(In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)
I'm writing this reflection on Monday, January 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Yesterday, I preached at our little congregation, where I am the Lay Leader. The Scripture readingi told the story of Jesus' first miracle at a wedding in Cana.
As I read the story, I was struck by the fact that both Jesus and MLK were called to lead before they were ready to do so. I believe this is often the case in my life and possibly in yours. I would like to reflect with you today on this dynamic. How can we live out MLK's legacy when much of our life happens when we are unprepared?
The Gospel story goes like this: Jesus and his mother were attending a wedding near their home. Wedding celebrations were big affairs in those times with food and dancing for several days. Friends and relatives came from all over. The groom's family threw a big bash to show the community that the groom came from quality stock and that would be a good provider for his new wife. So running out of wine was a problem for the host.
At this time, Jesus was not a well known rabbi or teacher. He was just beginning to invite disciples to join him He didn't yet have his act together. So Mary's request that he turn the water into wine was a big deal. If he had plans about developing his ministry, these plans were interrupted. His coming out at this time could blow the whole thing. This may be why he said to his mother, “My hour has not yet come.” Yet he acquiesced to her request, and the rest is history.
MLK Jr., like Jesus, may have been outed too soon as well. He was a young preacher in his mid-twenties finishing his PhD at Boston University and serving his first parish, Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, in Montgomery Alabama. When he arrived, the NAACP was organizing to desegregate the city bus system. At this time black riders were forced to enter and sit in the rear of the bus. If the bus was overcrowded, black riders were to relinquish their seats to white riders and stand.
The NAACP recruited Rosa Parks to refuse to leave her seat. She would be arrested and this would allow the NAACP to challenge the arrest and, if necessary, to have black riders boycott the bus system until the practice was changed. After Rosa Parks was arrested, Martin Luther King Jr. was chosen to lead the protest and boycott, not because he was so highly valued, but because his church was centrally located and because he was new enough in town that the white citizens had not yet intimidated him.
Both Jesus and MLK Jr. lived in times of great social upheaval and violence. In first century Israel, troops of the Roman Empire occupied and dominated the local population through violence and coercion. It was a time of unrest, and local zealots were fomenting rebellion.
In the United States during the 1950's, an emerging civil rights movement was challenging Jim Crow racism in the south, prompting an increasingly violent white backlash. Once again the potential for violence and class war was imminent.
Both Jesus and MLK Jr. were devoutly religious men. Both were viewed as prophetic leaders like Moses. They were expected to call down God's wrath on their oppressors and to lead them to freedom through God's awesome power and might. Both men disappointed their followers, preaching a response based on love for the enemy as the only way to wholeness.
Jesus put it this way, “To have life you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and you must love your neighbor as yourself.” When asked who was his neighbor, Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan indicating that even the hated Samaritans were neighbors.ii
MLK Jr. was powerfully influenced by Jesus and by Gandhi's teachings on nonviolence. Dr. King once said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”iii He also said, “ I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daylight of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality...I believe that unarmed truth and love will have the final word.”iv
Dr. King, like Jesus, moved forward completely dependent on God to help him discern his next steps in organizing people in his crusade for justice. He said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing”v He followed this saying, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.”vi
In my understanding, this means that MLK believed that God's grace and forgiveness extend to us independent of our actions. If we live in this grace, we have already forgiven people for what they do before they do it. This allows us to relate to friends and enemies without bitterness or a desire to “pay them back” or “get even with them for their actions.” In this respect, both Jesus and MLK were seen as weak by those who wanted to answer violence with further violence.
Most celebrations of the MLK holiday feature the soaring oratory of King's “I Have A Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963, when more than 250,000 demonstrators descended upon the nation’s capital to participate in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” This was the largest demonstration for human rights in United States history.
In the year following this demonstration, Dr. King and other Civil Rights Movement leaders convinced President Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress to pass the the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements as well as racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and at facilities that served the general public.
A year later Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This act banned racial discrimination in voting practices by the federal government as well as by state and local governments. It is is often held up as the most effective civil rights law ever enacted. It is widely regarded as enabling the enfranchisement of millions of minority voters and diversifying the electorate and legislative bodies at all levels of American government. (It should be noted that this act is presently under attack as politicians gerrymander voting districts, limit access to polling places and require forms of identification, such as drivers licenses, which many low income people do not possess.)
