Jesus said, “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” -Matthew 25:40
Tuesday was the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have been 90 if he were still living. Every year on King’s birthday, I try to learn something new about civil rights or inequality in the U.S. King famously remarked that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” If that’s true, then I want to know about injustice in this country I love so that I can stand against it.
Of course, it isn’t easy. Often what I learn makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I’ve directly or indirectly added to the problem, and that makes me feel guilty. Sometimes I just don’t want to know because if I know then I feel like I need to do something. Maybe you’ve felt the same way, shock or embarrassment or discomfort or denial at learning about injustice others have experienced.
This year for King’s birthday, I read an essay by Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. She wrote about her experience of being pregnant and black, citing statistics about maternal and infant mortality rates. She wrote that black mothers are 243% more likely to die from pregnancy and delivery complications than white women, and black babies are about twice as likely as white babies to die in their first year of life.
I was floored. I had no idea that this was happening, nor any grasp of the factors that were contributing to this disparity. I still don’t know very much about it, but I know that there’s a problem. I’ve added it to my mental list of large-scale problems I’d like to work toward resolving. There are lots of examples of different groups of people being victims of injustice; this is only one.
Why, though, make a big fuss about it? Why make ourselves uncomfortable? Why learn such sobering statistics or listen to distressing personal stories?
Simply put, I believe it’s our responsibility as Christians to see Jesus in those who suffer and care for them as we would care for him. When we learn of injustice, the easy thing is to decide it isn’t impacting us and ignore it. But Paul wrote “ when one member suffers, all suffer with it… You all are the body of Christ and each of you is a member of it.” (I Cor 12:26-27)
Between the words of Jesus telling us that whatever we do to anyone in need, we do as if it were to Jesus, and the words of Paul reminding us that all are members of one body, we have no choice but to work for justice for all. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” remember?
But how? Try this pattern: first, learn as much as you can about the injustice that concerns you, especially from the people it impacts. Second, take a long, hard look at yourself to see how you may have allowed or encouraged that injustice, even without intending to. If this makes you feel guilty, know that Jesus forgives you. Third, stand up against injustice wherever you can. Maybe it’s by telling your family member that their joke isn’t very funny when it hurts people. Maybe it’s encouraging your workplace to be inclusive and diverse. You know what you can do.
It’s not easy. I know I’ve goofed it up plenty of times. I also know that it’s important to God that we, dear children of God, treat one another with the kind of love that protects the vulnerable and sustains the weak. Will you join with me in following the example of Martin Luther King Jr, who himself was simply following the teachings of Jesus?
Dear God, I confess that I have not always paid attention or cared as I should about injustice. Open my eyes and my heart to your suffering children. May it be soon that all your children live in dignity and love. In your name, Amen.