Walking the Talk

by Ken Briggs

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The garbage got collected on schedule this week of Martin Luther King Jr.'s remembrance, unlike usual red letter days when workers are off. Like most communities, mine "honors" Dr. King grudgingly in patchwork fashion, agencies like the Postal Service and the banks shutting down while others do or don't. Many don't.

The resistance stems mostly from the legacy of racism, and the subconscious expression of it, but another aspect of it is more ambiguous. We as a people generally love examples of sheer bravery that willingly face death for a cause. Documentaries and ceremonies constantly highlight military and civilian acts of courage and confer the term "hero" on a wide variety of subjects from fire fighters to 8-year-olds who rescue their parents from a house fire.

Dr. King's heroism is unquestioned and surely respected even by those who fiercely oppose everything he stood for. But somehow there's not enough of the heroic afterglow to neutralize the racial bias. 

Politicians and religious leaders faced the surly state troopers in the civil rights era and could claim some of that heritage of "walking the talk," but the summons to that kind of public courage in the service of justice has faded. Yet nothing does more to instill a cause than the character of those who place themselves in danger to defend their principles in the name of love. By comparison, terrorists inflict the contrary principle of hate by destroying in the name of their principles.

The old saying is that words without actions don't mean much, and we get almost nothing but words from public figures. There's much to be said for dialog, to be sure, but if that debate isn't pointing to concrete initiatives to improve things then it's blowing hot air or preaching ideals without the inner fortitude to do more than speak truth to power. King did that but also organized to confront that power with spiritual power and economic/political strategies.

While it wouldn't be fair to compare Dr. King with Pope Francis too closely, they do represent very different alternatives to "reform." The pope talks. King talked and put his body on the line. Apart from judging one better than the other, which is likely to be more effective?

Perhaps people listen to the pope's good words about the scandal of poverty and the injustice of the world order and by behind-the-scenes actions he's taken actions to back that up. We don't know. It's also possible that people are listening and setting the equivalent of civil rights movements in their own communities. There is scant evidence that the pope's pleas are translating into action or that he himself has been a reformer in deploying church resources to improving the lot of the poor, but perhaps he's doing it. Otherwise, I fear he will fade into the background of just another talking head who's entitled to  his opinion but not terribly authoritative or persuasive. King had his own flaws, as the movie Selma readily covers, but lack of courage to take a bullet for African-American justice was not one of them. Given the obstacle of his race, he might have remained confined to preaching the message of freedom and left it at that. But up to that day when he put on his suit and marched with, ironically enough, the garbage workers, before being shot to death, he exemplified what he said.

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