Jan 22, 2019
“...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” is one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous quotes. Former President Barack Obama liked it so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. We Unitarian Universalists like to make much of the fact that the quote is not entirely original to Martin King. A slightly longer version of it originates with Theodore Parker, a famous nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister.
The quote expresses a sentiment that historians sometimes label as Whiggish. The label comes from the old British political party the Whigs. They viewed themselves as champions of progress. In a Whiggish view, history is an inevitable march forward. Sure, there might be temporary setbacks, even catastrophes, but humanity is consistently becoming more democratic, more free, more prosperous, more equal, and less violent. “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” we might not know when it will dawn but the better world is coming. It is always on the horizon.
This is the classical Unitarian Universalist conception of history. It rests upon our ancestral refusal to give into the orthodox Christian notion that humanity is innately depraved. Instead, our religious progenitors believed that each of us contain within the likeness to God. With such a likeness inside of us, we cannot help but ultimately grow in collective wisdom. We cannot but help watch the world improve generation to generation.
Like Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke was a significant nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian minister. He boiled the theological position of the Unitarian abolitionists of his day down to five points, a sort of seven principles for the late nineteenth-century. Unitarians, he argued, believed in: “the Fatherhood of God... the Brotherhood of Man... the Leadership of Jesus... Salvation by Character... [and] the Progress of Mankind onward and upward forever.”
The language is highly gendered, Christocentric, and theistic. There is a lot in it that many of us would object to. However, it is the last point, human progress “onward and upward forever” that we are... well... we are wrestling with today. The words are just a slightly different way of saying “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” It is another articulation of a Whiggish, of a progressive, view of human history.
Advocates of such a view might well select the triumvirate of Parker, King, and Obama as proof of the enduring validity of Whiggish history. Parker, the abolitionist fought for an end to chattel slavery. Chattel slavery was ultimately defeated. On June 19, 1865, right here in Texas the Union army announced the total emancipation of the enslaved people of the state. They were the last people mislabeled as slaves in the rebellious states that had formed the Confederacy. Their emancipation represented the extinction of chattel slavery in the United States. Slavery had existed in one form another throughout almost all of the societies in human history. Its destruction in this country and this state was a major human achievement.
King, the nonviolent prophet of the civil rights generation. King, the prophet of a generation who at the highest personal cost cashed the promissory note written into the Emancipation Proclamation. King, who saw the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts. King, a leader of a movement that could eventually sing, in the words of the incomparable Nina Simone, “Old Jim Crow don’t you know / It’s all over now.” King, who died in Memphis, Tennessee while extending the struggle for civil rights to a struggle for economic rights, dignity, and a share of the world’s prosperity to poor and working people everywhere. King, whose last words to us were, “I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know... that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
And Obama, the first black president. Obama, the man whose election to the world’s most powerful office seemed a major blow to the enduring structures of white supremacy. Obama, the politician who could talk confidentially about the Moses generation and Joshua generation. He spoke this way during his first campaign for President. Invoking the biblical narrative found in the book of Exodus, Obama drew a comparison between the Moses generation and Joshua generation and the civil rights generation and his generation. The Moses generation was the generation who escaped bondage in Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years. The Joshua generation was the generation that arrived in the promised land. In the former President’s analogy, the civil rights generation was “the Moses generation [who] pointed the way” to freedom and a land filled with justice. And his generation was the Joshua generation who was tasked to build the promised land and “to finish the journey Moses had begun.”
Jay-Z remixed this narrative in a track called “My President is Black” which he released shortly before Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States. Eliding the abolitionists, Jay-Z said, “Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.” You might prefer the earlier version: “the arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Either way, it is Whiggish history.
Now, you might be all feeling a little suspicious right now. If you read the blurb for this sermon or you have listened to me before you might realize that I am kind of setting you up. I am not a big proponent of Whiggish history. This may make me a bad Unitarian Universalist. It might even make me a bad minister. There are those, like Martin King, who say that one of the primary tasks of the minister is to remind the people that there is “a power that is able to make a way out of no way.” That it is my job to tell you, as Kendrick Lamar puts it, “Do you hear me, do you feel me, we gon’ be alright.” That I am supposed to follow the charge in our hymnal that reads, “Give them not hell, but hope and courage; / preach the kindness and / everlasting love of God.”
