As a nation, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 21st. Does this mean anything special for the Church—for Catholics, even? Catholics have much to learn and celebrate about the Baptist pastor, preacher, and prophet. The more we consider how far we have come as a nation and as a human race since Dr. King met his tragic end on April 4, 1968, the more we sense, I think, just how far we have to go to realize his Dream.
When I think of Dr. King, I think of justice. Biblical justice. To recall a famous quote (King’s paraphrase from Theodore Parker), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As our nation honors Dr. King in a few days, I think it might be wise to contemplate for a moment the role of justice in our discipleship, which is an integral aspect of our baptismal identity as priest, prophet, and king.
As a pastor and preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood deep in his bones the kerygmatic nature (from “kerygma”) of true justice. Justice is a gift of Jesus. Like all gifts and graces from God, it is meant to be multiplied and shared. Even in the most difficult times of persecution, Dr. King proclaimed the gift of justice. In his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote the words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. King (who earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University) quotes St. Thomas Aquinas in defining an unjust law as “a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law,” and then adds a simple explanation: “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1774), the great theologian of the Middle Ages and among the greatest in the history of the Church, defined justice as giving the other what is their due. Thomas Aquinas even defines “religion,” which is a virtue, as a form of justice, because it gives God the worship and adoration that is owed to him.
First, can we ask ourselves where justice is still lacking in our world and in our own Church insofar as it is, alongside its spiritual identity, an institution composed of fallible, sinful human beings? Any lack of justice is a sure sign that we, the Church, have become adept in talking about the Gospel but have yet to take living it just as seriously. In her ongoing task of renewal, the Church must recover a robustly biblical, prophetic vision and conviction that justice is not accessory to the Gospel. Fortunately, in my own observations and ministry, I have seen that many young Christians are mending the gap that seems to have developed between “social justice Christians” and “liturgy and doctrine Christians.” This distinction is foreign to Aquinas and King, and the extent to which we buy into this split is the sign that we have allowed our faith to be compromised by the politics of the day. To offer one way of restoring this divide, in his letter Dr. King writes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” What if we thought about our baptismal garment, symbolic of putting on the life of Christ, as also the Church’s “garment of destiny”? Salvation and justice are the garment that clothes the body of Christ, the Church.
One way of looking at Dr. King’s quote about the moral arc is to see it as a challenge that is not “way out there” in the universe, but as an invitation to bend and mend our personal lives toward justice. What might it imply to bend our lives? A change of habit or lifestyle, resisting our initial unkind or selfish response or natural inclination, and going out of our way to change the trajectory of our relationship with other people, our nation, and even creation. This is the message of “integral ecology” Pope Francis teaches in his encyclical letter Laudato Si. Dr. King saw God’s providential hand at work on a cosmic level, and as Catholics, we recognize the need as disciples to participate in God’s grace, and that includes justice. Authentic justice takes work, effort, struggle, and at times—as many true prophets in Scripture and history have experienced—persecution. Not all of us are called to create justice in the same way, yet we are all called to create justice in some way.
Question for Reflection: What is one concrete step you can take to help create a more just situation in your family, school, workplace, or other sphere of influence today?
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Evan Ponton is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Baltimore currently in formation at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, MD.