(Honoring Marting Luther King Jr.)
“Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Remember that old saying? My mom used to recite it when my sister and I were fighting. It may have been true when we called each other names, but it certainly isn't true today.
We have just completed one of the most divisive election cycles in history. Not only did we call each other names, but Russian hacking of US internet servers and “false news” websites compounded the damage. Many are fearful and angry. The usual niceties in a transition between administrations are missing. Our democracy is at risk unless we can heal the fear, hatred and intolerance that infects us.
This weekend we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wand the civil rights movement to free African Americans from tyranny and prejudice. Today the dynamic of fear and hatred has spread world-wide as people with different religions, economic circumstances, political preferences and gender identities are isolated, marginalized and persecuted. Yes, names matter.
When Jean and I named our children, we carefully searched for the right names. We wanted to choose well because a person's name is a way of describing their essence. I liked the sound of Leah for our daughter, but I didn't like its meaning, “the weary one.” Instead we chose Rebecca meaning, “Captivating.” This wonderfully described our daughter. Timothy, meaning "Honored by God," seemed perfect for our son.
There is an ancient Hebrew story about the patriarch, Jacob. i Jacob was the second born of twins. His name means “the grabber,” because he was grabbing Esau's heel during the birth process. Jacob continued his grabbing ways as he grew older. He stole Esau's birthright by tricking his father. He fled to his uncle Laban's where he lived fourteen years and married his uncle's two daughters. There he manipulated Laban so he could increase his own wealth at his uncle's expense.
Jacob was hounded by a sense that there was more to life than his empty existence of grabbing and accumulating. Things came to a head one lonely night as he and his family journeyed home to confront Esau. He sent his servants, cattle and family ahead to appease his brother. Alone by the Jabbok Creek, Jacob grappled with the implications of his past life. This struggle manifest itself as a wrestling match with an unknown being. Jacob was wounded in the hip, but he refused to release the being until he was granted a blessing. Finally the blessing was given: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
That morning, permanently lame, Jacob/Israel limped forward to make peace with his brother. The families of his sons became the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob, the grabber, became the father of a nation.
Another story, this one from the Christian tradition, describes how Jesus was also renamed. Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter, was about 30 years old when John, the Baptizer, burst on the scene. John was a wild man. He lived in the wilderness, dressed in camel skins, and ate wild locusts and honey. He called people to be baptized in the Jordan River to symbolize a recommitment to their covenant with Yahweh. Then, he believed, Yahweh would send a Messiah (anointed one)ii like King David of old, to defeat the hated Roman occupiers.
We don't know why Jesus was drawn to John. Some suggest he was John's disciple Perhaps he was caught up in the religious yearning for a Messiah, like King David, who would liberate them from Rome. Maybe he felt a need to repent of past actions as Jacob did? Whatever Jesus' motivation, the baptism had a profound affect on him.
He traveled with the crowds into the wilderness to be baptized by John. Jesus went down into the Jordan. When he emerged, he was blinded by a vision. The heavens ripped open, and these words descended upon him like a gentle dove: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” iii
Jesus was certainly aware that the legendary King David received a similar blessing. iv He must have been filled with questions. Was he being called to lead Israel against Rome? Immediately, Jesus fled into the wilderness where he struggled with God, much as Jacob struggled hundreds of years earlier. As with Jacob, Jesus' life was transformed. His name was changed. He was no longer Jesus, Son of Joseph. To his followers he had became, Jesus, The Anointed One.
As we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is noteworthy that Dr. King also had an experience that altered his identity. It was 1954. Twenty-five year old Martin, finishing his doctoral dissertation at Boston University, had just accepted the position as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He was the son of Martin Luther King Senior, the famous pastor of Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He assumed he would continue in his father's footsteps as an influential pastor in a large black church.
Prior to King's arrival in Montgomery, the Woman's Political Council (WPC), a group of black professionals, had begun challenging Jim Crow practices on the Montgomery city buses. v Two young women, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin and an18-year-old, Mary Louise Smith, were arrested for refusing to yield their seats to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus. Following this, a coalition was formed. Rosa Parks, long time activist and respected member of the community, was chosen as part of an action to test the law. Pamphlets were distributed, preparing the community to respond after Rosa refused to yield her seat and was arrested.
