Hello. When I was growing up, I thought MLK Jr. was the son of German reformer Martin Luther. Anyone else think that? Anyone else think that Austria was just shorthand for Australia? Or that China was Asia?! Or that Kill Bill was Saw?! Don't look at me. Look at SF Unified.
Anyway, I'd like to work through specific places where MLK's theology brings helpful clarity and even hope to the Asian American experience, but I'd like to try to do that without excavating his convictions from the Black framework that he lived in. I think it's important to try, though, because King's vision for economic and racial justice was consistently global while powerfully local, it is what made him an international force and a uniquely Black prophet.
1. How to be tired
King speaks about the "amazing patience" that the Black community endured throughout the course of American history and there is a sense that suffering produces more than just raging power for the oppressor. For victims of institutionalized racism and violence, endurance was not simply a natural byproduct of passivity, but a hardening possession of strength and of tolerance. The Black experience was not merely acted upon by white supremacy, it was agitated, refined, and pressed together by a precious consciousness that was alive and awake. King's calling to the Black community was not to say that the days of patience were over. Instead, he invited them into a greater level of endurance that only they could survive. He led them not into security or safety, but into struggle.
King shows me that I have so much to learn about how to struggle. He shows me the bravery of Black men and women who move from an amazing patience to a gracious endurance. And it is not patient or gracious to appease those in power; it is patient and it is gracious because it is formed in the sacred underbelly of suffering. It is familiar with the long journey and daily choice to walk out with tired feet.
2. How to walk
King tells a story of a pool driver that stopped beside an elderly woman during the Montgomery bus boycotts. The driver sees how hard it is for her to walk, and offers her a ride: "Jump in, grandmother. You don't need to walk." And she waves him on saying, "I'm not walking for myself. I'm walking for my children and my grandchildren."
And she continued toward home on foot.
As a leader, organizer, and activist, King's hopes aren't anchored solely to the national political opinion. He cares as much for the transformative spirit of his community as for the legal victory. He sees, in this grandmother, an arc of empowerment and hope that extends further than his day.
He shows me that my activism must be big enough for my children and my grandchildren and that my resistance is cultivated not by victory but by trial. The slow, difficult, and prayerful trial.
3. How to combine apparent irreconcilables
MLK day also is becoming call out unhelpful white moderates day. Which is fantastic. At the same time, King regularly facilitated an incredible tension that I rarely see today. I believe the "moderates" stay moderate because they hope for the best of both worlds, and see neutrality as an implicit support of these values. It doesn't work that way. When King was preparing for his speech before the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, he talks about finding a moderate balance:
King's moderate balance isn't a question of neutrality or political fairness. It isn't about remaining unbiased. In fact, it is a call to be incredibly biased according to the dignity of man, the edicts of God, and the doctrine of love. While he is not unaware of the powerful tendency to lean to each extreme, King strives to lead in a tension that is rooted in what it means to love. The problem with white moderates isn't that they are silent. It is that they have lost the courage to love.
So here is how I hope to know Dr. King and to press into the ways his faithful leadership and vision impact me in my own context:
- I want to understand the Asian American experience of struggle as a place of formation and cultivation rather than shame and voicelessness.
- I need to come to terms with the reality that this journey is never not tiring. There is still something powerful, however, about the legacy of tired souls, the weathering of tired feet, and the unison of tired voices.
- I hope to be unafraid of the militant middle, to both fight and extend compassion with the same purpose and urgency. And honestly, my biggest fear isn't that an extreme will win out (I think that might actually feel better?) My biggest fear is that the middle is lonely and misunderstood.