MLK Day Reflection with The Man In Black

What do a family bike ride to Folsom Prison, a scriptural meditation on Luke 4:14-21, and MLK Day have to do with one another? I’m glad you asked… 😉

I’m thankful that Amazon recognized MLK Day as an official company holiday for the first time. As a family we’ve always sought to make it more than just a holiday from work/school. It’s been a heavy year, and this time to reflect, be together, pray, and write, is restorative. Traditional events like marches to the downtown courthouse (or in Sacramento’s case, the state capitol) were canceled this year for multiple reasons (COVID, and potential unrest as we near the inauguration), so we had to get creative and do our own thing.

We decided to ride the American River bike trail to historic downtown Folsom and the adjoining Johnny Cash trail to Folsom Prison. This facility, while more famous than other prisons (thanks to Cash’s performance at the prison and his song “Folsom Prison Blues”), is just one of thousands of institutions housing over 2.3 million inmates in the U.S., the country with the dubious distinction of having the largest prison population, both by raw numbers and per capita, in the world.

While MLK fought for civil rights and achieved incremental gains toward racial justice and equality, we still have a long way to go. Mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and the so-called War on Drugs, are the new Jim Crow of our day, disproportionately impacting black and brown people and leaving a wake of destruction through our communities and families.

I realize these comments may offend the politics of some, but if you’ve stuck with me thus far, let’s find common ground in the agreement that, whatever the root cause, this represents brokenness played out in one way or another. Brokenness of lives, of families, of children missing a parent, of victims who have suffered. Brokenness of the societal contract by a system riddled with institutionalized injustice. Brokenness that led to a poor choice. Or to a lack of choices to begin with, due to brokenness in the promise of equal opportunity for all.

Once we rode our bikes to the closest spot you can get to the prison from the trail, within view of the walls and one of the many guard towers, we stopped and spent some time in reflection. We prayed for the inmates and their families. We read Luke 4:14-21 three times, Lectio Divina style. In this first public proclamation of his mission, Jesus astounds the people of his home town by proclaiming himself the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. Sight for the blind, good news to the poor, liberation for the oppressed, freedom for the prisoners. In short, to bring wholeness to that which is broken.

But now that’s our job, isn’t it? We are Jesus’ hands and feet to carry on this work. The Reverend Dr. King had a keen awareness of what has been oft-dubbed “liberation theology,” emphasizing this same mandate. As we looked over the walls of Folsom Prison today, we prayed that justice would roll down like a river; righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, echoing Dr. King’s most-quoted verse (Amos 5:24). He was big on justice. And lest we mistake that for the narrow western definition of getting due punishment for a wrongful act, as a Christian minister and scholar he understood the broader meaning of the word in Christendom and its root in the Hebrew, “mishpat,” which described fairness and equity far more holistically. Consider how God is described in Psalm 146: “He executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. He sets prisoners free, he gives sight to the blind… watches over the immigrant and sustains the orphan and widow.”

Johnny Cash also had this more holistic understanding of justice and healing for that which is broken—if you’ve never taken the time to read the lyrics of “Man in Black,” one of the songs he authored himself, do yourself a favor and look it up.

You might not share the religious faith of Dr. King, Johnny Cash, and myself. You may be discouraged or turned off by the degree to which self-interested people and groups through the ages have claimed God for their “side”—it certainly discourages me. But one thing we can be sure of is that, to the extent God is on anyone’s “side,” it’s that of the broken and downtrodden. So if we want to be on God’s “side,” we must be, too.