“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
A man of words changed, and I contend is still changing, America by what he preached, by what he believed and by what he showed us could be achieved if we were not afraid to act on our beliefs. Dr. King knew that the world was imperfect; he had seen its cruelty. He grew up in a world where civil rights were not automatic, when segregation and inequality were the norm. But he did not run from fear, hatred and difficulty; nor did he turn bitter or rage at the world’s injustice. While others lost patience or even turned to aggression, he dedicated himself to the survival and renewal of America. He lived and preached these tenets: “We must meet hate with love. We must meet physical force with soul force…we must follow nonviolence and love....”
Decades after his untimely death, we still seek to bring his vision of a just society to fruition. All over America his speeches will be read, religious services will be held in his honor. Men and women, children and grandchildren, black and white, Jew and Gentile will gather in his name to measure their lives against a dream he articulated and a hope he inspired. Why? Because the message still stirs the soul and the dream is still worth pursuing.
Americans by nature have both hope and faith in the future; we believe that tomorrow can be better than today. We firmly believe that we hold the power to bring about positive change. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day reminds us that there is more that unites us than divides us, that we can work together for a more perfect commonweal, and that doing so feels right. Dr. King invoked the call of the ancient prophets: that faith is more than prayer, it is expressed through action. So to many Americans it is a day of service, a day of giving to those in need through acts of loving-kindness.
In my own congregation we will gather Friday with congregations from across the city and we will remind ourselves in prayer and sermons where we are in relationship to that dream. Then on Monday morning, we will gather to bake casseroles, pack clothing and box books, so that we might feed those who hunger for food, feed those who hunger for knowledge, and clothe the naked. Why? Because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, and thousands of years later, we still believe in the dream that all may someday live in freedom so long as we act on our faith.
Bruce Lustig is the senior rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
For more essays by area faith leaders see On Faith/Local.