By the time I was old enough to know who Martin Luther King Jr. was, he was widely accepted as a beloved hero, one of history’s good guys. But when I was well into adulthood, some of the elders of my church who were his contemporaries told me how he was perceived during his short life. I will never forget a woman whom I greatly admired for her civil rights work saying that at the time even she wished MLK would “just stop agitating.”
Sometimes the process of healing a body, or a family, or a community, or a country involves taking painful steps to clear out the infection. It takes courage to expose our hidden ailments or wounds to the light. Kids grimace when mom sprays bactine on a cut. Spouses can respond with irritated denial to the words “we have problems in our marriage and I want to talk about it.” And members of the community can react with intense anger when an unpopular but truthful insight is presented persistently. Talking openly takes courage and comes after the decision that a relationship or a society is worth taking the risk, pulling back the curtain, and saying “it’s time we addressed this issue.”
But not all efforts at “speaking truth” are healing or helpful. God must be at the center of it. I believe that when the Holy Spirit is the ground of a truthful insight a few qualities seem to stand out: 1) the speaker treats all people with dignity as children of God, 2) there is no trace of contempt or cynicism in it, and, 3) reconciliation is the goal (not defeat of the other). When I listen to MLK’s speeches or read his sermons these qualities stand out. I believe that is why his legacy has endured as one who brought healing to a hurting world.
May this be our way, too!