I am proud to count myself among the many people working for justice today who stand on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, Jr. I know of no words eloquent enough to express the unconquerable spirit of this man.
But I believe King’s vision of justice is often gravely limited and misunderstood. Too many people thought then, and continue to think, that King’s statements regarding justice were only about race and the African-American community. We fail to see how King’s vision of inclusion and community is far wider that we might have once imagined. As an African American and a lesbian, I feel tremendously aware of how this misunderstanding continues to have a profound impact on the mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, particularly within some communities of color.
For King, justice was more than a racial issue, more than a legal or moral issue. Justice was a human issue. And this was evident in King’s passionate concern about a wide range of concerns: “The revolution for human rights is opening up unhealthy areas in American life and permitting a new and wholesome healing to take place,” King once told a racially-mixed audience. “Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial injustice.”
We fail to see how King’s vision of inclusion and community is far wider that we might have once imagined. As an African American and a lesbian, I feel tremendously aware of how this misunderstanding continues to have a profound impact on the mistreatment of [LGBT] people, particularly within some communities of color.
Faith played a profound role in the justice work that King did. He argued that any religion that professed to be concerned with the souls of people, but not concerned with the economic and social conditions that disempowered them, was a false religion. True religion, he contended, must involve itself in the situations of all who are damned, disinherited, disrespected, and dispossessed — and that includes not only people of color, women and the poor, but also LGBT people.
Surely part of our job, in keeping King’s dream alive, is to work to dismantle discriminatory laws and dehumanizing structures. But if King were among us today, he would say that it is not enough just to look outside ourselves to see the places where society is broken. It is not enough to talk about institutions and workplaces that fracture and separate people based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. We must also look at the ways that we ourselves manifest these bigotries, how we are the very ones who uphold and are part of these institutions and workplaces.
Often, we find that these institutions and workplaces are broken, dysfunctional, and wounded in the very same ways that we are. The structures we have created are mirrors not of who we want to be, but who we really are.
King would remind each of us that we cannot heal the world if we have not healed ourselves. So perhaps the greatest task, and the most difficult work we must do in light of King’s teachings, is to heal ourselves. And this work must be done in relationship with our justice work in the world.
We are foolish if we think we can heal the world and not ourselves. And we delude ourselves if we think that King was only talking about the woundedness of institutional racism, and not the personal wounds we all carry as human beings.
In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway said that the world breaks us all, but some of us grow strong in those broken places. God wants us to grow strong in our broken places — not only to mend the sin-sick world in which we live in, but also to mend the sin-sick world that we carry around within us. And we can only do that if we are willing to look both inward and outward, healing ourselves of the bigotry, biases, and the demons that chip away at our efforts to work toward justice in this world. We are foolish if we think we can heal the world and not ourselves. And we delude ourselves if we think that King was only talking about the woundedness of institutional racism, and not the personal wounds we all carry as human beings.
Ironically, our culture of woundedness and victimization has bonded us together in brokenness. The sharing of worlds to depict and honor our pain has created a new language of intimacy, a bonding ritual that allows us to talk across and among our pains. In exploring our common wounds, we sometimes feel more able to find the trust and the understanding that eludes us as “healthy” people.
Each year, I mark the Martin Luther King holiday be reexamining myself in light of King’s teachings. I try to uncover not only the ways in which the world breaks me as an African American lesbian, but also how it breaks other people. King invites us all to do exactly that: “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and even our nation. . . It really boils down to this. All of life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. . . I cannot be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
Our job in keeping King’s dream alive is to remember that our longing for social justice is also inextricably tied to our longing for personal healing.