Last night Jill and I watched The Witness, a short documentary film that recounts the last few days of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His final days were spent in Memphis, Tennessee to stand with the sanitation workers. These almost unanimously black men were on strike and Dr. King could not let them stand alone. In his final speech, “The question is not if I stop to help this man in need what will happen to me. The question is if I do not stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to them, that is the question.” 

Dr. King understood something about justice. As I listened this morning to the “Mountain Top Speech” in its entirety, I was taken aback by how powerfully King spoke on the eve of his death. The justice he was fighting for was not restrained by fear. The justice King was fighting for was driven by the call of God. King knew things were not right in the world. He knew there was trouble all around. He, just as we all have, had seen the darkness, but he also believed something was afoot. He said, “It is only when it is darkest that we can see the stars.” He continued, “Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.” Dr. King was certain God was on the move, and God’s kingdom was breaking in. 

The last day as I have listened and read Dr. King, I am forced to think about what is going on in my world. I am forced to look at my life and my church. N.T. Wright begins Simply Christian talking about justice. He says, “Those who follow Jesus are committed to, as he taught us to pray, to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And that means God’s passion for justice must become ours, too.” This passion for justice has become muddled in my mind because so often I fall back on what is just for me. I am driven by my thoughts, my values, and my rights. This is not the call of Jesus and this is not the justice of God. 

Why I find King’s above quote powerful is because it paints a picture of real justice. If we are going to be extremist about justice then we are going to have to be driven not by our concern, but the concern of the other. We must learn to ask what would happen to my neighbor if I did nothing.

When the sanitation workers went on strike they chose a simple but powerful slogan, “I Am A Man.” The strike was not simply about fair wages. It was not only about benefits, it was about their humanity. The leaders understood the only way change would happen is if Memphis—and the rest of the world—recognized them as human beings. This slogan is not only the cry of the strikers in 1968, it is the cry of injustice everywhere. “I Am Human.” Justice begins when we are able to see the other person as a human being. It is easy to dismiss injustice through the eyes of objectification, but if we learn of the humanity of the oppressed, we will be moved. We follow a God who sees, hears, and acts to save. 

When it comes to justice it is easy to see the pain and hear the cries of the people but be paralyzed at the vastness of the task. It is also easy to bury our heads in the sand, to pursue lives that do not come in contact with injustice. But neither of these responses will do. Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, the preacher who stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel when King was shot said, “Yes, you can kill the dreamer, but no, you absolutely cannot kill the dream.” We carry the dream of men and women like Martin Luther King because they have shown us the way to follow Jesus. We are the people of God who live and pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

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