Gellman: How to Observe MLK Day

I make my annual resolutions on Martin Luther King Day. Jan. 1 is too blurry and arbitrary for me to seriously consider any personal goal setting. I also need some motivation to make resolutions, and my love for Martin Luther King Jr. provides that for me. I loved that he spoke with both anger and love. I love that he understood how only a nonviolent movement could change the heart of America—and he was about changing America's heart, not just changing America's laws. I love that he did not hate white people even though I could have forgiven him if he did. I loved that he used his faith to change the political landscape and never apologized for it. I loved that he loved America. He wrote, in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in 1963, that "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom." However, what I loved most about MLK is that he taught me more about the nature of hope than anyone since Job.

The basic mystery of hope and the human condition is that some people despair despite seeing miracles, while others hope despite experiencing failure and death. Why this is so is the No. 1 question I want to answer before I die.

That it is so is patently clear. Anne Frank hiding from certain death in Holland during the Holocaust still hoped. The Dutch writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a joyous, hopeful woman who speaks out against intolerance and who may be killed at any moment like her contemporary, film director Theo van Gogh. Hope is alive in them and in millions of others who see only darkness and yet still speak of the light to come. 

Hope is not the result of what we see, hope is the result of what we believe. King taught us all that this belief that goodness will triumph in the end is irrational, but it is also essential to a life of meaning. If you can believe this, nothing can ever kill your hope.

If, however, you cannot believe in what King wrote about the "strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills" then nothing you see will ever be enough to convince you to keep hope alive. I am reading in the Torah this week about how the people who saw miracles in Egypt, who witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea, who received their emancipation, started grumbling at Moses about this and that before the sea was calm. Why were those miracles not enough to sustain their hope in the desert? My favorite answer is the rabbinic suggestion that the grumblers did not actually see the miracles at all because, "they never looked up and so all they saw was mud."

So now, to my suggestion about how each of us can truly celebrate MLK Day. Let us all try to remember one thing for which we have lost hope and try to believe in it again. Let us recover one goal from the ash heap of our failures and dust it off and let it shine again in Monday's sun. Yes, it may be true that what we pick to hope for again may be too personal or selfish or limited to properly honor this American prophet. Perhaps, and yet I remain convinced that we cannot move forward as a nation with people who believe nothing will change—and ladies and gentleman I am the columnist of change! We can only collectively recover our country after we first individually recover our hope.

King knew this from his theological mentor, Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught, "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; Therefore, we must be saved by hope." King knew this on April 3, 1968, one day before his life—but not his hope—was cut short: "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

This teaching of the primacy of hope is not just from Niebuhr and King. It has roots in the first stirrings of our hope, which you can learn from the Book of Job if you wish, or perhaps from the tree stump in your back yard—take your pick.

"For there is hope of a tree, that if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and its tender branches will not die. If its roots are old in the earth, even if the trunk dies in the ground, at the first scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant." (Job 14:7-9)

Thank you, God, for sharing Martin Luther King Jr. with us.

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