Martin's greatest gift

January 13, 2011

"If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." -- 1 Cor. 12:26.

January is a very dreary month and we can all use a break.

Twenty-five years have passed and "Martin Luther King, Jr. Day" has slipped into the rotation of routine events that shape our lives -- smack in the middle of the NFL playoffs and right before Groundhog's Day. But Martin's greatest gift to us is not just a day off or another three-day holiday weekend of promotional sales to kick-start the economy.

Neither is his greatest gift a seat on a bus or at a lunch counter for a minority of us. It's not even his wake-up call to a majority that was comfortable living in atrophied isolation, actively oblivious to the catastrophic rot around us. Behind it all, his greatest gift was to vividly lay bare the Body of Christ and challenge us to live in it.

"For just as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we are all baptized into one body …" 1 Cor. 12:12-13.

Paul wrote it. Martin lived it. And he died for it.

The message is simple. It has been in scripture for millennia. But we are "a stiff-necked people" and obviously need regular reinforcement: There was no ghetto in the Garden of Eden. No separate, but equal. We are of common stock. Children of Eve -- or Lucy, as the anthropologists prefer. There were no reruns of Calvary with separate white, black, Asian and Hispanic casts. Christ died once and for all. And in him we are all risen -- together.

We are the Body of Christ, not the distant cousins of Christ with a polite nodding acquaintance of each other to be endured in quiet reserve at rare gatherings. Christ never commanded that we tolerate each other, much less mollify each other with mid-winter holidays. Jesus said it simply, "Love one another."

Not the racist degradation of a Birmingham jail, nor his bloody martyrdom on a Memphis motel balcony could shake Martin's fidelity to Christ's message of love. Martin's immortal words inscribed on his memorial put a gentle message powerfully: "Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it…" What a legacy to take home to glory -- a life laid down in Christ as a witness to his enduring love. What a gift of brilliant insight and articulation on bonds closer than brotherhood. We are one -- the beloved of God, our Father, united in the Body of Christ.

Martin's gift is the kind that keeps giving. For 50 years it has guided our sense of civic justice. When, and if, that necessity ever fades, there is a more enduring lesson he left us that transcends perceptions of pigmentation and DNA. In valedictory, he summarized the power of truth, love and our human condition: "I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."

Thank you, Martin. We honor you. We rejoice in you. Happy birthday.

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