It’s now 50 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and his words and example are as relevant—and as challenging—as ever. Though there are constant (conscious and unconscious) attempts to water down Dr King’s powerful words into ‘nice’ sayings and safe and shareable memes, there are numerous voices reminding us how radical were his words and how uncomfortable they should make us if we were to take them seriously.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Dr King’s words these past few days (I try to read his Letter from a Birmingham Jail on a regular basis), and I’ve kept coming back to this quote of his from an address at Western Michigan University:
Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion.
Well, there’s half-truth involved here.
Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.
But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.
It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.
It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.
The point is as simple as it is powerful.
As a Christian, I long to see the kind of ‘change of heart’ that would see people treat others the way they want to be treated themselves—and I truly believe this kind of deep transformation of character is possible!
I also know for sure that people consistently treat each other horribly. Sometimes it’s even systemic.
I look at the rates of incarceration of Indigenous Australians, for example, and the lack of reparation for centuries of stolen land, stolen wages, and cultural oppression and destruction. I look at Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum, and the way these people—who are created in the image of God—are consistently denied their inherent dignity by our Federal government. I look at the horrendous treatment of LGBTQI+ people, which is only now beginning to change.
In these cases and for so many others, we simply can’t wait for the necessary change of heart that would see the current state of affairs radically change. There is a need for legislation (and even constitutional change) in order for there to be justice in the present.
Of course, any such legislation “cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”
Those of us who, though we haven’t ‘earned’ it, are free from so much of this harsh treatment, need to listen deeply to the voices of those who are experiencing such things and to work with them towards the kind of changes (including legislative) that would limit the damage that can be cause by heartless people.
This doesn’t ‘fix’ everything, but it does bring us back to a kind of ‘neutral’ point.
And here’s where it gets interesting.
The call on those of us who do hold power (and especially who also claim a Christian faith) is, I believe, to take things one step further—modelled on the self-emptying example of Jesus of Nazareth (see Philippians 2:5-8, for example).
The work of securing the necessary rights and protections for those who don’t currently enjoy them is a noble and necessary task, but the higher calling is to lay down our own rights and privileges in service of others. Sometimes this will mean speaking out and amplifying the voices of others when it’s not necessarily popular to do so. Sometimes it will mean shutting up. Sometimes it will mean getting out of the way. Sometimes it will mean losing some of our own comfort or status in the process. Sometimes it will be costly, in all sorts of ways.
But this, I believe, is what that ‘change of heart’ looks like.