Dear Dr. King,
Last night I read the chapter in your autobiography about the Vietnam War. I watched you wrestle through your personal responsibility to speak about it, and I watched how you were scorned for all you did because of it. I watched your friends and colleagues asked you to back down. So many people said you were in over your head and that you should keep your focus on civil rights alone.
What’s more, I saw the slow recognition in your heart that all was not as you thought it was in this country.
After so many years of toil spent turning the tide of this country and swaying the president’s hand toward greater justice and humanity, in the Vietnam War you came to see just how far from justice and humanity’s heart the powers of this country really were. You came to see that might and money mattered more.
How did you not despair, Dr. King? How did you not despair? After working within systems for so long and mapping out strategies that, inch by inch, drew justice nearer the light of day, how did you sustain hope when you saw the brilliant daylight was still so far from drawing near?
As I’m nearing the end of your book, I know your assassination looms close, just a few turns of the pages away, and despair creeps into my heart as I anticipate that fateful moment.
I have spent two and a half years with your autobiography, and such an immersion into the fullness of your life has taught me that you were not a man who gave a few speeches and, through the strength those speeches alone, rallied masses of people to walk and assemble and demonstrate and protest. You were not a figurehead. You did not simply have a dream.
Rather, the fullness of your life has taught me what it truly takes to turn the tide of history. It takes stamina. It takes fearlessness. It takes conviction, yes.
But it also takes strategy. It takes knowing the limits and allowances of the law. It takes long-range planning. It takes creativity. It takes tiny but well-planned, incremental steps. It takes getting down and dirty in the trenches with everyone else. It takes the strength and education of communities.
And it takes an enormity of character and integrity. It takes counting your life as not your own.
Having learned the fullness of your life and how you embodied all these things makes me feel deeply the loss of your life — that all that strength and courage and leadership and truth and wisdom and action built into the fullness of one man’s life could be snuffed out in an instant.
How do you not despair this, Dr. King? How do you not despair?
I know you would say to me that the light of Christ shines brighter still, even as the darkness gets darker. I know you would say that the depth of one’s conviction can erase the care for one’s own life. I know you would say that the spiritual infection at work in the world does not relent, but neither does Christ relent and nor should we.
But when I awoke this morning, it was with a heaviness of heart I could not shake. I thought about your life snuffed out in an instant. I thought about your disappointment in the powers of your country through the Vietnam War. I thought about Gandhi’s assassination. I thought about the crucifixion of Jesus. I thought about all the ways the depravity of this world encroaches and leaves me feeling helpless and so small.
Thankfully, the weight of my grief and discouragement propelled me to the noonday eucharist service at my church. I sat in the pew before the service and tried to pray, but all I could do was feel my sadness. My heart felt weak, and soon the tears began rolling down my cheeks. I gave thanks for a shared liturgy that allowed the prayers of the people to sustain my weakened hope, for I was too weak to pray.
And then, through the liturgy and eucharist, I was reminded of what likely gave you hope and sustained you through the darknesses you faced — and I found a measure of my own hope again.
In the reading of Psalm 67 — “Let your ways be known upon the earth, your saving health among all nations. . . . May all the ends of the earth stand in awe of God” — I was reminded that one day, all the nations of the earth will stream toward God in praise. Eventually all will see and acknowledge his glory and beauty. One day all truth will be known and honestly received.
In the epistle reading, which concerned St. Paul’s conversion, I was reminded that even a most-hated man who persecuted and killed the early believers of the church can be set apart and called through grace and receive Christ in an instant. I was reminded that even in the most hopeless circumstances, God can make all things — even the unthinkable and seemingly impossible — possible.
And finally, in the gospel reading for the day, we were told by Jesus that we would be sent out as sheep among wolves. We were told to be wise yet innocent. We were foretold the fate of some to be handed over to the authorities, flogged, and persecuted because of Jesus and his teachings.
It was such a fitting word for what I’ve been thinking and feeling today. For you know these words of Christ to be true more than most, don’t you, Mr. King? You were a sheep among wolves most of your life. You brought wisdom and innocence to bear on your life at one and the same time. You were dragged before the authorities on many occasions and pressed against in so many ways — eventually, of course, you were killed — and all of this because of the conviction of Christ you carried that would not be silenced or put down.
I needed to be reminded of these things today, Dr. King. I needed to be reminded that a power and hope greater than us lives in us and works through us and is drawing all things to a conclusion that results in celebration and joy. I needed to be reminded of the companionship of Christ through all these things.
Thank you for the life you lived that drove me, even as I despaired over it, back into the presence and arms of our Christ. Thank you for all you have taught me so far.