On December 5, 1955, ninety percent of Montgomery’s black citizens stayed off the buses. That afternoon, the city’s ministers and leaders met to discuss the possibility of extending the boycott into a long-term campaign. During this meeting, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed, and King was elected president. Rosa Parks recalled: ‘‘The advantage of having Dr. King as president was that he was so new to Montgomery and to civil rights work that he hadn’t been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies.’’
One night, early in the boycott, Dr. King, had a religious epiphany that changed his life. He arrived home from a planning meeting. Coretta and the kids were in bed. The phone rang, and an anonymous caller threatened his life. He went to bed but couldn't sleep. The path before him seemed impossible. Then, while praying aloud, he felt the presence of God as he never had before.
This experience reconciled him to the danger of the boycott and the protest actions that followed. The next year his home was bombed. King calmed the crowd declaring: ‘‘Be calm as I and my family are. We are not hurt; and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.’’ The boycott continued for a year. Finally, Montgomery officials agreed to integrated the bus system.
As a result of his leadership in the boycott, Martin Luther King Jr., “the aspiring academic,” was renamed. He became Martin Luther King Jr., “civil rights leader.”
King, like Jacob and Jesus, experienced the transforming presence of God. This allowed him to say, “I refuse to accept the view that mankind vi is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final say.”
Today we face a crisis as great as that faced by Dr. King. American citizens are divided. Many are fearful as a new administration takes over the reigns of leadership. King's words ring as true today as they did then. He understood the importance of resisting oppression. He warned, “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."
He also understood the danger to our nation that occurs when leaders mock the honorable among us and denigrate the powerless. He cried out, “Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies - or else? The chain reaction of evil - hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
Today, each of us is called to get involved. The stories of Jacob, Jesus and King are helpful in this regard. All three faced impossible situations. Each anguished and struggled; sometimes with that higher calling that motivated and energized them. All three were nourished through something beyond themselves. They knew they were special and loved, even in their weakness.
Dr. King put it well when he said, “Man must evolve, for all human conflict, a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” He understood that those who practice oppression, domination and bigotry are most often insecure, fearful and self-centered. They rely on institutional power and self aggrandizement to bolster an inner sense of fear and self doubt.
This is where I find hope. When we engage the cosmic flow, that many call God, we grow into our authentic selves. We have nothing to hide. We understand and accept both our strengths and weaknesses. We, like Jacob, can “strive with God and with humans and prevail.”
Furthermore, and this has been a recent insight, our struggle for human rights will not be defined by those whom we oppose, Fear, hatred and revulsion will be replaced by anguish, sorrow and compassion. This is at the core of “loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.” We will anguish with those who are suffering. We will also grieve for the oppressors. They are so blinded by their self absorption that they have little compassion. They cannot perceive the wonder of what it means to be authentic human beings.
The doesn't make the struggle any less difficult. Hatred, violence and oppression must still be resisted. Dr. King knew this. He said, "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."
Yet the struggle can be transformed. We will persevere knowing we are in the cosmic flow. We will no longer battle death. We will participate in the energizing force of emerging life.
I'm sure you have experienced this. I felt it in church last Sunday when we pledged ourselves to continue the struggle for human rights. I feel it in seminars when something moves in the group that is more than the sum of the individual participants. I feel it when my little grandson asks me to help him build a fantastic structure out of Legos and when he crawls into my lap uninvited.
This is what keeps me going even in the face of disappointment and defeat. Life is much more than resistance. It is engaging our authentic selves and discovering potentials beyond our wildest imaginings. When this happens, we know we can stay the course.
ii Messiah (Mashiach in Hebrew or Christ in Greek) means “anointed one.”
iii Mark 1:9-11
ivPsalm 2:7 “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”
vNote: It is seldom reported that women were some of the initial leaders in the civil rights movement.
viI have chosen not to modify King's quotes to make them gender inclusive.. Consider a “sic” added after each quote.