What do Martin Luther King Jr. Day, National Religious Freedom Day, and the NFL playoffs have in common?
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. The third Monday in January is set aside each year to honor his remarkable legacy and transformative achievements. There will be parades today in cities across the country as Americans mark our civil rights progress and commit ourselves to continuing the journey until our nation’s claim that “all men are created equal” becomes true for all.
Today is also the annual National Religious Freedom Day. On January 16, 1786, Thomas Jefferson’s landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was adopted. Each year on this day, our nation proclaims Religious Freedom Day with an annual statement from the president of the United States.
As religious freedom scholar Frederick Clarkson notes, “Religious freedom is the source of all the other freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the First Amendment.” Without this right to believe as we wish free from governmental coercion, free speech and a free press would be neither possible nor relevant. As Dr. King himself noted, civil freedom stands on religious freedom.
However, if you live in one of the eight cities whose teams competed in the NFL playoffs over the weekend, you may be thinking more about the game than either of today’s national observances. Here in Dallas, we’re still grieving our loss to the Packers and wishing Aaron Rodgers would just retire. Why is the entire city in mourning over a game that only forty-six athletes were eligible to experience firsthand?
Western culture since the ancient Greeks has focused on the individual. Socrates taught us that the key to wisdom is to “know thyself.” The self-made existentialistic hero is our model.
But there’s something in us that knows it’s not really so. We were made by God for community with him and with each other. Every image of the church in the New Testament is collective—a body with many members (1 Corinthians 12:27), a vine with many branches (John 15:1–11). There are no solos in the Book of Revelation.
We all need to be part of a community that transcends us.
We all need to be part of a community that transcends us. That’s why we know instinctually that civil rights are human rights and that injustice against one is injustice against all. That’s why we affirm the freedom to know God and make him known to our fellow travelers on this journey to eternity. That’s why we want our team to win so that our city wins.
Unity is so vital for God’s people that Jesus is praying right now that we “may all be one” so that “the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). In AD 107, on the way to his martyrdom, St. Ignatius encouraged his fellow Christians to answer our Lord’s prayer: “In your harmony of mind and heart the song you sing is Jesus Christ. Every one of you should form a choir, so that, in harmony of sound through harmony of hearts, and in unity taking the note from God, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father.”
Let us sing with one voice heaven’s song of redemption and inclusion, forgiveness and grace. Let us sing it so loudly and courageously that, as Dr. King so famously said, “All God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”