Many would say that the Washington Mall’s recognition of the most important religious and civic figure of the 20th century is long overdue, and they would be right. But what is clear is that America needs this monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — right now.
The MLK Monument is meant to encourage the visitor to move, literally, from despair toward hope. The design is clearly based on the quote from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech that reads: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” With this in mind, the visitor approaching the monument is forced to pass through the Mountain of Despair, which stands like two forbidding sentinels, or to my mind, two sides of the threatening Red Sea, parted by God as Moses led the Hebrew people out of bondage.
I would encourage us not to pass through that mountain too quickly. History demands we should tarry there, staring despair in the face, acknowledging the brutality of racism, hatred and oppression perpetrated with our nation’s explicit participation and consent. The blunt reality of this mountain of despair, and the lives of actual human beings that it represents, reminds us of a central tenet of King’s theology — that religion matters only when it deals with the actual physical reality of the lives of people, and not merely the spirit that lies within. As King wrote: “the Gospel deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body; not only his spiritual well-being but his material well-being. Any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”
At the monument, the Stone of Hope carved with King’s figure calls us away from the Mountain of Despair. Yet, as a nation, we appear to have collectively stumbled and faltered in our progress toward the hope of King’s dream. In this moment when African Americans experience an unemployment rate that is 100 percent higher than whites, when fear of Muslims and others tarnishes our sense of religious freedom and fairness, when violence abroad and at home seems to be the first resort rather than the last, when a quick buck and insatiable consumerism is more important than sustaining the environment, and when the inequity between rich and poor is higher than any time since 1917, we seem to be wandering in the wilderness, lost, without a clear sense of direction. I’m not sure, in August of 2011, which way America is headed: to the Mountain of Despair or the Stone of Hope?
While the truth and the heaviness of the Mountain of Despair must affect us, it cannot paralyze us. The promise of Martin Luther King Jr. that we memorialize is that we are certain to pass through these monumental obstacles and again make progress toward Hope. We can do this when we call upon the faith that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. embodied and exemplified. I don’t necessarily mean faith in one religion or in a particular understanding of God. It is clear to anyone who studies King that he was an early practitioner of interfaith cooperation and respect. Rather, it is an even more transcendent faith that reaches deep into the spirit of the universe — that, if heeded, will lead us on “the moral arc” toward justice and toward a better world.
The faith of King is not conservative, based on a misguided insistence on looking backwards for the “better days” that in reality never were. Rather, it is a faith that faces forward, toward a better day in a promised land. King’s faith does not allows for failure; it demands progress. In his address in Washington 48 years ago, King does not say “if” we allow freedom to ring, he says “when”:
And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
With a phrase prescient of a time such as we face right now, America’s prophet encourages us, exhorting us: “As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” As Americans, let us heed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call and welcome our prophet to guide our nation’s conscience. May the stone monument that we have built in King’s memory transform our stone hearts back to living flesh that beats justice, mercy and peace through our our great country. Let it be so on Aug. 28, 2011 — right on time.