When I was a student at San Francisco Theological Seminary in the early 1980s, my roommate during the first two years was a young man from Georgia named David Sharp. Sharp, who is about seven years older than I am, is a graduate of USC, while I am a graduate of UCLA, so we had a lot of fun with our alma maters’ bitter rivalry.
I remember that a few seminary students were surprised that a white guy was rooming with a black guy, but both of us were focused on the fact that he never dreamed he’d be rooming with a Bruin and I couldn’t believe I was rooming with a Trojan! Our friendship continues to this day.
Sharp’s father was a Baptist minister in Georgia and Sharp used to play with Martin Luther King Jr.’s children. Each year, when our nation celebrates Dr. King’s birthday, I think about his children and about how hard it must have been for them to grow up without their father.
I also think about that famous and now iconic “I have a dream” speech in which Dr. King said: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
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Do the now adult King children live in such a society today? Do we see beyond a person’s race and judge by the content of their character? The answer to that question is probably yes and no. I think we have matured as a nation, but surely there can be little doubt that we still have a long way to go.
I want to focus not on the question of race (though that remains a very important question), but on what Dr. King called the content of our character.
Americans have been challenged recently to think about the content of our character by the tragic murder of our fellow Americans in Tucson, Arizona, including a little girl, Christina Taylor Green, whose parents had dreams of their own for her.
While we don’t know all the factors that drove the alleged young man to his horrific actions, we do know he did them in a nation where violent rhetoric and behavior is common in all realms of life, not just the political realm. We do know that we live in a nation where a billion dollar industry based on hate thrives and where talk radio, books, magazines and newspapers shout insults and demonize our fellow Americans.
Whether that climate of hate in our nation had any effect on the shooter in Tucson is only one important question. The other is, how can we — Americans, black and white, Christians, Muslims and Jews, gay and straight — how can we heal the mean-spiritedness and intolerance in ourselves so that the content of our character will be pleasing to God? This is not a political question, it is a human question, and reflecting on that question about the content of our character (individually and as a nation), honors the life of Dr. King and gives glory to God.
Did you hear the words of Pima Sheriff Clarence Dubnick after the shooting? He said: “I think it’s time as a country that we do a little soul searching ... the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting outrageous.” Whether that sheriff is liberal or conservative is irrelevant — he expressed a truth we all need to open our hearts to hear.
Scott Kelly, the brother-in-law of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords said from space, “We’re better than this. We must do better.”
As we remember Martin Luther King Jr., may God’s grace bring healing to our nation and may it renew and deepen the content of our character.
Rev. Robert Crouch has been the pastor of the Community Presbyterian Church in Pismo Beach for the last nine years.