Dr. King lived 3 years after these milestone accomplishments. These were years in which his rhetoric and actions shifted. He began to lead and speak to the racism, poverty and militarism that threatened to destroy our democracy.vii
On one occasion Dr. King said, “Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. If you are to be a truly Christian nation you must solve this problem.”viii
Dr. king began organizing to address racism in the North. He also organized a Poor People's March on Washington to emphasize that poverty as well as racial discrimination are cancers that destroy democracy. He warned about the decay of our nation stating, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”ix
At Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his assassination, Dr. King delivered his “Beyond Viet Nam” speech. In this speech he opposed US involvement in the Viet Nam war. He said, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.x
The response to that speech was swift, certain and severe. Both liberal media and black media turned on him. The White House turned on him. He had worked with Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, but now [Johnson] turned against him.
The last Harris poll taken in Dr. King’s life showed that almost 75 percent of the American people thought he was irrelevant and almost 60 percent of blacks thought he was irrelevant or obsolete or persona non grata. In the last year of his life, the NAACP came out against him, and Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young of the Urban League. Ralph Bunche, the only other Nobel Peace Prize winning black, came out against him. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the powerful congressman, came out against him. [Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall had no respect or regard for him.xi
As I speak of these last years of MLK's life, I am reminded of the last year of Jesus' life. He too shifted or intensified his course of action. He left Galilee and moved toward Jerusalem. The writer of Luke puts it simply and eloquently saying, “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”xii
As long as Jesus preached and healed in the backwaters of Galilee, he was lauded as great teacher. But when he challenged the entrenched hierarchy of chief priests and lawyers at the center of political and religious power, they marked him for elimination. His disciples and followers abandoned him leaving him at the mercy of his enemies.
Both Jesus and MLK were killed in the prime of life. Both lived courageously in the face of danger. Both left a lasting legacy demonstrating that love can conquer fear and violence.
Finally, MLK's critique of the United States applies today. All you have to do is substitute “Iraq and Afghanistan” for “Viet Nam” in his Beyond Viet Nam speech to see this.
Racism is alive and well in the United States. Evangelical activist, Jim Wallis, points out that a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey has revealed a devastating truth: While about 80 percent of black Christians believe police-involved killings are part of a larger pattern of police treatment of African Americans, around 70 percent of white Christians believe the opposite … that they are simply isolated incidents.xiii During this election season, political candidates receive applause when they characterize all Muslims as dangerous people who should be forced to leave our country or even should be attacked and killed.
Finally, MLK's critique on poverty still holds true. A recent Oxfam reportxiv states that just 62 individuals have the same wealth as 3.6 billion people – the bottom half of humanity - and that the richest 1% have now accumulated more wealth than the rest of the world put together. These statistics are mirrored in the United States.xv
What does this mean for us as we celebrate MLK Jr.'s life and legacy?
Author Tavis Smiley puts it well. He writes, “In many ways we honor him (MLK) on the cheap. These monuments and holidays and postage stamps and his name on schools and streets are a beautiful thing and he deserves that. But King would much prefer that we deal with the triple threat he spoke of—racism, poverty and militarism—and try to save our democracy. So there’s work to be done. He’s a shining example of what the best of America looks like. I believe that the future of this democracy is inextricably linked with how seriously we take his legacy. I regard that legacy as one of justice for all; service to others; and a love that liberates people.xvi
It's one thing to laud Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a single holiday. It's another thing to live into his legacy.
MLK and Jesus were both given the opportunity to act before they were ready. The were both challenged to live authentically rather than settling for the status quo. This was when they were most completely alive and engaged with that life force that courses through the cosmos.
Like Dr. Martin Luther King's life, each of our lives can make a difference. We can each leave a legacy of justice for all; service to others; and a love that liberates people. A friend once put it this way, “What if the Moral Universe is in need of your unique way of interpreting and living your human experience?”
I will end with two questions for your reflection:
- When in your life have you been challenged, before you felt ready, to step out onto a path that was consistent with your authentic self? What was that like, or what might it have been like, to make that move?
- How has (or might have) that decision affected your attitude toward others; your ability to face difficult life circumstances; and your passion for life, peace and justice?
viiiDelivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 4 November 1956.
ixSpeech was delivered by Dr. King in support of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, just two weeks before he was assassinated in the same city as part of his Poor Peoples Campaign.
xiHistory News Network | MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157350
xviHistory News Network | MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157350