Many people working for justice today stand on the shoulders of Martin Luther King Jr. However, King’s vision of justice is often gravely limited and misunderstood. Too many people thought then, and continue to think, that King's statements regarding justice were only about race and the African-American community. However, we fail to see how King's vision of justice was far wider and challenging that we might have once imagined.
For King, justice was more than a racial issue, more than a legal or moral issue. Justice was a human issue. And this was evident in King's passionate concern about a wide range of concerns: "The revolution for human rights is opening up unhealthy areas in American life and permitting a new and wholesome healing to take place," King once told a racially mixed audience. "Eventually the civil rights movement will have contributed infinitely more to the nation than the eradication of racial injustice."
Moral leadership played a profound role in the justice work that King did. He argued that true moral leadership must involve itself in the situations of all who are damned, disinherited, disrespected and dispossessed, and moral leadership must be part of a participatory government that is feverishly working to dismantle the existing discriminatory laws that truncate full participation in the fight to advance democracy. Surely part of our job, in keeping King's dream alive, is to also work to dismantle discriminatory laws and dehumanizing structures.
However, if King were among us today, he would say that it is not enough to look outside ourselves to see the places where society is broken, like our institutions and workplaces that fracture and separate people based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. We must also look at the ways we manifest these bigotries.
Often, we find that these institutions and workplaces are broken, dysfunctional and wounded in the very same ways that we are; thus, being mirrors not of whom we want to be, but who we really are.
King would remind us that we cannot heal the world if we have not healed ourselves. So perhaps the greatest task, and the most difficult work we must do in light of King's teachings, is to heal ourselves in relationship to our justice work in the world.
In "The Old Man and the Sea," Ernest Hemingway said that the world breaks us all, but some of us grow strong in those broken places. King's teachings invites us to grow strong in our broken places - not only to mend the sin-sick world in which we live in, but also to mend the sin-sick world that we carry around within us. We can only do that if we are willing to look both inward and outward, healing ourselves of the bigotry, biases and the demons that chip away at our efforts to work toward justice in this world.
I know that the struggle against racism that King talked about is only legitimate if I am also fighting anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism, classism - not only out in the world but also in myself. Otherwise, I am creating an ongoing cycle of abuse that goes on unexamined and unaccounted for.
We are foolish if we think we can heal the world and not ourselves. We delude ourselves if we think that King was only talking about the wounding of institutional racism, and not the personal wounds we all carry as human beings.
In light of King's teachings, I believe that when we use our gifts in the service of others as King has taught us we then shift the paradigm of personal brokenness to personal healing. We also shift the paradigm of looking for moral leadership from outside of ourselves to within ourselves; thus, realizing we are not only the agents of change in society, but also the moral leaders we have been looking for.
Our job, therefore, in keeping King's dream alive is to remember that our longing for social justice is also inextricably tied to our longing for personal healing.