Thinking of Martin Luther King always reminds me of justice issues, of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.
When I was a boy, students from all twelve grades rode the school bus together because we all went to the same school. That is, all of the white children went to one school, and the black children went to another. Both of them served all twelve grades on single campuses.
There was a boy on our bus, about six years ahead of me, whose name was Jimmy Justice. I remember liking that name. I rarely had the nerve to talk to older students, but when I was in about the sixth grade and Jimmy was about to graduate, I yelled out to him as he got off the bus for the last time, “Do justice, Jimmy!”
I thought I was being clever, and didn’t realize I was quoting Micah 6:8. But that is our calling: to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God, whatever our name is.
As I spoke those words, it never occurred to me that we were both willing participants in a school system that was inherently unjust, because it treated people of one race as more precious and privileged than people of another race. I was so much a part of the culture in which I lived that I did not question the inherent injustice of it. Only later did I come to appreciate the importance of basic human rights for all people.
Amos, Micah’s contemporary, preached along similar themes. In words that are more familiar to us from a speech by Martin Luther King than from Amos, he also called on Israel to stop putting their trust in elaborate religious rituals. Instead, he said, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
It is so easy for custom and culture to blind us to injustice. Popular television programs like “Survivor” or “Big Brother” depict a setting in which lying, cheating, backstabbing and betrayal are all okay because “that’s how you play the game.” Too many people think of life as nothing more than a game, in which it doesn’t matter how many others you hurt so long as it advances your own interests. But life is not just a game we are trying to win.
I have learned that justice begins with respect for others, including those who look different, those who talk different, and even those who have different ideas.
Both history books and daily newspapers are replete with the terrible results of what happens when people do not respect others. We have this tendency to label others with pejorative nicknames or to lump them into a less favored category, and they cease to be real people in our eyes. Because we don’t see them as deserving of the same respect we receive, it’s much easier to abuse them.
That’s how the early American South justified slavery.
That’s how Hitler justified the gas chambers.
That’s how militant religious extremists justify the mass murder of innocent civilians, and how some of our own servicemen justify treating prisoners with contempt.
That’s how young men who think of themselves as upstanding citizens can justify terrorizing other young men because they are gay.
Doing justice begins with respect for the humanity and the basic rights of all people – and it includes coming to the aid of those who are victims of injustice and cannot help themselves. As Dr. King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
He also once said “Life’s most persistent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” – and on another occasion, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”
And that’s something I’ll be thinking about today …