Who Are We?

Who are we? We claim Elijah P. Lovejoy as a hero, but not the angry crowd that repeatedly gathered to throw his printing press into the river. The angry crowd that ultimately killed him. The angry crowd that made it impossible to even have a Lovejoy monument for 60 years after his death as he lay in an unmarked grave.

Who are we? Are we more fairly represented by the martyr or the mob?

We’ve named a street after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., hold services and now marches in his honor in the hometown of the man who shot him. James Earl Ray lived here as a child and briefly as an adult, in a city in which black families were prevented from living in certain neighborhoods even into the early 1980s.

Who are we? Are we more fairly represented by the activist or his assassin?

It’s easy to look back at the past and say, “Not us! We would have been there. We would have shown up for Dr. King. We wouldn’t have stood for injustice. We would have put our bodies on the line. We wouldn’t have let our brothers say, ‘Here comes that dreamer! Come on, let’s kill him and see what becomes of his dream!’”

And it’s easy to look forward and say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the dream somehow came true? If it just happened like that in time? If it were just handed to us?” We’re still captivated by the lie Dr. King pointed out in his second to last sermon, the lie that time will inevitably bring about justice without requiring the sacrifice of people putting their bodies on the line.

Between commemorating the past and waiting for the future, here we are together in the present. What will we do today?

We’re facing the same problems of racism, poverty, and war that Dr. King highlighted for us. Do we have the will to address them? We live in an increasingly violent society that is putting ever more faith in the notion that violence can be used to ensure justice. Are we ready yet to listen to the words of Dr. King the pacifist?

We’re living in a nation that has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. Digging a little deeper, African American men make up about 0.25% of the world’s population, but almost 12.5% of the world’s prison population. Are we ready yet to listen to the words of Dr. King the tireless fighter against racial injustice? Or do we say these numbers don’t at all mean there’s a war on our black brothers? But tell me again how a coffee cup means there’s a war on Christians.

Some dots get to be connected, and some don’t.

Sunday at 11am is still the most segregated hour of the week. We are strangers to each other as much as ever. “At least we’re not enemies,” someone might say. But might it only be because we’re too apathetic to sustain that level of hostility toward one another?

Who are we? I don’t mean to sound too negative; I just want to give us a sense that we can’t stay where we are. I want to ask the hard questions because of my positive belief that we get to choose who we will be. I firmly believe that we get to have the city we want. But if we won’t work together, we’ll get the city we deserve.

Who are we? Merely admirers of the speech or enactors of the dream? We get to choose.

[This was my speech to Riverbend Ministerial Alliance Unity March in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Well, it’s pretty close, anyway.]