Celia Jackson speaking at the 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Service. (File photo)
It is often said that as we get older, we get wiser. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an exception. He left us a treasure trove of wisdom before he was assassinated at the age of 39. I am reminded of the roadmap in speeches and sermons he left us to transcend the evils of the day.
It is most disheartening to realize that so many of the assertions he made about our country more than 50 years ago are even more prevalent today. The rise of hatred, racial inequality and health disparities demonstrate that we are fighting the same battles today that we did during his lifetime. He would be quite dismayed to know that our progress has been cyclical and we have come full circle. His messages of love, service and peace were ingredients for a recipe to turn us around as a nation with the hope that we could reverse the course we seemed destined to travel.
This year, the theme of the Archdiocesan Dr. King presentation is based on his sermon, the “Drum Major Instinct.” He describes this impulse as the desire to be out front and to be recognized. We all want to be acknowledged and appreciated for our efforts. It is part of who we are as human beings. The challenge is how do we reconcile the opposing aspects of this instinct.
One can take us down the path of supremacy, stepping on those we think are beneath us and believing we are superior to others. The other can lead us on a path of service, generosity and harmony. The distinction between the two is premised on our moral compass.
We saw the inhumane actions of an officer kneeling on the neck of a man taking away his last breath as he pleaded for his life. We saw a woman killed in her bed as police broke into her home in the middle of the night. We saw countless efforts to suppress the vote and then even more to shift the results of the election. What type of mindsets and systems do we have that allow these types of behavior? These measures personify the danger of the drum major instinct that empowers one to believe it is permissible to oppress people, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Dr. King would be in agony at the depth of our brokenness.
Yet, I believe he would also be inspired by the fighting spirit of those who led the challenge to these systems; encouraged with the diversity and unity of protestors around the world lifting up the battle cry that “Black Lives Matter;” awed by the power of people standing up for what they believe in; invigorated by the youth demanding a racial reckoning and empowered by the voices of professional athletes. He would raise his fiery voice and articulate a passionate scripture to remind us that we are brothers and sisters in this fight for justice together and that we cannot nor will we stand for a system that treats some of its members as insignificant.
He would lament the loss of warriors like John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian. He would acknowledge that they, along with so many others, sacrificed and laid the groundwork to take on these injustices. He would be gratified that despite the steps backward, people will not be deterred when they are fighting for what is right. He would sing songs of praise for those who came out to vote despite all of the obstacles. He would encourage us to stay in the battle to ensure policy changes.
We know the work is not done. We are battling a force of evil on a spiritual level. It requires patience, grace and love. We can’t win this battle on our own. We must trust that God’s mighty hand is at the helm. He works in ways that we don’t always understand. I am a firm believer that as long as we pray and stay true to his call to love our neighbor as ourselves, we can all be drum majors of justice exercising greatness and serving fearlessly in the crusade for the soul of our nation.