You may noticed that my own rhetorical style leans towards the jeremiad. The jeremiad is a literary form, often but not always a sermon, in which the author bitterly laments the state of society, the decay of morality, and predicts impending social collapse. The term comes from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. In the biblical narrative, Jeremiah is described as living in the last years of the ancient kingdom of Judah. During his lifetime, the text tells us, the kingdom fell to the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem. He saw the people of Judah exiled into the kingdom of Babylon. The text that carries his name records him consistently pronouncing doom and gloom upon the land. He is always trying to get his people to change their ways before it is too late and the wrath of God is visited upon them.
The words attributed to Jeremiah suggest that goodness has gone from his land:
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
The words ascribed to the prophet predict God’s vengeance:
I will make an end of them
-- declares the Lord:
No grapes left on the vine,
No figs on the fig tree,
The leaves all withered;
Whatever I have given them is gone.
The words imputed to the prophet are compassionate and frequently hopeless:
Because my people is shattered I am shattered;
I am dejected, seized by desolation.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Can no physician be found?
Why has healing not yet
Come to my poor people?
The federal shutdown, endless partisan bickering, the acquittal of three Chicago police officers for trying to cover up the murder of the black teenager Laquan McDonald, the rising threat of totalitarianism, children in cages, the closing of hearts, the closing of borders, the existential threat of climate change, these are bitter days. “Assuredly, thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to feed that people wormwood and make them drink a bitter draft,” the book of Jeremiah claims. These are bitter days and in these days the words: “You will not find a man, There is none who acts justly;” “No grapes left on the vine, / No figs on the fig tree;” and “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Can no physician be found?” all resonate with me more than the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” or any other notion of Whiggish history.
This may be something of a congenital defect on my part. I confess that on the Sunday following Barak Obama’s 2008 election I preached a sermon, invoking Martin King, titled “Drum Major for Justice or Drum Major for Empire?” I am going to let you guess the direction I took that sermon.
I have a habit of critiquing this country’s political leaders no matter what their party affiliation--deflating the balloons of optimism even when the days do not seem particularly bitter. I am skeptical about Whiggish history even in the sweetest of times. Like Jeremiah, I look at this country’s history and I see the tragic. I worry that the bitter days that have come will stay more than a little while. That progress is temporary, fleeting, at best, and that there are no permanent victories over even the most wicked sins. That William Cullen Bryant, who King loved to quote, was wrong when he said, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” That emancipation was followed by Jim Crow, that the civil rights movement was followed by the New Jim Crow of mass incarnation. That the Joshua generation was followed by a neo-Confederate political regime. That the bitterness of oppression is an enduring part of the human experience.
There are, of course, those who in the midst of this present bitterness would offer us some kind of Whiggish history. Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. This morning we are celebrating this country’s greatest prophet. I suspect that there are a number of religious communities you could visit this weekend where you might hear a more optimistic message. And I know that if you listen to the radio or watch television or turn on a podcast or look at your social media stream sometime this weekend you are going to hear Martin King’s most famous words. They are not “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” They are “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by content of their character.” And if you go to wrong worship service or turn on the wrong radio show, you might even find someone foolish enough to say that King’s dream has been accomplished today.
But we know that is not true. These last few years it has been hard, if not impossible, to feel like “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” These are bitter days. And it seems like the bitterness is growing day-by-day. Time might even be running out for humanity. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we squabble about building fences on borders. We face an existential crisis in climate change and we cannot overcome white supremacy, war, police violence, poverty, or any of the other lesser human made woe. Bitter days.
But Martin King also lived in bitter days. His times were such that he warned us, in the non-gender neutral language of his day, “We must learn to live together as brothers -- or we will all perish together as fools.” Before he was brought down by a white man’s bullet, he lived to see the murders of numerous civil rights workers and leaders for liberation. Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Jimmy Lee Jackson, Harry and Harriette Moore, the Unitarian minister James Reeb, the Unitarian laywoman Viola Liuzzo... So many lives cut short for the crime of striving for justice.
Amid all that bitterness, Martin King… well… Martin King was prone to jeremiads himself. In some of his last sermons he warned, just like Jeremiah, “The judgement of God is on America now. America is going to hell too, if she fails to bridge the gulf” between the rich and the poor, between people of color and whites. “If something doesn’t happen soon, I’m convinced that the curtain of doom is coming down on the U.S.” He observed that the nation was in the grip of the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. He understood that the choice was ultimately between overcoming them and human extinction.
And he knew that we all were complicit in feeding the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism. King spoke directly to us Unitarian Universalists twice. Once, in 1966, he gave the Ware lecture at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The other time was in 1965 when he gave the eulogy for James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was murdered by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama. He told us that the question, Who killed James Reeb was the wrong question to ask. His eulogy is worth quoting at some length:
“What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.
