Monday, January 18, 2010

Honoring the King


O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Langston Hughes

Today, Americans honor, perhaps, the greatest Christian leader in the 234-year history of the country. Martin Luther King's dozen years of public ministry was more than an idealistic dream where everyone just gets along. He called for a true revolution of values to combat our vicious legacy of racism, materialism and militarism. Like Jesus, King got killed because he called out those in power and abrasively pushed and pushed for a restructuring of policies to bring equality and justice to those on the underbelly of society. Jesus advocated for the poor tenant farmer, the leper, the paralytic, women and blue collar fishermen. Specific policies in Roman-held Palestine enslaved these folks into a life of just getting by: taxes, levies, tolls, as well as debt & purity codes ruthlessly exegeted from the Hebrew Bible by those in power. King advocated for African-Americans living in the Jim Crow South and urban ghettos of the North, but also those living in rural areas, in Appalachia and in South LA. Eventually, his conscience led him to speak out openly against the Vietnam War and unjust economic policies that plagued all poor people black, white, brown or red: ALL those "smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society."

In 1963, King inspired black and white protestors to nonviolently resist police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham. King found himself in jail writing a letter to 'white moderate' clergyman who criticized his actions. King, gently yet boldly, did not hold back:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice… I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress… I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.

Lest we forget the conclusion of that inspirational letter, Martin wasn't just criticizing, he was energizing:

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

Following the line of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and Jesus, King's prophetic words and deeds displayed a tension of woes and blessings. Just as Mary's magnificient prayer in Luke 1:52-53 portrays the God of the oppressed:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.


As his ministry became more and more in demand all over the US, King got urgent. He visited New York City's Riverside Church exactly one year before his assassination and gave his now famous Beyond Vietnam sermon. He called on Americans to "move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history." It was easy to support the troops in the name of the Cold War. It was another thing to study what this war was doing to the US and her people: it was "like some demonic, destructive suction tube," as domestic programs helping the vulnerable, disadvanted and marginalized are slashed. King called the US "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." But again, King's pointed critique closed with a hopeful benediction calling upon a progressive brand of Christians who "rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world."

Today, King's vision of the "beloved community" continues to be sidelined by followers of Jesus who are convinced that Jesus' message was spiritual and future, rather than spiritual and political and economic: a dedication to "the fierce urgency of now." We need to relearn that long-lost line of the disciple's prayer: May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In our stance towards Iraq and Afghanistan [as well as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia], health care privileges, tax policy, immigration status, and marital freedom, those of us who boldly take on a vocation of agony should strive for deep structural change to make "the beautiful symphony of brotherhood" a reality.

*For a great analysis on reading the ministry and death of Jesus through the ministry and death of Martin Luther King, check out Ched Myers and Elaine Enns' new book Ambassadors of Reconciliation (2009).

--Theological Autopilot (a white moderate transforming into a radical disciple)

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