King’s vision of justice starts within

Many people working for justice today stand on the shoulders of Martin Luther King Jr. But 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. However, we fail to see how King’s vision of justice was far wider and more than we might have once imagined.

“We are foolish if we think we can heal the world and not ourselves.”

If King were among us today, he would say that it is not enough to look outside ourselves to see the places where society is broken, like our institutions and workplaces that fracture and separate people based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.We must also look at the ways we manifest these bigotries. Often, we find that these institutions and workplaces are broken,dysfunctional and wounded in the very same ways that we are — thus, being mirrors not of who we want to be, but who we really are.

King would remind 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 in relation to our justice work in the world.

In “The Old Man and the Sea,” Ernest Hemingway said that the world breaks us all, but some of us grow strong in those broken places. King’s teachings invite us to grow strong in our broken places — not only to mend the sin-sick world in which we live, but also to mend the sin-sick world that we carry around within us.

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 light of King’s teachings, I believe that when we use our gifts in the service of others, as King has taught us, we then shift the paradigm of personal brokenness to personal healing. We also shift the paradigm of looking for moral leadership from outside of ourselves to within ourselves — thus, realizing we are not only the agents of change in society, but also the moral leaders we have been looking for. Our job, therefore, 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. “We are foolish if we think we can heal the world and not ourselves.”

Published in The Metro, January 16, 2007.

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