James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sherrif and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every [and here I have to apologize for the dated language] Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.”
Can you hear the echoes of Jeremiah?
Roam the streets of Jerusalem
Search its squares,
Look about and take note:
You will not find a man,
There is none who acts justly.
Theodore Parker lived during bitter days too. He died in 1860 before the war over slavery--which we call the Civil War--brought emancipation and an end to inhuman bondage. We Unitarian Universalists like to lift up Parker as an exemplar of our tradition. Yet, many of his actions would probably make most of us uncomfortable today. He counseled armed resistance to slavery. He hid people fleeing from slavery in his home in Boston. He wrote his sermons with a gun on his desk to defend them against the kidnappers called slave catchers in case such vile men were stupid enough to come to his house. He helped arm John Brown for his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Not surprisingly, Parker was hardly popular among the Unitarians of his day. Most of his fellow ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him. Many of the Unitarian elite were involved in the textile industry and had business dealings with slave holders in the South. He almost came to blows with Ezra Stiles Gannett, the President of the American Unitarian Association, over slavery.
And so, you probably will not be surprised when I share with you that Parker too was prone to the jeremiad. Here a few words of his taking to task other members of the Unitarian ministerial conference in Boston:
We see what public opinion is on the matter of slavery; what it is in Boston; nay, what it is with members of this Conference. It favours slavery and this wicked law! We need not go to Charleston and New Orleans to see slavery; our own Court House was a barracoon; our officers of this city were slave-hunters, and members of Unitarian churches in Boston are kidnappers.
“You will not find a man, / There is none who acts justly.”
Martin King and Theodore Parker, these men were not fools. These men gave their own jeremiads. And yet, they believed “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
They were able to make this statement because they were both theists. They believed in a God who was ultimately on the side of the oppressed. A God who, in Parker’s gendered nineteenth-century words, “continually commands us to love a man and not hate him, to do him justice, and not injustice.” A God who, in King’s gendered twentieth-century words, made it so “there are just and there are unjust laws.... A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with moral law.”
And here I offer you a closing confession. My problem with the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” is not primarily my skepticism about human progress. Though I am skeptical. Nor is it even my own tendency towards the jeremiad. My problem is that for the moral arc to inevitably bend toward justice it requires some that there be kind of divine, theistic, force in the universe that is able to make a way out of no way. And I must admit that really, truly, in my heart of hearts, skeptical about the existence of such a force. Often when I go looking for what many of us label God I experience absence rather than presence. And I suspect that since we are in a Unitarian Universalist church this morning you might well feel the same way. You might find that humanism or atheism or agnosticism or whatever label you want to put on it resonates with you more than any kind of theistic position. And if you do, you might well be skeptical about the phrase “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
I suggest we rephrase the words just slightly. Instead of “...the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice” I suggest, the arc of the moral universe is long but we can work to bend it toward justice. And I suggest that when, on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, we look to the life of the country’s greatest prophet we can see someone who strived to bend the moral arc. The bending was not inevitable. It took great work and it came at the greatest cost. It was something that happened because an entire generation--Martin King and Diane Nash and Ella Baker and James Reeb and Malcolm X and all the names known and unknown--struggled to make it so. And that it if it is to bend again, if the sermon is to be more than a jeremiad but to end on a note of hope, then that will be because there are those in this generation, those living now, who put their faith in our human ability to bend it.
The arc of the moral universe is long but we can bend it toward justice. This Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday let us look to the lives of the great prophets—people like King and Parker. When we look at them we will see that if the arc is to bend that it will be because we humans bend it. This is our calling and our challenge this day and all the days of our lives. May we rise to it.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Apr 11, 2018
as preached at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, April 8, 2018
I am grateful for the invitation to fill your pulpit this morning as we pause to reflect upon and honor the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Your minister, the Rev. Abbey Tennis, is a dear friend of mine. She is someone who I knew before she entered seminary. And so, it is a special privilege to be able preach from the pulpit she regularly graces. It is also a particular privilege to be in Philadelphia. My parents are from the civil rights generation. They met here while my mother was a teacher at Kenderton School in North Philly. And I grew up with stories about their involvement in civil rights efforts here, their participation in the teacher's union, and their connections to your city's vibrant arts community. So, in some sense, even though I have never lived in Philadelphia, this city's movements for justice have deeply shaped who I am and my commitments to antiracism and the labor movement.
