Dr. King's lessons for today: standing against the status quo

by Nicole Trahan


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As I begin to type this article the United States prepares for the transition of our government with the inauguration of Donald J. Trump at the end of the week. I am struck by the fact that his inauguration is happening at the end of a week that began with the commemoration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On Monday evenings in our community, we spend time reflecting on the readings for the upcoming Sunday. The evening of Martin Luther King Day, the readings for the following Sunday called us to recognize our call to be light in the darkness, to be united as one, and to follow Jesus no matter the cost. While our readings always have important messages for us, it seems to me that their proximity to MLK Day and the inauguration cause them to take on additional relevance in our times.

The first reading from Isaiah for Sunday, Jan. 22, tapping back into the spirit of Advent, tells us:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.

(Isaiah 8:22-9:3)

Being a light in the darkness is not always an easy task. To ensure that the yoke that oppresses people is broken can be difficult, exhausting, thankless, and seemingly endless. And yet, this is the call.

In his book Strength to Love, (but according to The Atlantic, probably spoken first in a 1957 sermon), Dr. King wrote: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." Some of us see this quote so often on social media that we hardly let it sink in anymore. It's become a cliché or a trite statement of sentimentality. And yet Dr. King brings to the fore the message of Isaiah and indeed the message of the Gospel. We must be love in the midst of hatred. We must become a beacon in the darkness of fear, terror, xenophobia, racism and sexism.

In the second reading Paul writes to the Corinthians:

I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.

(1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17)

Oh, but if this were true among us! Too often I have lamented at a church racked by divisions, unable to take a united stand for what is right and just, unable to agree on what is right in some cases. In his commencement address at Oberlin College in 1965, Dr. King stated: "We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] — or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together."

And in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Dr. King wrote:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?

The last question in this quote from Dr. King haunts me. Are we too tied up in the status quo to take a stand? Are we too comfortable in the center of society as to step out to the margins? Are we too focused on the divisions among us that we do not have the courage to be the Christians we are called to be?

Lastly, I turn to the Gospel in which the would-be followers of Jesus drop everything to follow him. They leave everything behind — their livelihoods, their comfort, their safety nets. They leave because the call and the person of Jesus compels them. Dr. King spoke courageously for justice and for peace. Risking and losing his very life because the message of Jesus and his love for humanity compelled him. What about us? Are we so compelled? If standing up for justice and for peace for all people should call us to leave behind what's comfortable and what's safe, will we, too, be compelled?

In this week in which we usher in a new time for our civil society, I am challenging myself to continue reflecting on the words of Dr. King and the call of these readings. I am challenging myself to become a person of love and courage. To take stands against the status quo, not counting the cost. But I can't do this alone. Will you join me?

[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-Novitiate program for her province.]