Monday, January 17, 2011

The Content of Our Character

Today we mark the 25th anniversary of the day set aside to honor the birth of  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since we've done a lot of reflecting recently, we are looking back on Dr. King's commentary on life for insight. While we may not like what we hear, he speaks to us and our time over the decades with words that are as relevant today as they were when he spoke them.

Machiavelli said, "The end justifies the means." Many of us still operate on that principle in both public and private life. When we look at the legislative and political process, we see questionable and repugnant practices being justified in the pursuit of a noble goal. Don't read partisanship into to this. The abuse of power, back room deals, and strong-armed political practices have been the tools of both major political parties. In our personal lives, we see companies and business acquaintances stonewall when there is a failure of a service or product we paid good money for. There is no regard for the relationship going forward. They were determined to make the sale and do not care about the outcome of their cold and perhaps manipulative regard for you.

Machiavelli was wrong. Dr. King should be heard again. Contrary to the Machiavellian approach so much of society follows even today, Dr. King said, “The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” Just think for a moment how that would change our world. Any process - legislative, ministry, personal - and any point in the process, when placed under extreme scrutiny, would reveal nothing but a pure motive and a caring approach. Dr. King said, "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."  He placed the outcome of the affairs of humankind squarely on the shoulders of all of us and challenged us to love one another.

What then must we do? We should remember that, like a prophet, Dr. King spoke directly to us the solution to the world's problems:

"The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society."
      Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963

"Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' "
      Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have A Dream" Speech, August 28, 1963

And a final thought that I believe to be the greatest hope Dr. King left us in his "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." The "content of their character?" Our character is who we are when no one is looking and when we know no one will ever find out. If the content of our character is good, would that not solve all the other problems facing humankind? If we have Godly character, the cable news shows would have nothing to talk about. If we have Godly character, the means are always as important as the ends. If we have Godly character, we know that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." [Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963].

We lived in Brimingham for many years because of my work and were aquainted with many who had been on both sides of the civil rights struggle there. The first church I served in Birmingham was the church where the leadership of old Birmingham had worshipped, the church where Gov. George C. Wallace had been invited to speak on many occasions. My family and I watched attitudes and character change. Later in his life, I had a professional relationship with Gov. Wallace and witnessed a complete change in him toward the segregationist stand that propelled him into national prominence. Many years later, things are better, but the content of our character stills requires continuous scrutiny if we are to "rise up and live out the true meaning of our creed." Forty-eight years after things boiled over in Birmingham, we still have much work to do. So, let us begin.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Finding Hatred in the Snow

Sometimes events and circumstances paralyze us. Two events in the past week did so. The Snow of 2011 has shut down the Atlanta area for almost a week now. Just today, people began to move about more normally. If you went to the store before today, you likely encountered empty shelves or perhaps even locked doors. We don't do well when our routine is messed up. Kids want to go back to school. Parents want them to - some even saying so in writing on the social media. It is ironic that we had time at home with our families when we were simultaneously reflecting on the horrible massacre in Tuscon last Satruday. The last time we had a "normal" day, the full impact of Tuscon had not settled in. Now it has.

Just as the snow changed everything in Atlanta for a week, the shooting in Tuscon has launched a nationwide self-examination that likely will have impact for weeks and maybe years to come. The President's 'come, let us reason together' speech, in a very unusual setting for a memorial, gave us pause. Did he mean it? I think he did. Will it make any difference? We shall see. In the wake of Tuscon, many blamed politics for igniting the shooting. Does anyone know the 22 year old gunman's political affiliation? I haven't heard. I'm sure it did not matter.

The disappointing thing is that honest political differences taken too far become visious and hateful comments that devolve into deep-seated hostility. That's what we saw this week. A friend of mine in conversation this week called for prayer for the victims and their families. The response from a lady in the conversation was an exclamation of hatred for a prominent national political figure, to which my friend agreed. What? You pray for those who are hurt and agree with a death wish for a public servant in the same minute?! In that context, what is the difference between the gunman's act on Saturday and ours? We didn't shoot anyone? That's it? We have the same hate. We just don't use a gun. We are hating each other to death! Can't we see that? I think the President does. I think many more see it today than had a clue last week. What about you? Do you see more clearly today?

The snow covered 49 of the 50 states this week, altering our routine just enough to stop and listen. We didn't like what we heard. We don't like who we have become. We can do better. We must. As the snow melts, may our hearts be warmed as well. Please God, give us the love and resolve to make a different tomorrow.