This week many good-hearted people have paused to honor Dr. King. The President of our Unitarian Universalist Association, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, took three days out of her busy schedule to travel down to Memphis, Tennessee so that she could be present with the religious leaders, civil rights veterans, union organizers, and ordinary dreamers of peace and justice who gathered together to remember Dr. King on the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination. In order to be in Memphis, the Rev. Frederick-Gray turned down an invitation to travel to Washington, DC to participate in the remembrances organized by the National Council of Churches. I think her choice could be interpreted as a statement about the fate of Unitarian Universalism. Our fate as Unitarian Universalists is tied to those who dare to imagine that a world filled with peace and justice is possible. Dr. King taught that if we were not going to perish together as fools we need to dream of and then create a world where the psychic toxins of white supremacy have been purged from this nation and the globe, a world where we have set aside our gross materialism to live in sustainable harmony with our muddy blue ball of a planet, and a world where revolutionary love, rather than stultifying violence, is used to mediate our conflicts and solve our problems. Our collective fate as religious liberals is far more bound up with the fates of the visionaries who dream of such a world than it is with the fates of the mainline denominations or the moderate mainstream of American culture. This why Dr. King considered us friends and once referred to our tradition as "so near and dear" to him. It is why he often visited Arlington Street Church when he was a student in Boston. And it is why he took time on two occasions to directly speak to us as Unitarian Universalists and share with us what he hoped from our movement. He hoped "the church... [would remain] awake during a great revolution."
Now all of that should enough of what a Baptist minister friend of mine calls "throat clearing." I would, however, be remiss if I failed to extend a final note of gratitude to your guest music director, Nate, to Benjamin, who prepared the order of service, and, of course, to Anne. Working with each of them has been a reminder that while I may prepare my sermon alone worship, and indeed ministry, is a collective act.
The title of today's sermon is "The Most Notorious Liar in America." Have you heard these words before? They are a phrase the director of the FBI used to describe Dr. King in 1964. I have chosen this phrase as the title of my sermon for two reasons. First, they are a reminder that Martin King was not always lauded during his lifetime. In his later years, as he turned from working to end segregation to critiquing the giant triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, he became increasing unpopular. In 1966 more than two thirds of Americans disapproved of him. That same year, 85 percent of white people said that the civil rights movement hurt African Americans more than it helped them. After he died some 31 percent of whites thought that King brought his assassination on himself. In the last fifty years the earthly powers and principalities have gone from calling him "the most notorious liar in America" to whitewashing him. In the imaginations of many he has become not that the man who told us "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" but the man who dreamed only "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." As the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently observed, "America loathes marchers but loves martyrs. The bullet in Memphis made Dr. King a martyr for the ages." In his transformation from marcher to martyr Martin King underwent the transmutation from maladjusted prophet to co-opted saint of the status quo.
Second, I choose the FBI director's words because Martin King was not the most notorious liar in America. He was this country's greatest truth teller. He told the truth about racism. It diminishes us all. As he said, "all life is interrelated, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you out to be until I am what I ought to be." He told the truth about militarism. He knew, "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government." He told the truth about poverty. He reminded us that we lived among "economic conditions... [that] take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few..." He told the truth about the hypocrisy of white moderates and liberals who say that they are for justice but loathe marchers and celebrate martyrs. He said, "I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in the 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."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. There is nothing more terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities than the truth. Their power is rooted in lies. It is watered by falsehoods. It is grounded in fabrications.
We live in era of fake news. We live at a time when the President of the United States could be described as the liar-in-chief. In his first six months in office he told six times as many lies as the previous President told in eight years. The current President lies about migrants. He lies about people of color. He lies about poverty. He lies about women. He lies about climate change. He staffs his administration with liars who lie for him and tell us that violence will bring peace, that trade wars will bring prosperity, that isolation is better than interconnection...
The words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah were made for our time:
Woe to those who decree unrighteous decrees
and who write unjust judgments which they have prescribed
to turn aside the needy from justice
and to take away the right from the poor of My people,
that widows may be their prey,
and that they may rob the fatherless!"
