The focus of our attention indicates who and what we will become—both as an individual and as a people. Reflecting on the monuments of our past, then — monuments of both good and of evil — can build in us resolve and direction for the character of our future. And for the follower of Jesus, these monuments serve also to build in us gratitude and confidence in the activity of God — as well as to build a horror of the ways that the ‘normal’ sins of pride and self-indulgence and mindless conformity inevitably work to compound into monstrosity. We do not look back to become mired in the past — we look back to build into ourselves character that propels us forward.
This weekend, Americans celebrate a magnificent monument of our past — a monument that reminds us both of the haunting expanse of evil and of the brilliant momentum of good. For much of my life, I missed what that meant, and, aside from an obligatory school assembly, I gave little thought to the significance of the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday.
The result of my white privilege? Absolutely. Of the self-centeredness of my youth? Yeah… that too.
A number of years ago, however, I began to recognize an opportunity — the opportunity to honor a noble man, certainly, and thereby to honor and strengthen the values for which he stood … and in doing so, to build for myself and my family a forward-propelling character.
Here are some ideas, from my family to yours, for honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr — and perhaps, for gleaning some of his character to build into your own:
- Watch a Movie
Grab your family — or a group of friends — and pick a great movie about overcoming injustice. Can be about the American Civil Rights Movement — but doesn’t have to be. Because the world is and has been so full of both injustice and those who fight it, there is no shortage of great stories. Watch together, and then just see where the conversation leads…
Movies can be horrific, so in our family, we figure that “upsetting” is fine, because injustice should not be anesthetized… but I sleep better if I can avoid kids with nightmares. Know your kids’ limits (and your own!).
Here are just a few of the movies that our family has loved — you could probably add dozens more (and I hope you do at the bottom of this blog!)
Selma: If I could only choose one movie to recommend to you, this might just be it. If you haven’t seen it yet, stop everything you’re doing — and go watch it now.
By the way, for this purpose, not all stories are created equal. Harry Potter and Hunger Games tell stories of overcoming justice? Um, yeah. And we could have a lot of fun talking about the character-building possibilities of these movies — but save those for next weekend. This weekend, think a little bit deeply about the real world…
- Listen to that Speech
You know which one I mean. How long has it been since you’ve heard a large section of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? There’s a reason that it was so empowering.
Print out some copies and read them aloud together at the dinner table. In the interest of short attention spans and hungry stomachs, you could start at the “I have a dream” section. Even better, find an audio recording online and listen together to Dr. King himself call out for justice and righteousness and the ringing of freedom!
For younger children, there is an excellent book, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, that includes a CD Recording of Dr. King giving his speech.
- Have a Conversation
This is a fantastic opportunity to invite to dinner a friend who is of a different ethnicity or background from you. Ask them about their experiences and perceptions of race and injustice and stereotype — and be prepared to be a great listener. This is a time for learning and for valuing your friend — not for voicing your own political opinions or engaging in defensive posturing. If you can listen well, you will deepen your friendship and expand your own paradigms — and if you have children running around in the background, you also might be astounded at how much they end up catching as well.
Heads up: Out of courtesy, you really should warn your friend about the kinds of conversation you are wanting to have, and why. No one likes to be caught off guard and not everyone may feel comfortable having these conversations with you.
And a note: If you cannot identify a friend who is significantly different from you with whom you could have this kind of conversation, you should take that as a red flag that you have something important missing in your life… and in your view of the world. If this is the case, maybe your goal and prayer for the coming year could be to build a meaningful friendship that crosses some kind of ethnic or cultural barrier.
- Read a Book
You can’t lead your family (or your friends) into understanding anything that you don’t understand yourself. So commit yourself to reading a book or two this year dedicated to a current issue of social justice. Here are a few that have impacted me in this last year.
- Go to Church
Except not your own (if you’re a church-goer).
Dr. King saw himself first and foremost as a Christian preacher — and he famously noted the segregated Sunday morning hour. Still today, that segregation holds all too true. We could have a long conversation about all of the “whys” and “hows” — and we should. But for now, just take this opportunity to get out of your comfort zone.
Depending on your own background, go visit a predominantly African-American — or Pacific Islander — or Spanish-speaking church. Even if you don’t understand the words, you may just find yourself gaining an appreciation for some cultural expressions that are outside of your norm. And your kids can get an opportunity to gain a whole new kind of vision toward the world. If those churches represent your comfort zone, try a predominantly white church.
Be a bridge-builder. Some of the most beautiful moments of my life have come as I worshipped in cultural expressions completely different from my own, sometimes in languages I did not understand, side by side with brothers and sisters made in God’s image who looked nothing like me.
This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, find just one way to consider what God might be able to do in us and through us if we got purposeful about taking the lessons of the past to shape our character and our future.
And maybe take just a moment to say, “Thank you Lord, for giving us people like Dr. King.”
I’d love to hear your suggestions for honoring Dr. King or for being a bridge-builder!