Time is defined by what men do with it. Change is determined by how women influence it. Nations are made by the souls of their citizens. Martin Luther King, Jr., knew this all too well. It was 15 days after the historic inauguration of U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Both timid and excited about the recent transition of power, King was well aware of the fact that while the American people were powerful, the president held the power. He explored this in an article published for The Nation on February 4, 1961, entitled “Equality Now: The President Has the Power.”
King wrote about the moral and legal responsibility of the office: “We must decide that in a new era, there must be new thinking. If we fail to make this positive decision, an awakening world will conclude that we have become a fossil nation, morally and politically.”1 King believed that in times of transition presidents had the ability to set the tone for the moral and political trajectory of a nation. Therefore, the responsibility of equality, justice, and the full manifestation of the American creed fell at the feet of not just United States citizens, but particularly so at the feet of every United States president.
Sixty years later America finds itself at another crucial transition point. Its citizens are bombarded by the sting of police brutality, the stench of coronavirus deaths, and the surge of unemployment. This month America celebrates the birthday of its legendary civil rights hero in the shadows of another culture-shifting presidency.
Five days beyond that, President-elect Joseph R. Biden is due to be sworn in as the forty-sixth president of the United States. With the United States in the heat of intense racial division, moral apathy, and differing opinions on the way forward, President-elect Biden walks into the role with the job of ushering us into a new era. In the words of King, he must be willing to prioritize new thinking or further forfeit our standing in the world and potentially, significantly, the lives of the physically vulnerable and persons of color.
Celebrating the birth and legacy of Martin Luther King in light of Biden’s inauguration, I can’t help repositing King’s question from 1967: Where do we go from here? Where does the individual person go from here? Where do churches go from here? Where do schools go from here? Where do hospitals go from here?
King lent a powerful suggestion at the end of his article in The Nation. He wrote: “When our government determines to ally itself with those of its citizens who are crusading for their freedom within our borders, and lends the might of its resources creatively and unhesitatingly to the struggle, the blight of discrimination will begin rapidly to fade.” He continued, “History has thrust upon the present administration an indescribably important destiny—to complete a process of democratization which our nation has taken far too long to develop, but which is our most powerful weapon for earning world respect and emulation.”2 “Citizens . . . crusading”: that should be all of us.
We see in Scripture a clear view of what is expected of us in order to make this dream of Martin Luther King, postinauguration, a reality. In the story of Jesus we find a God who is committed to setting aside the invisibility of His divinity, donning the flesh of humanity, with the radical aim of wholistically healing a fractured people. Broken by sin, humanity is plagued with the social and spiritual erosion that comes with hatred, division, idolatry, selfishness, lying, gossip, and disregard for the worship of the one true God who made heaven and earth.
Seeing how our sinfulness separates us from God and one another, God Himself descended in the likeness of humanity for the sole purpose of saving humanity with His service and sacrifice. In the life of Christ we find Him rejecting the cultural customs of His time that restricted Him from talking with a woman, let alone a Samaritan, breeching the nationalist and sexist customs of His day for the beauty of harmony, community, and salvation. Whether touching the “untouchables,” speaking to the marginalized, restoring the widowed, fathering the fatherless, or cleansing the temple, we find God intent on disrupting the systems, teachings, and practices of His day for the wholistic restoration of humanity.
My prayer is that as we understand our duty to connect the world with their Savior, we understand that it is in our service and love toward one another that people see and believe in the character and person of Jesus Christ. While our country, our churches, even our homes might be in the midst of great division and despair, let us remember that now is a new era.
It’s time for a new way of thinking and being. It’s time to usher in the lived and expressed nature of God on Planet Earth. It’s time that people begin to see the person of Jesus Christ in you, in me, in us.
Claudia M. Allen is a writer and speaker on the intersection of faith, race, and politics.