We can imagine that Isaiah was named the most notorious liar in Judah. The world's powers and principalities have feared the truth for as long as the prophets have spoken it. Perhaps that is why we are reminded in the Gospel of John, "you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." During his brief thirty-nine years Dr. King gave us the truth that could shatter the lies of those who keep the human family divided, of those who profit from what he named as the triplets of militarism, racism, and materialism, of those who peddle fake news and climate change denial, of those who exploit women and push transphobia and homophobia. That truth is, "We must live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools." The language may be gender limited but the core insight he offered shines through all the same, "We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
The most notorious liar in America... The truth is disquieting. The truth is difficult. The truth is terrifying. Today, fifty years after Martin King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the truth does not just threaten to disrupt the worldly powers and principalities. The truth remains challenging for many good-hearted people to hear. The truth threatens the comfort of those of who Dr. King called "the white moderate."
Some years I was reminded of just how difficult truth can be for the white moderate. I was invited to preach the Sunday sermon at one of our Unitarian Universalist congregations in suburban Boston. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. I took for my text Dr. King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." On that Sunday we read the passage where Dr. King takes moderates to task for being conflict adverse for, as he put it, preferring a "negative peace... [with] the absence of tension to a positive peace... [with] the presence of justice."
Now, I admit I was angry. But as the bumper sticker tell us, "If you're not outraged you're not paying attention." I was upset about living in a society where Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, and Stephon Clark have all died violent deaths. I was mad about living in a country where, in 2017, 1,193 people were killed by the police. That is five times the number of people who lynched at the height of lynching. I was irate about a country where the median wealth of a white family is seven times that of a black family and five times that of a Latinx family; where the unemployment and poverty rates of most people of color are two to three times those of whites; and where African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites.
It was near the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. I might have been injudicious with my words. I praised the brave prophetic protestors. I called the police killing of an unarmed man like Stephon Clark a murder. And I celebrated a group of activists who, to support Black Lives Matter, had done what Dr. King had frequently done. They had committed civil disobedience to draw attention to the systematic racism that festers at the heart of American society. They had occupied a major highway for several hours and blocked traffic from flowing into Boston.
Would you like to know what happened after the service? I was not greeted with the normal courtesies extended to the guest preacher. Instead, someone told me how upset they were that I describe the deaths of unarmed people at the hands of police as murders. They wanted to know how I could have the knowledge that juries lacked when they acquit police officers after they kill people. That is a perspective that assumes that justice in America is race blind. And yet, we know, that it is anything but race blind.
Another group cornered me to share how much they disapproved of the protestors blocking the highway. They had been inconvenienced on their commutes. They failed to see how that civil disobedience was effective to the cause of racial justice. And they thought that as a minister I should criticize such activists rather than praise them. The next day I received an email from my ministerial colleague who had invited me to preach at the congregation, disinviting me from preaching there in the future.
I share this story not to turn myself into some sort of hero. Perhaps you agree with my colleague and their congregants. If so, that is fine. Disagreement is sometimes necessary for dialogue. But know this, I offer the story as an example of the ways we Unitarian Universalists can find the truth about racism in this country upsetting. It can be hard to recognize the truth that fifty years after the murder of Dr. King this country remains as racially unequal as ever. It can be even harder to realize that many of us have benefitted and participated from the systems perpetuate such racial disparity. And it can terrifying to recognize that changing such systems requires all of us to be maladjusted to the status quo and, for some of us, to risk losing our comforts.
The most notorious liar in America... Dr. King understood that the truth could be terrifying, upsetting, and dangerous. And yet, he gave his life to speak that truth. He shared that truth with us Unitarian Universalists on two occasions. The second time was in 1966, a text from which we have already read. The first time was in 1964 when he delivered a eulogy for the Rev. James Reeb. Reeb was a white Unitarian Universalist minister beaten to death by white supremacists in Selma, Alabama because he marched for civil rights.
In eulogizing Reeb, Martin King urged us not ask the question: "Who killed James Reeb?" Instead, he encouraged us to ask, "What killed James Reeb." And he observed, "When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows."
Dr. King gave a true answer to his rhetorical question. And it was an answer that all of us might find challenging. He said, and I apologize for the dated racial language:
"James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of the law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every… [black person] who tacitly accepts the evil systems of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice."
Martin King wanted us to know that James Reeb was, in some sense, killed by all of us. The same might be said of Dr. King himself. A single assassin may have pulled the trigger but there is a larger truth. That larger truth is terrifying. Dr. King he died because this country hates marchers but loves martyrs. Dr. King died because this country was built upon the systematic exploitation of people with black and brown bodies. Dr. King died because he threatened the standing racial order. Dr. King died because someone who spoke the truth to the worldly powers and principalities could be labelled the most notorious liar in America.
