By Mara Adams
This January will mark the second semester that the St. Ambrose University Theology Department will teach a newly revised introductory-level theology course with an intentional emphasis on justice. January is also when we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany and the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. How might we weave these things together? One way is to remember that the Epiphany is a celebration of the immigrant, the stranger, the one who is different. Fleeing real danger, the Holy Family encountered the Magi, who were open to finding truth in unfamiliar experiences and letting it transform their lives. The Feast of the Epiphany falls on the heels of the New Year, a time when so many people think about ways to change their lives. As Christians, we have already encountered the Christ child, and yet we sometimes struggle to show any real evidence of that encounter. A common use of the word epiphany is to refer to a moment of insight and realization. Not only do the wise still seek Christ, but the wise also recognize Christ in the faces of the other, the marginalized, and the ignored.
Most Americans are familiar with King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, and no education would be complete without exposure to this text. However, it is a speech about dreams that may tempt us into ignoring the deeply prophetic, radical nature of King’s thought. An examination of King’s work reminds us of the scope of his prophetic call. In addition to racism, he spoke about economic injustice, the Vietnam War and international human rights violations. In a series of lecture for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, King spoke of the “triple American evils of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
One of the readings I use in my course is King’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” which sheds new light on justice and epiphanies. Written four days after his arrest in 1963, King’s letter was a response to a statement written by eight white clergymen who had condemned the protests as “untimely” and “unwise” and criticized “outsiders” such as King for his leadership in the protests. King rebutted this criticism by noting community leaders had invited him to Birmingham. Moreover, Christians are called to combat injustice anywhere and, like St. Paul, they must answer that call. In addition to responding to criticism, King leveled his own criticism by noting that white authorities ignored systemic racism, which is why the protests created an atmosphere of discomfort for those in power. The most searing challenge King presented in the letter was when he spoke of his disappointment with white moderates, who were more concerned with preserving the status quo and unwilling to take any steps to assist those in need. King said he had almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the white moderates presented more of a stumbling block for him than members of white extremists groups such as the KKK. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
In 1956, seven years before he wrote “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King was ready to give up the fight for civil rights. Then he experienced an epiphany moment in his kitchen. Writing about the experience in “Stride Toward Freedom,” he described experiencing God’s presence and hearing an inner voice saying, “stand up for justice, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever.”
The Epiphany is an opportunity for us to examine our encounter with Christ and to ask ourselves if, like the Magi, this encounter has changed us and set us on a different path. Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. provides an opportunity for us to ask if we have become complacent and have failed to see the face of Christ in those who are different. The New Year will bring many joys, as well as challenges and sorrows. May we be strengthened in our work for justice and transformed by our encounter with Christ.
(Mara Adams is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)