COMMENTARY: Pimples included: MLK’s roadmap to bravery

Fifty years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., where are we? Are we closer to the “dream” he shared in the shadow of the Lincoln Monument in 1963? Are we closer to eradicating the “triple evils” of racism, poverty, and war that he so often decried? Are we closer to the “mountaintop” he took a collection of sanitation workers and their families to 50 years ago in Memphis?

A peek into the current state of humanity’s soul doesn’t give immediate rise to optimism. Yet, what if his life generated something more than faint hero worship or self-serving manipulation by people more interested in parsing his quotes than pursuing his questions? What if MLK’s bravery stirred a radical pursuit of bravery in our own lives? Pimples included.

With global income inequality growing alongside xenophobic voices gaining legitimacy around the world, the pursuit of bravery may not seem to resonate today. It feels as if the planet’s impulse for goodness has reached an impenetrable impasse, but we must create spaces for bravery. It was this and not his speeches that set King apart.

How are we to reconcile this noble ideal offered by King’s remarkably flawed humanity now that so many of our civic virtues lay on the threshing floor of wanton ambition and lack of funding? It is done by rhythmically extolling a common practice that daily grants us permission to be superheroes without capes. It is the practice of introspection. It’s time we take a long hard look at ourselves. Starting with the individual we find in the mirror. Pimples included.

Did you know Martin Luther King Jr. had a terrible skin problem? It was something that caused him a great deal of anguish and constant frustration. Indeed, for a man who travelled more than 6 million miles and spoke in public more than 3,000 times from 1957 to 1968, his constant skin irritation caused him to consistently work out a myriad of ways to appear “camera ready.” In a 24-hour news culture in which reputations can evaporate with the stroke of a button, we too must constantly consider ways to live into the better angels of our nature by becoming brave enough to discover our authentic selves.

As brave as King was to live under the constant threat of death, we often forget the internal fortitude that propelled his relentless pursuit of making humanity human again. White Supremacy. Poverty. Militarism. What propelled King to mythical status was not necessarily his answer to any social ill, but his commitment to the public pursuit of these seemingly intractable issues in the face of his own glaring personal contradictions. Such bravery requires one to find the courage to honestly look at oneself and work to create brave spaces of radical self-discovery. Especially when it is uncomfortable. Just like King.

Bouts of alcoholism coupled with chain smoking; marital discord and prolonged spaces of insomnia and depression — King attempted daily to fight back personal demons on behalf of people everywhere that they too might be “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” He was not always successful. Today we humbly honor his tragic demise by raising Bravery to the level of a Fourth Right. It is time for us to look at ourselves. Bravely. Pimples included.

Peter Matthews is the Pastor of historic McKinley United Methodist Church in Dayton, and Director of the Center for Global Renewal and Missions at United Theological Seminary.

Join Rev. Matthews today at United Theological Seminary for the 2nd annual Emerson Colaw Lecture Series highlighting Dr. King’s “Beloved Community” from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free and open to the public.

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