Monday, January 16, 2017

What Martin Luther King Taught Us About People who Change the World

A civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.  -Martin Luther King.

Today, our nation honors a Baptist preacher who changed the world.

But like so many other heroes we celebrate, we often sanitize their legacy, leaving out those parts of their story that traumatize us.  Every American loves a war hero, but no one wants to see a soldier laying on a beach with his major organs exposed.

Every Christian loves to hear the story about a powerful conversion of a meth-addict, but few are attracted to the "sanctification story" of the next year after his conversion.

Likewise, everyone loves Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  But on this day, I wonder how many will truly think about the five years after that speech, and the cost involved in bringing about the change necessary for that dream to be realized?

But if you want to change the world for good, its going to cost you!  What follows are but five lessons we learn about people who change the world from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King:

1. You will find your ideas among the unpopular minority.  So many of the ideas Dr. King forwarded are merely assumed today.  Nearly every citizen in our nation is aghast at the thought of segregated lunch counters, burning crosses, and "separate but equal" schools and other institutions.  Yet just a moment ago in time, these things were all a reality, and accepted as the norm.  To that world, King's "dream" sounded more like a sick, Pink Floyd-inspired nightmare.  And the threats on his life, along with police brutality throughout the American south and the confrontation between federal and state governments are the chief evidence that his ideas were not readily accepted.

Standing on this side of that history, we tend to look at the romanticized version of King embodied in his famous 1963 speech in front of Lincoln's memorial.  Its nearly impossible to stand firmly within the 21st century and believe that his lofty picture of "the sons of slaves and the sone of slave owners" sitting down together was so opposed.  But great ideas are often not initially received as great ideas.

2. You must care about something much bigger than yourself.  His life was threatened.  His family was threatened.  He received multiple bomb-threats, and most of his letters were written from jail cells.  To endure such hardship, you have to look beyond your own comforts toward something bigger.  And you have to believe that bigger picture is possible.

3. You will be misunderstood--often.  I was experiencing my childhood less than a decade after King's death, and I remember many in the American south where I was raised speaking of King as a "troublemaker."  I remember asking--quite honestly--how wrong it is to seek equality between white and black.  The multiple answers I received from well-meaning but uninformed adults sounded something like this:

He stirred up things he didn't need to stir up

He caused so much unrest.  Surely there was a better way to do it.

He could have left well-enough alone.  Things weren't so bad. (Of course, it was my WHITE friends who said this.)

Change-agents are often seen as troublemakers.  Honestly, in the midst of any major societal shift people will confuse Martin Luther King with Bobby Seale, and that's what happened during King's life.

4. You may never live to see the change you created.  I was born in South Carolina less than 4 years after King's death, and marriage between white and black was and remained illegal until I was in high school.  Even today, King's dream continues to unfold, and he never lived to see most of it.  Such is often the case with initiators of change.

5. It may cost you your life.  King's life was horrifically, unjustly, and suddenly cut short on a motel balcony in 1968 because--to put it bluntly--people hated him.  Throughout his professional life, Dr. King seemed acutely aware of this possibility, and embraced it as part of the potential cost.  People who change the world are willing to die for the change they believe is necessary.

So who will be the next world-changer?  The next change-agent whose ideas make us a better society?  I'm not sure.  But on this day, I recognize that without the traits mentioned above, there is no hope of another MLK rising from among us.  God, give us more visionaries willing to count the cost--and pay it for the sake of something bigger than themselves.

No comments: