Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Domestication of MLK, Jr.

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

I'm catching up on blog posts.  This one was written on Jan. 18, 2012--the week of the MLK, Jr. holiday.

I’ve been listening to the Republican candidates jockeying for their party’s nomination.  I’ve been reading about the Obama campaign ramping up for this year’s election.  I have channel surfed the talking heads and pundits.  I heard the reporters talking about poll numbers.  Although I have encountered discussion of the problems faced by our culture, those problems are always framed in terms of who will win the political horse race rather than in terms of justice, especially not the type of justice spoken of by the Hebrew prophets, the early church and Jesus.

On this week of commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, we need his prophetic take on God’s justice more than ever.  We, as a nation, need to hear not the MLK of sound bites or platitudes, but the MLK who inspired people to risk their lives for justice.  We have domesticated MLK and made him as inoffensive as a greeting card.  We have lost the man who not only fought against Jim Crow but risked the support of his own African American base speaking out against the Vietnam War.  He was assassinated in Memphis working for higher wages and safety standards for sanitation workers—both Caucasian and African American.  When even his own people wanted him to play it safe, he chose to heed the demands of justice. 

What would MLK say about the “War on Terror” and our nation’s militarism?  Read the words from his speech about the Vietnam War ("Beyond Vietnam"--April 4, 1967) and see if they are relevant today:

“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on. . . A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. . . There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

What would MLK say about the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else?  Read his words from the same speech ("Beyond Vietnam"--April 4, 1967):

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. . . A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

What would MLK say about the rhetorical and legislative attacks upon Latino immigrants (documented and undocumented) and upon lesbian and gay people so prevalent today?  Read his words about racism against African Americans and ask yourself if they are not just as relevant regarding the oppression other minority groups today (Martin Luther King, Jr., Where DoWe Go from Here: Chaos or Community?):

“If a man asserts that another man, because of his race, is not good enough to have a job equal to his, or to eat at a lunch counter next to him, or to have access to certain hotels, or to attend school with him, or to live next door to him, he is by implication affirming that that man does not deserve to exist.  He does not deserve to exist because his existence is corrupt and defective. . . Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life…Racism is total estrangement.  It separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits.  Inevitably it descends to inflicting spiritual or physical homicide upon the out-group.”

What should we say about MLK today?  He told us what he wanted said about him in his incredible sermon “The Drum MajorInstinct.”  (This was misquoted on theMLK, Jr. monument in Washington, D.C. and will soon be corrected.)  In it, he described the human tendency to be like a drum major—being out front, getting all the attention, leading the band, etc.  He declared that Jesus taught a different way of humility and service.  Then he declared how he wanted people to think about him after his death:

“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. . . Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.  I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.  I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.  I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.  I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.  Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.  Say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

God save us from domesticating Martin Luther King, Jr.  Help us to hear his words anew today.

Grace and Peace,


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