The measure of a person
Rev. Bryan Jackson
January 15, 2020
At the beginning of almost every year, I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Measure of a Man.”[i] This is a published version of two meditations, “What is Man?” and “The Dimensions of a Complete Life.” I tend to favor the latter and give my annual attention mostly to that; however, this year I am reexamining both. As I do, I am struck by how much social change has occurred since Dr. King’s time here on earth.
When we ask, “what is man today?” we are asking a broader question even than Dr. King was thinking during his lifetime. While Dr. King was certainly thinking broadly, even he worked within the constraints of his day. Would he have anticipated the first African American vice president? The beauty of the new administration’s record-setting selection of women to fill this cabinet is indicative of this question attempting to define man today. It should come as no surprise to my friends that I am one of many delighted about the nomination of Representative Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) as Secretary of the Interior. Given that many Native American societies are matrilineal and women play a major role in tribal decision-making, it is fitting that President-Elect Joe Biden nominated Haaland.
King, lamenting conditions in America, imagined God saying to King’s fellow citizens regarding their mutual treatment:
You left the house of your great heritage and strayed away into a far country of segregation and discrimination. You have trampled over…your brothers …You have taken from them their self-respect and their sense of dignity. You have treated them as if they were things rather than persons. Because of this a famine has broken out in your land. (p. 30)
Sound familiar? What is the measure of a human being in today’s daunting world? One might wonder what Dr. King would think of what our leaders have considered priorities in recent years. Trying to picture him in conversation with President Donald Trump about—well, anything of any substance is a bit of a brain stretch—yet I can certainly envision him asking, in that booming voice, “Just how do you count the worth of another? What is your standard of measure, sir?” We must return to the core of our being, the depths of our kindness, in order to answer that key question for ourselves, and Dr. King continues to show us the way through his writings and his spirit.
What is the measure of a human being in today’s daunting world? We must return to the core of our being, the depths of our kindness, in order to answer that key question for ourselves, and Dr. King continues to show us the way through his writings and his spirit.
It is relatively simple to look back on the year 2020 and blame a host of external events for our troubles. Most of us were not hoping for a killer virus to hit the streets. Most of us were not hoping for stark division among our own citizenry that resembled a virtual-based civil war. Yet, we did in fact create some semblance of an undeclared war between the states. Discussing Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, Dr. King observed that man was not created for evil:
Whenever he moves away from his Father’s house he finds himself…frustrated and disillusioned. But the parable does not end there. That’s the beauty of it. (p. 27)
King then goes on to remind us of the parable’s meaning, that the father welcomed his wayward son back with an unconditional love. Somehow, during the horrors of 2020, we lost sight of that concept. Examining the lack of grace that abounded last year might help us to reclaim it this year. The incoming administration—especially our new president and vice president—has an opportunity to lead us by example in the area of grace and I hereby call them to task on that subject. We have a long way to go regarding our very real pandemic woes. Part of that grace aspect—one that King himself embodied—is to point out the notion that practicing responsibility for self includes being forever on the lookout for the best interests of the population as a whole. How we behave, through our habits and intentions, during the coming year will affect those around us.
So, what is the measure of a person? In our consistent search for what that means, we are called yet again to ponder and reflect. How we ponder, on what we reflect, and the ways in which we bring our thoughts and prayers to action, will determine the kind of year 2021 is likely to be.
The Rev. Bryan D. Jackson is an American Baptist minister and a member of the Mount Hood Cherokees, a satellite community of the Cherokee Nation. He lives on Vashon Island, Washington and is the author of Chattahoochee Rain: A Cherokee novella.