Part 2: Lament that Leads to Justice: Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s Transforming Leadership
“Where do we go from here—chaos or community?” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lament is a spiritual practice that is more than mere catharsis; when practiced fully, it can be a powerful force for change—for so many reasons. First of all, we are addressing God directly with our complaint, even in our despair, and telling it like it is with precision. Talking to God directly about whatever is on our hearts is always a good place to start.
We are also taking a step of faith because we are moving towards a God we believe exists, a God who loves us, whose intentions towards us are always good, and who has the power to carry out those good intentions. We are creating space for the voices of those who have suffered to speak and be heard. We are examining our ways—asking questions about how we got here and why—which inevitably leads to confession of sin so we can be healed.
And finally, we are being prophetic because we are speaking forth the mind of God on a particular topic. We are declaring, “What is happening here is wrong! This is not how God intended it to be! God’s vision for God’s children is more and better than what we are experiencing now.” The prophetic aspect of lament never stops with simply expressing our feelings; it calls us to name sin for what it is, to repent and turn in a new direction. It positions us to participate actively and humbly in the coming of God’s kingdom as we pray, “Oh God, may it be so. Your kingdom come on earth AND in this specific aspect of our lives… as it is in heaven. Amen.”
“The prophets help us to relinquish false vision in order to imagine and receive a genuine alternative.” -Walter Bruegeman
Can I Get a Word?
Beyond the pain, the injustice, and the suffering caused by all that is wrong in our world, lament declares a WORD that points beyond destruction to right action—action that lays down clear tracks to run on toward justice, equity and shared flourishing for all of humanity. But that WORD needs to be delivered by THE RIGHT KIND OF LEADER in a way that catalyzes unity, oneness and shared momentum toward a common good, rather than the inflammatory rhetoric, incendiary tweets, defensive maneuvers, and partisan manipulation that so often characterize moments of cultural change. This is a leader who has undergone the deepest kind of transformation and rises to speak from a spiritual center. A leader whose inner spiritual authority transcends partisanship, elevating our discourse above the cacophony of argumentative, competitive, self-serving braying.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was that kind of leader.
In a sermon entitled “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” he addresses the role of suffering in his own necessary inner transformation. Although he hesitated to talk about his personal suffering, he did so because he knew that how we relate to suffering and other challenges is an important choice point in the formation of a leader. He says, “My personal trials have taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted, I soon realized that there were two ways I could respond to my situation—either to react with bitterness or to seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”
How grateful we are today for the course he chose! No leader, not even Jesus himself, becomes a great leader without suffering and, more precisely, learning to bear with unmerited suffering. It is in this crucible that transforming leadership is forged; it emerges as lament leads to right action, taken at the right time, and in the right spirit. Only a transforming leader can make a statement like the one Dr. King makes in the midst of the injustice and violence he (and others committed to the civil rights movement) were experiencing: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil. The greatest way to do that is through love.”
What We Have Failed to Hear
In the midst of the racial reckoning we have been experiencing, I am not the only one who has returned to Dr. King’s speech “The Other America” given at Stanford in 1967 and then again in Grosse Point, MI in March of 1968 shortly before his death. In this speech, he describes in disturbing detail the very problem we are seeing so clearly once again: the fact that there are two Americas—one that White Americans experience every day in which we have unobstructed opportunities for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all its dimensions and another in which Black Americans struggle to experience basic economic support and civil rights, let alone the justice and equality that contributes to human flourishing. He moved beyond lament to work within centers of power, political systems, and the world of policy-making and enforcement.
If one did not know when this speech was written, one might think Dr. King was alive and speaking in this very moment. He says, “All of our cities are potentially powder kegs as a result of the continued existence of these conditions. Many in moments of anger…and deep bitterness engage in riots. America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity.
And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”
Lament that Leads to Necessary Action
One of the things that is most striking in watching this speech is that the tenor of Dr. King’s voice is subdued rather than fiery. Since he knew how to be fiery—and often was—one can only speculate that perhaps his speech was tempered by realism that comes from experience. He seemed to be carrying a sober-minded awareness of how far we had to go and the limits to what he had been able to accomplish. Perhaps he was experiencing the reality Bishop Ken Untener acknowledged in his prayer written in memory of Oscar Romero: “The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work…it may incomplete, but it is a beginning.”
The mature leader knows this and has come to accept it, while continuing to give their all until God calls them home.
I wish we could know more about what was happening in Dr. King’s spirit when he gave that speech; I wish we could know what he would say to us now when so much has changed and we still have so far to go. But still…whatever it was that caused him to be so measured that day, he had not given up on his uncompromising message. It was resonant with deep conviction made all the more powerful because it was offered with equanimity and quiet control over his own being. Yes, he had been changed in the crucible of lament, but he was still bringing his transforming message. The power of his message came not from excitability or brute force, but from soul force—the “force” of God-directed action motivated by love, emerging from the soul of a person who was in touch with the Spirit of God deep within.
In this message, he laments—oh yes he does!—and then he moves beyond it to call for the practical steps needed in any journey toward racial justice, equity and healing. With compelling clarity he unfolds his thinking on moral rightness, civil rights legislation, reform of flawed laws, the enforcement needed in order to consistently carry out what has been legislated, and finally faith. He was crystal clear: “Although it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. Even though it may be true that the law cannot change the heart, it can retrain the heartless. Even though it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me…so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can and it does change the habits of men. And when you begin to change the habits of men, pretty soon the hearts will be changed. I am convinced we need strong civil rights legislation.”
Lament, rightly practiced, never stops with our complaints. It always leads to necessary action that confronts principalities, powers and systems. It marries personal change and transformation with institutional and systemic change. When we walk out of the lament service and the protests die down, lament asks the question, “What is mine to do in the field God has given me to work and to cultivate?”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Events over the past several of years have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that we need more than legislation; we need enforcement and accountability. We need transformation–not only of individual hearts and souls–but also of laws and systems with their implicit biases. Thanks be to God that our lament and our protests are bringing these aspects of needed change to the fore at this very moment. As Christians, today is a day to join together in prayer, in solidarity, and in the strongest kind of advocacy for the dismantling of unjust systems, taking ruthless care in putting them back together again for the good of all.
As we participate in the unfolding of this particular moment in our shared history, I invite you to set aside some time in quiet to listen to the speech “The Other America” in its entirety. Dr. King’s spiritual and theological depth, philosophical clarity, and practical wisdom is best approached as a seamless garment, carefully stitched together into a beautiful whole, rather than chopped up into sound bites that can be so easily misquoted and misconstrued. And Lord knows, we need more than sound bites right now! We need transformation that is carefully cultivated through the renewing of our bodies, minds and souls—all of us together bridging the racial divide to work together for justice, equality and human flourishing for all. This is our creation mandate and it is the call of our Gospel.
The epigraph at the beginning of this article is actually the title of a book, Where Do We Go from Here—Chaos or Community? This is the book Dr. Bernice King has identified as her father’s seminal work—the one that should be read if you can only read one. The title alone is riveting because it suggests we have a choice—and what an all-important choice it is—chaos or community? Dr. King believed we still have a choice, and I do too!
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2023. Not to be used without permission.
A Just Lent: Learning to Love What God Loves
Our next podcast season launches on Tuesday, Feb. 21.
Find the Strengthening Soul of Your Leadership podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.
Join thousands of pastors and spiritual leaders
Receive Beyond Words®, reflections on the soul of leadership. Written by Ruth Haley Barton, each reflection provides spiritual guidance and encouragement for those seeking to be in God for the world.