A lesson from MLK Jr: Do justice or be love?

The first time I was ever involved in any kind of protest was when I was a sophomore in college. Our dormitory was notorious for vandalism and that year it had escalated to such a degree that the director of campus housing made a drastic ruling: No current students living in the dormitory could return to that dorm the next school year. I then led a cause for justice against the horrendous decision. We bought a full-page advertisement in the school newspaper protesting the decision. We wore T-Shirts that depicted our plight and our rage. Our cries for justice rang loud as we “stuck it to the man” — and his family — by posting signs on the front lawn of the housing director’s home. I then began to organize the greatest protest of all . . . we would stake out in tents on the campus lawn until our voices were heard and the decision was changed. Surely 800 students in tents would bring justice. Our fight would go down in history as a turning point for students’ rights everywhere. The plans moved forward. We were prepared.

It rained the day that the campout was scheduled, so instead of pitching our tents we stayed in our warm dormitory beds. Our fervor fizzled and we eased back into collegiate apathy. And in the end it didn’t matter to me anymore. I had somehow lost sight of why we were protesting in the first place. What for me began as a stand for justice became lost in the thrill of the fight.

Not all fights for justice are the same. It was 20 years after my failed campus rebellion when I first met Bethany (not her real name). With no money or support from local churches or government, this lady who was barely out of high school started an orphanage in a city where thousands of street people were being harassed by both citizens and police. I’ve visited her orphanage multiple times since then and met the children, children who were previously abused and abandoned, who now had a home, meals, an education, a future, and a family. Ironically, Bethany originally planned a temporary stay in that city, wanting to soon move on to help orphans in India. “But, I fell in love with the children here” is her only explanation. Bethany’s trust in God and commitment to justice and love, gives kids who were previously treated like vermin a chance for a full life. Bethany hasn’t made a name for herself, but she has made a future for the children.

On a day when we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is tempting to separate the man’s actions of justice from his character of love and his reliance on God. Dr. King, like the majority of great men and women who have impacted social change in the world, had a belief that all people were created equal by God. God’s love for all people compelled Dr. King to fight for justice, not for personal gain. I don’t believe that those who do great things are motivated to be great — instead they are willing to make themselves small to help those who cannot help themselves. They are motivated by love and justice while also acknowledging that they cannot fight the fight alone.

The over 100 verses in the Bible about justice share some common themes: First, these verses don’t advocate an a ambiguous justice for the masses; they advocate justice on a personal level, one life at a time. Second, most of the verses on justice argue against the evils of favoritism. But I want to selectively divvy out love and justice to the intangible masses: Love for the starving person in India; justice for the cigarette-smoking beggar on the streets of my town. Love for the poor orphan child in Honduras; justice for the noisy neighbor kid who kicks his soccer ball against my garage door. Love for those who are gracious and thankful; justice for those who have a sense of entitlement. Love when it’s convenient and affordable; justice when it’s not.

True justice requires an impartial love that comes only from God. Hosea 12:6 says “Come back to your God. Act with love and justice, and always depend on him” (NLT). When I come to God, I am compelled toward love first and then justice. A humble dependence on God provides the me the grace to not lose sight of why I do what I do. Humility before God makes love and justice personal. Love and justice must begin in my neighborhood: The widow who lives down the street, the children in the nearby shelter, and the pregnant 13-year-old who attends my neighborhood school — they each need love and justice. Love and justice through the eyes of God creates in me a new daily sensitivity to the needs around me and willingness to sacrifice myself to meet those needs. Tom Davis says it well: “Being a living sacrifice starts with being sensitive to those people God brings to your attention.”

* Read Tom Davis’ book, Fields of the Fatherless: Discover the Joy of Compassionate Living (2008).

Calvin G. Roso © January 2014

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