The Urgency of Compassion

"We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now."~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As I sat in my office in Washington, D.C., in the building whose view includes the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capital, I received an email with information and upcoming events about Black History Month. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) declared the theme for this year's Black History Month as Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.

I deeply appreciate the work of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and that of many others who have worked tirelessly to share the lives, experiences, and contributions of African Americans throughout history. For me personally, Black History month cannot stop at being a retrospective exercise but a challenge, a wakeup call to address the "fierce urgency of now." Even though Dr. King wrote about the urgency in his speech Beyond Vietnam: A time to break the silence almost fifty years ago, the words are still relevant and almost haunting. We tend to think of Hallowed Grounds as being places of the past, remnants of years of struggle and pain, yet now we add to the list Ferguson, Missouri; Waller County, Texas; a church in Charleston, South Carolina; and a park in Cleveland, Ohio.

Just like church is more than a place to go on Sunday, black history is more than a month-long celebration; it is an invitation to remember and re-engage. It is a call to show up and speak out against injustices, discrimination, and oppression today, wherever we find them and not wait until they become history to learn from them.

Historian Carter Woodson wrote, "We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice." That starts when honest dialogue leads to greater understanding. And when we value all people and realize that Black History is our history, a shared history equally important to the identity and freedom of all people. That's what it means to RETHINK CHURCH.

We live in a culture where it seems like everything is urgent. Commercials convince us that we need the latest products to make our lives happier, easier, and more prosperous and that we need them right now! Drivers on the road honk angrily if others interrupt their ability to get to their destination quickly. Leaders use the rhetoric of urgency to sell the masses on their latest proposal. It's hard to consider anything truly urgent when it appears that everything is. And yet there are many challenges facing society that require urgent change: mass incarceration, rights for immigrants, gun and education reform, the end of violence and war in our communities. Dr. King's words ring true; with every passing day and with every passing news report of a mass shooting or the erosion of freedoms and opportunities around the world, we are confronted once again with the fierce urgency of now. These matters require faithful attention and action now before another life is lost or another opportunity denied.

All too often the call for urgency is simply an argument for being ruled by fear. The persistent need to fix something or avoid something runs our agenda, sending us into a frenzy of self-interested activity that leaves us frustrated and exhausted by the slow pace of progress. Does the broken justice system in the United States need to be fixed? Absolutely. Not simply because it's broken, but because it is alienating an entire generation of black and brown people from opportunity while profiting from their pain; it perpetuates cycles of poverty and it diminishes the faith of the people in their right to be treated fairly in the eyes of the law. We must allow these realities to penetrate our hearts and let the sadness, outrage, and impatience we feel become the source of our sense of urgency. I believe that the urgency needed today is one born in compassion for the marginalized and hurting, expressed in acts of resistance to all forms of oppression.

Tomorrow is indeed today. This history of the past must not only inspire us but inform us. Black Lives must matter not just for a moment or a month, but because all lives depend on our ability to see the God and the good in each other. One doesn't need to look very far to see that the dream of Dr. King has yet to be fully realized. I pray that our hearts may be convicted anew to see the brokenness of the human family and to act with courage so that every life may have the opportunity to reach its fullest potential. I will not settle for our lives or deaths to just be a memory, acknowledged one month out of every year.