Martin Luther King Jr. And The Making Of Habits

On the wall of my favorite little Persian restaurant in Memphis (yes, there are Persian restaurants in Memphis), there hung a sign.

On the sign were written these words, “In the beginning, we make our habits. In the end, our habits make us.”

In that spirit, I’ve decided to begin a new habit today. Starting today and every MLK Day henceforth, I want to make it a habit of reading through Dr. King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail and when my children are old enough (they’re 1 and 3 now), I want to read it to them too.

I don’t tell you that to pat myself on the back as if it’s some great achievement. It’s not. The letter is fairly short and it is no great accomplishment to read something one has already read through many times before. I announce it publicly simply to keep myself publicly accountable for the new habit I hope to form; a habit I need to form because I am part of the often ignorant, more often than not intransigent, and too often callous audience Dr. King was trying to reach from his Birmingham cell.

I am a white clergyman.

An ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, to be exact.

And I need to make Dr. King’s prophetic words an ongoing conviction in my life.

I also announce my new habit publicly in the perhaps vain hope that you too might take up the same habit for yourself. Why should you? Because Dr. King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail is, without question, one of the greatest works of civil and theological reflection, not just in American history, but also and especially in the history of the Christian Church. It deserves a place in our spiritual disciplines, particularly if you come from a background like mine: white, privileged, and too many times blissfully (and shamefully) unaware of the pain and struggles of my neighbors who look and talk and think and act differently than I do.

Those who know Dr. King’s letter well, know its conviction jumps right of the page and its criticisms (sadly) remain as relevant today as they were half a century ago. Like this prophetic warning that seems as if it could have written just last year,

I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as “rabble rousers” and “outside agitators” those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies–a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.

In his letter, Dr. King also famously spoke of time. He was calling to account white clergymen, his brothers in the faith, for their admonition to wait on equal rights because they would arrive eventually. In response, Dr. King wrote,

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

You will, no doubt, see many quotes from Dr. King’s famous letter shared across social media and rightfully so. I share these with you, not to add to the noise, but to once again hold myself accountable, for as I confessed before, I am that white clergyman Dr. King wrote to and I need hear and heed these words of my brother in the faith. Which is why I want to make an annual habit of reading Dr. King’s letter because I don’t want to become complacent and dismissive of the struggles of those whose plight my privilege makes it impossible for me to fully comprehend. I want to return time and again to Dr. King’s letter so that I will remain convicted and convinced that if I want to see the change in the world I so often write about, I can’t simply sit by and wait on the wheels of inevitability to come rolling by.

As I read through Dr. King’s letter today, I also promise I will do my best to resist the temptation to blow up your Twitter and Facebook feeds sharing every incredible quote I come from.

Instead, I want to leave you with a lesser known section of a King essay you are probably not quite as familiar with. It was entitled The Time For Freedom Has Come and appeared in the September 10, 1961 edition of New York Times Magazine. There are, of course, many riches to be mined in Dr. King’s essay, but I want to leave you with his final words, words that beautifully and succinctly sum up the driving force in Dr. King’s life: the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.

In an effort to understand the students and to help them understand themselves, I asked one student I know to find a quotation expressing his feeling of our struggle. He was an inarticulate you man, athletically expert and far more poetic with a basketball than with words, but few would have found the quotation he typed on a care and left on my desk early one morning:

I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see,
I sought God, but he eluded me,
I sought my brother, and I found all three.