If there is one thing Martin Luther King Jr. would have the U.S. remember on the day that marks his memory, perhaps it would be that remembering the past must never come at the expense of remaining alert today. “We stand in the fierce urgency of now,” said Dr. King in one of his final sermons. It is far too easy to locate these words into a specific moment that we deem past, a time King and many others fought to see changed, through a movement we now remember within stories of history, speeches long memorialized, and events that seem both tragic and far removed. But this I think is to misread King as much as it is to misread history. “The past is never dead,” said William Faulkner. ”It’s not even past.”(1)
Just as ignoring history is itself a type of amnesia, so an awareness of history as something that is only history invites a posture of self-deception. If the world only remembers King’s fight as one fit for the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, we are neither seeing the American Civil Rights Movement for all it was, nor the moment before the world today. Sunday is still very much the most segregated hour of the week. It is still very possible to order our worlds in such a way that we never have to see the poor among us. Racial inequality, social injustice, and blind allegiance to materialism are all still present and active, its victims crying out for a better kingdom, a better story, a better hope. The message of Martin Luther King Jr. and the history American’s remember on the anniversary of his birth is not a static bundle of dates and details past. The history we recall when we tell stories of the American Civil Rights Movement is the vital form in which we must both take account of our past and fathom the present before us.
There is a parable Jesus tells in the book of Luke that is perhaps as easy to overlook as any injustice we want not to see. I have misread the story for years. In it, Jesus speaks of a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16:20). When the poor man died he was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. Then Jesus notes, “In Hades, where the rich man was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us’” (16:24-25).
It is far from a mere commentary on wealth. In this parable, Jesus describes a man who chooses to live with a great chasm between his success and a poor man’s fate. At his own gate, he daily passes the beggar, choosing neither to see him nor his agony. He allows the rules of social hierarchy to keep the man at his feet nameless and invisible. Even from Hades, the rich man chooses to address Lazarus as a mere servant, asking Abraham to send him to soothe his own discomfort. But the chasms he allowed in life have now grown fixed in death.
If we will hear this parable with our ears open to the story, attune to our discomfort and possible biases, approaching with a sensitivity to the lessons of history within the fierce urgency of now, there is a glimpse of an amazing God and the welcoming table to which we are invited. For Christ’s is a theology that is far from assuming God’s only concern for humanity is that we make it to eternity. As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “God’s love of justice is grounded in God’s longing for the complete shalom of God’s creatures and in God’s sorrow over its absence.”(2) And so, the present kingdom we discover in the proclamations of Jesus is one that turns social norms, status, and hierarchies upside down, one that insists that the beggar Lazarus has a name, a place, and a value beyond the one we may have given him. The words and actions of Christ bid the world to take seriously the present in front of us, because in fact, they matter deeply.
In truth, the final sermons of Dr. King can largely be read as laments, for he could hear the God of history saying to a world that was not listening, “That was not enough! I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not…And consequently, you can not enter the kingdom of greatness.”(3) King was increasingly aware that the only hope for the present existed in our ability to see the fierce urgency of now and to hear the voice crying through the vista of time for all things to be made new. His dream was that we would remain awake to both.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) William Faulkner, “Requiem for a Nun” in William Faulkner: Novels 1942-1954 (New York: Library of America, 1994), 535.
(2) Nicolas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Spring Arbor: Spring Arbor Distributors, 1999), 113.
(3) James Washington, Ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), 269.