Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Shot Rings Out In The Memphis Sky

There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man.
James Bevel, friend & colleague of Martin Luther King

If you want to understand King, you must look at Jesus.
James Lawson

When I took up the cross I recognized it's meaning. The cross is something that you bear, and ultimately, that you die on.
Martin Luther King

Today, on the hump day of Holy Week, we honor Martin Luther King on the 44th anniversary of his murder. We acknowledge that most of the conventional wisdom concerning what happened on that Memphis night is inaccurate. In 1999, the King family won a wrongful death civil trial that revealed that co-conspirators, including U.S. government agencies, were involved in the King assassination. The King family was awarded $100, proving that they did not sue for the money, but for the simple, but tremendously important, recognition that other "powers" were at play in King's death.

William Stone, the lawyer representing the King family in 1999, explained that these "powers" wanted King dead for a reason:

...the overall coordinating role of Government and the powerful economic interests which decided that MLK had to be removed from the scene because of his increasingly effective opposition to the war and, perhaps, more significantly, his commitment to bring upwards of 500,000 of the wretched of America to Washington, not to march but to encamp and daily visit their elected representatives to demand the restoration of the social welfare/health and educational programs which had been severely, even terminally, cut in deference to the military budgetary increases.

Like Jesus, King's death was at the hands of those whom he confronted with his life and teachings. Ched Myers helpfully compares the two:

Like King, Jesus was a member of an ethnic community that suffered great discrimination at the hands of a world power. Both of them:

•spent time listening to the pain of the dispossessed and broken among their own people, and advocating on their behalf;
•worked to build popular movements of identity, renewal and resistance to injustice;
•proclaimed the vision of God's "Beloved Community" in ways that got them into trouble with both local and national authorities;
•were widely perceived as operating in the biblical prophetic tradition by both allies and adversaries;
•animated dramatic public protests resulting in arrest and jail;
•were deemed such a threat to national security that their inner circles were infiltrated by government informers; and
•in the end, were killed through an official conspiracy because of their work and witness.

Myers concurs with Lawson, but also encourages present-day prophetic Christians to flip the script: to pattern our lives according to the Jesus of the Gospels interpreted through the lens of the life, teachings and death of King:

If we want to understand Jesus, we would do well to look at King. Indeed, the more I study the civil rights movement, the more the gospels come alive. Remembering the challenges that Dr. King faced trying to build a social movement for racial justice in the teeth of the hostile system of American apartheid can help us re-imagine how difficult it must have been for Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom of God in a world dominated by imperial Rome two thousand years ago.

Most Christians, of course, tend to think of Jesus in a highly spiritualized, even romanticized way, ignoring the fact that he lived and died in times that were as contentious and conflicted as our own. The Nazarene's world was not the fantasy-scape we so often imagine the Bible to inhabit. It was tough terrain, not so unlike that of the U.S. in 1968: a world of racial discrimination and class conflict, of imperial wars abroad and political repression at home, all presided over by a political leadership that (directly or indirectly) engineered the demise of the prophet, then issued stern but pious calls for law and order in the wake of his "tragic death"...

In our journey through Holy Week may we ponder how we might bear the cross just like both King and Jesus, confronting the social and political forces that keep people oppressed and dehumanized. As it turns out, discipleship is hard work. It might, in fact, demand everything.

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