In the last two years several prominent leaders of Black Lives Matter have died. Muhiyidin Moye was shot in New Orleans. His murderers remain at large. Erica Garner suffered a fatal heart attack. It was brought on by the stress of trying to achieve justice for her father Eric Garner who was choked to death by New York City police. Shall we not say that these modern prophets were killed by the same system that killed Dr. King? As Erica Garner said before she died, "People are dying. This is real."
Facing the truth that the same system that killed Dr. King remains with us today is difficult. I choose as one of our hymns "We Shall Overcome" to try to point us to a different truth, that we shall eventually transform this system, defeat the evil triplets of militarism, racism, and poverty, and live together in peace. But today, I have to admit, that fifty years after Martin King's death I am not so certain. What about you? Do you believe deep in your heart that we shall overcome? Or is the hope found in the song actually a lie? What do you think?
The most notorious liar in America... Is the actual lie that there will be victory over the systems that oppress us all? Perhaps, militarism, racism, and poverty will endure forever. Was it not Jesus who said, "The poor you will always have with you." Maybe that is the truth.
But if it is, surely it must lie alongside another truth, a truth that I have not yet mentioned, the truth that was at the core of Dr. King's life, the truth that made him so dangerous to the earthly powers and principalities. That truth is that the most powerful force in the world, the most powerful force for justice, is and has always been love. Dr. King told us this love "is understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all… an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. When one rises to love on this level, [they love]… a person who does evil while hating the deed."
Speaking the truth is terrifying to the worldly powers and principalities. Living the truth of love is even more threatening to them. I was reminded of this just recently when I received a letter from my friend Keith "Malik" Washington. Malik is a prison abolitionist. He believes that the prison system in the United States is a new form of slavery. And he wants to abolish it, just as we abolished chattel slavery.
Malik is one of the bravest people I know. He was one of the organizers of 2016 prison strikes that spread across the country. As many as 60,000 prisoners refused to work in protest to their subhuman conditions. It was one of the largest prison strikes in the history of this country. In retaliation for his role in organizing the strike Malik has been placed in the hole, which is to say in solitary confinement, in a jail in Texas. He has sent me letters describing the awful state of his cell, the brutality of the guards, and the, sometimes fatal, plight of his fellow prisoners.
In his most recent letter Malik was reflecting on the legacy of Martin King. He wrote about "the prevalent psyche in Amerikan society." It is that "Prisoners are bad not deserving of attention or love. Prisoners who are subhumans who deserve what they get!" He asked, "So how do we combat this Colin? We combat it with love! We humanize prisoners as much as we can in the public eye!" And then he made what seemed a remarkable statement, "I get angry and frustrated at times--but I have discovered that love is the best weapon I can have in my arsenal." This from a man who regularly suffers what I can only describe as torture. No wonder love is so threatening to the earthly powers and principalities.
You know, in the Christian calendar, this is the second Sunday of Easter. And Malik's letter has had me thinking a bit about a truth that relates to Dr. King. That truth is that the love of Dr. King lives on. It is something that we must resurrect in ourselves this morning. If we are to ever overcome, if we are not turn Martin King into the most notorious liar in America, we need to resurrect the love that he taught in our hearts, just as Malik has done.
And Malik's love speaks to yet another truth, the final truth I want to share with you this morning. While Martin King was this country's most articulate purveyor of truth and love, he was not the only one. We risk turning him from a marcher to a martyr if we hold him as the sole example of someone who lived a life dedicated to acting with love and speaking truth. He was part of a movement, a movement that included numerous other brave prophets who struggled for justice. When we honor Dr. King we sometimes elide them. And so, I want to close, not with Dr. King's words but the words of three women who were the backbone of the civil rights generation. Without them there would have been no movement. Without the movement there would have been no Martin King.
Until the killing of black men, black mother's sons, becomes as important to the country as the killing of white mother's sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
Coretta Scott King:
The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.
Freedom, by definition, is people realizing that they are their own leaders.
Will you pray with me?
Oh, spirit of love,
that some of us name God,
and others find unnamable,
be with us this morning,
and every morning,
as we strive towards the truth,
as we learn to love,
so that someday,
in Martin King's words:
"we can sing 'We Shall Overcome'
because somehow we know the arc of moral universe
is long but it bends towards justice.
We shall overcome because Carlyle is right:
'No lie can live forever.'
We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right:
'Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.'"
Let us have faith
that we shall overcome
not because the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
was the most notorious liar in America
but because he was this country's greatest truth teller
and his truth
and his love can live in all of us.
Let the congregation say "Amen."