. King’s inspirational address given during the 1963 March on Washington, in which he challenged all who heard him with his powerful dream that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It is a powerful speech indeed.
Last year, I invited our Fellowship community to spend this day reflecting on the challenge Dr. King offered white Christians in particular in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, he called upon the American church to recover the sacrificial spirit of the early Christians, so that we might not be “dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for twentieth century existence.”
Several years ago, while I still served as pastor at First Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia, I had the privilege of being part of a community clergy organization that not only included black and white Christians but also leaders from other faith traditions. We were working on planning the community’s ecumenical service for the King holiday, and one of my colleagues, the Rev. Dr. James Washington Jr., pastor of New Grove Baptist Church, encouraged us to rediscover one of Dr. King’s late writings.
In his book, written in 1967 entitled Where Do We Go From Here?, Dr. King introduced a powerful vision of a global community, which he described as a “world house.” He challenged readers toward the eradication of racism and the elimination of economic injustice. He advocated courageously for the dismantling of structures that perpetuate both racial and economic injustices. He called for and end to the worship of hate, violence and war. He suggested, more than fifty years ago, that the world was facing a choice between chaos and community. Though not nearly as familiar as the texts we often consult on this day, it is provocative and powerful in the holiest of ways.
So today, as we mark Dr. King’s 92nd birthday, some of the words from that book ring powerfully in my ears and I commend them to all of us:
“Racism can well be that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on Western Civilization. Arnold Toynbee has said that some twenty-six civilizations have risen upon the face of the earth. Almost all of them have descended into the junk heaps of destruction. The decline and fall of these civilizations, according to Toynbee, was not caused by external invasions but by internal decay. They failed to respond creatively to the challenges impinging upon them. If Western civilization does not respond constructively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.
Another grave problem that must be solved if we are to live creatively in our world house is that of poverty on an international scale. Like a monstrous octopus, it stretches its choking, prehensile tentacles into lands and villages all over the world. Two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are under-nourished, ill-housed and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.
A true revelation of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will only be an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.
We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tide of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals who pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee once said in a speech: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are now confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood, it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words “too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on….”
We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” –Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On this King Holiday, I call us all not only to choose community, but to give our words and our actions toward its full pursuit. That is not a political calling. It is the call of Jesus, who invites us to join him in “bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.”
And it may be the only path to deliver us from the chaos that we see around us.
Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley is Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Decatur, Ga. Learn more about CBF at http://www.cbf.net.